Leslie Verteramo Chiu is a Postdoctoral Associate at Cornell’s Dyson School and is currently on the job market.
Violence associated with the “war on drugs” in Mexico has escalated dramatically in scale and scope since 2006, exposing the population to serious crimes such as extortion and kidnapping. The perception of crime victimization and its effect on the urban population has been studied extensively. In contrast, very little is known about the perception of drug-related violence in rural areas and associated responses among smallholder farmers.
In order to understand how drug-related violence affects the rural poor, we conducted a survey of 370 farmers living in a heavy conflict zone in Northeastern Mexico (see this post for my thoughts on collecting data in a conflict zone). This area experienced a sudden surge in violent crimes related to drug cartel activity two years before our study began.
In our study, co-authored with Calum Turvey, we were interested to better understand the relationship between psychometric measures of risk perception and socioeconomic variables, and how farmers were affected by and responded to the risk of violence. We examine both changes in smallholder farmers’ risk attitudes under violence exposure and resulting effects on agricultural production and rural life.
Other studies have shown that when stressors incite fear in an individual, he is more likely to become more risk averse (Lerner and Keltner 2001). Changes in risk perception can have deleterious effects on welfare, especially for those in a poverty trap, such as if they become unwilling to accumulate risky assets (Barrett et al. 2008; Moya 2012). Risk of violence also reduces expected income when producers take corrective or preventive measures, as corrective measures can be costly; while preventive measures often make people unable or unwilling to put the same effort into their production practices that they otherwise would, or change their production plan arriving at an economically suboptimal but “safer” plan (Rockmore 2011, 2012).
We first measured farmers’ degree of fear, following the psychometric measures of risk developed by Slovic (1987). Farmers were classified according to their level of fear and feeling of control over the risk of victimization, among other factors. Farmers responded on a Likert scale about their level of agreement with a series of statements related to their feelings about drug violence. Farmers with similar risk attitudes were grouped together using cluster analysis. Of particular interest are the groups with the highest and lowest levels of fear. Once the groups were created, we ran logit regressions to explore the factors that incite more fear, and also those that relate to risk response.
Our results indicate that poor farmers in this area are significantly affected by the ongoing “war on drugs.” Almost everyone was aware of the drug violence in their region. About 22% of our sample displayed a high fear level, while 27% showed low or no fear of violence. Not surprisingly, those who knew a victim of violent crime (20% of the sample)—defined as kidnapping, extortion, or homicide—were more likely to show a high fear level.
Fear also induced farmers to make changes to their lives and livelihoods, with 14% reporting that they changed something about their daily activities, and 8% reporting changes to their agricultural production practices. Farmers with the lowest level of fear are more likely to adopt new production technologies and take on risks, as well as to be more socially active in their community.
While wealth bears no relation to fear levels in our study, we find, similar to other studies, that male, older, and more educated farmers experience less fear, on average.
Violence exposure not only affects agricultural production and risk preferences, but it can also bring major financial stress to a family, especially when a farmer may decide to leave land behind and migrate to a safer community. We found that about 8% of the farmers knew someone who had migrated because of violence. Those farmers are also more likely to migrate than farmers who don’t know anyone who migrated previously.
The results obtained from this survey provide new insights into the lives of poor farmers living in a conflict zone in Mexico. Fear of victimization can create extra costs to producers and prevent them from adopting new production technologies. Violence exposure is an important factor to consider when trying to understand farmers’ behavior and welfare.