In Mexico, the burro makes a comeback

One Mexican state turns to donkeys imported from Kentucky to help local farmers remain competitive.

A single donkey the locals call "The Precious One" stands alone, grazing in a field with the low-lying mountains of western Mexico in the background.

The forlorn image is a sign of the times. Burros, or donkeys, once thronged the country's dirt roads. Mules – the hybrid offspring of male donkeys and female horses – hauled everything from maize to Mexicans, laying down tracks extending from Veracruz to the state of Mexico.

Once a symbol of farm life, donkeys today are often dismissed and derided as an indicator of underdevelopment. Over the decades, their role in plowing fields and carrying wood has been usurped by trucks and tractors. Instead of carrying goods, donkeys have been sent to the slaughterhouse and churned into goods – used to feed more esteemed creatures like cows.

But some Mexicans are wondering if they have taken their disdain for the sinewy equine a bit too far, and say the nation faces a shortage of animals, that, it turns out, can do things tractors can't – like work a narrow furrow or get up a particularly steep incline. The agricultural state of Jalisco responded last year by importing male donkeys from Kentucky to bolster, with the help of horses, their mule population – giving the donkey a 21st-century cachet in the age of John Deere.

"The Precious One" was donated to the Cofradia Ranch, part of the University of Guadalajara, six months ago. Leonel Gonzalez Jáuregui, executive director of the research ranch, says he wants to create a breeding center that will turn out sturdy mules to help local producers work their fields and remain competitive.

In six months, "The Precious One" has impregnated about twenty horses, he says. "This program can help us give to the people."

Donkeys, first brought to Mexico by the Spanish in the 1500s flourished here for centuries. The animals lost popularity with the introduction of machines that could do the same work. "People rejected the donkeys. They wanted a tractor," says Denise Sepúlveda, a trade specialist at the Kentucky Agricultural and Commercial Trade Office in Guadalajara, which facilitated the import of the Kentucky Jacks last year.

Donkeys have never been terribly loved. As in English, their name can be used to hurl an insult – stubborn as a mule, dumb as a donkey. "There are lots of donkeys here," says Mr. Gonzalez Jáuregui with a smirk. "Just not the animal."

If all of Mexico's geography were accessible by tractor, and if all farmers could afford a tractor, the demise of the donkey or mule might otherwise have gone unnoticed, says Ms. Sepúlveda. But many of the small tracts that characterize much of Mexico's farmland are not conducive to tractors.

Another factor in the donkey's favor: the rising cost of fuel. "In many communities, the cost of the crops is less than the cost of fuel," says Patrick Fenton, director of the Kentucky Agricultural and Commercial Trade Office.

Aline de Aluja, a veterinarian at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, says the Jalisco program could help preserve the livelihoods of small land owners who are increasingly under assault by US-style mechanization. "Small land owners can't exist in this American culture," she says. "[The Jalisco program's] aim is to reintroduce donkeys into agriculture...."

The program focuses on revitalizing the mule population by cross-breeding imported male donkeys with female horses. Mules are larger, can carry more, and work harder than donkeys.

In 2005, six Kentucky Jacks were brought in because they are taller and stronger than their Mexican counterparts. "These are work animals, the American ones," says Sepulveda. "Not like the Mexican ones."

The mayor-elect of Tlajomulco, Antonio Tatengo, says donkeys could help the 10 percent of landowners in his municipality with properties too small to necessitate tractors. He is quick to add that most would prefer them, though, over donkeys. "We are very modernized here," says Mr. Tatengo.

And there are those here who view the effort to revive the donkey population as regressive. "They see it as going backward," admits Mr. Fenton. "But a burro can be technology."

Indeed, on the highway connecting Mexico City with Guadalajara, past fields of blue agave and corn stalks, stands a junkyard of green John Deere tractors. Next to the junkyard, on a recent evening, two mules toiled in the fields framed by a spectacular sunset. At least along this stretch of the countryside, the bets appear to be on the burro.

Ms. Llana is Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.

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