Civil Society, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean

MEXICO: Scientists and Communities Forge Eco-Alliances

MEXICO CITY, Jun 18 2009 (IPS) - Graciela González answers phone calls, organises meetings and gives interviews as part of her work to save a river from ecological disaster. Thousands of kilometres away, farmer Gonzalo Rodríguez helps take air samples in a region polluted by petrochemicals.

Fourth meeting of Asamblea de Afectados Ambientales, held in May in El Salto, Jalisco.  Credit: Courtesy of "Un salto de vida"

Fourth meeting of Asamblea de Afectados Ambientales, held in May in El Salto, Jalisco. Credit: Courtesy of "Un salto de vida"

Neither of them had planned to become an environmental activist. González left her job as a teacher to work for the cause in the western state of Jalisco. Rodríguez raises livestock in Veracruz, in southern Mexico.

Like them, more and more citizens have begun to alternate their jobs with work to stop the destruction of the environment in their communities.

Last year, around a hundred citizen groups formed the Asamblea de Afectados Ambientales (AAA), which is active in 12 of the 32 states in this country of more than 107 million people.

So far the umbrella group has met four times to share experiences and plan joint strategies to call attention to their efforts.

In 2006, academics and researchers from across Mexico critical of the national scientific policies of the last 30 years founded the Union of Scientists Committed to Society (UCCS), which today has some 400 active members from fields like biology, physics, mathematics, economics, sociology, anthropology, political science and law.

Now, the two worlds have joined forces.

UCCS, based in Mexico City, created the Socio-Environmental Observatory with the goal of “documenting the most serious cases of environmental deterioration in Mexico,” explained one of its members, economist Rolando Espinoza.

Its main source of information for drawing up the map of socio-environmental problems is the AAA. It has already registered 150 cases, most of them related to “mining and oil activities, hydroelectric projects, development of road infrastructure, and sanitary landfills and waste disposal,” said Espinoza.

The most common problems have to do with water. One example is the Santiago River in the city of El Salto, Jalisco, where González lives. “First we noticed that we had to go further and further away to fish and gather fruit,” she says.

“Then we realised there was a rise in the cases of disease and death. We couldn’t find the origin of the cases of cancer, kidney failure, dermatitis, damaged lungs and miscarriage,” recalls the founder of the community association “Un Salto de Vida” (A Leap of Life).

In the 1970s, metallurgical, pharmaceutical, food, construction, petrochemical and solvent companies set up shop there, with nearly 200 firms discharging pollutants into an environment that local residents used to describe as a “paradise.”

Today one of the most notable characteristics of the river is the odour of rotten egg.

In the last couple of years, activists have pressed for the clean-up of a six kilometre stretch along the Santiago River, the pollution of which is threatening the health of the 150,000 people who live in El Salto.

When they began to complain, the state authorities reacted by downplaying the activists’ arguments.

“They told us: ‘Show me how what you are saying has any relation to pollution, that you get cancer from the effluent’,” recalls González.

According to economist Espinoza, that is a typical response from government officials.

In the southern state of Puebla, he says, the government went so far as to ask the residents to provide a study of the wind directions and speeds in an area affected by a company that recycled x-ray films and emitted toxic fumes.

“Citizens need information, they need someone from a public, educational, or scientific institution, an informed local person who will support and advise them in organising the information and making it meaningful,” Espinoza said.

That is why “we invited the network of UCCS researchers to generate or share studies to provide scientific support for the arguments in defence of the environment and health,” he added.

The cooperation between the UCCS and the AAA is perhaps the most prolific, but there are many partnerships between scientists and concerned citizens in Mexico.

The defenders of the Santiago River are already working with researchers from the Western Institute of Technology and Higher Studies, in Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco. They plan to publicise the case in the international media and to carry out environmental monitoring of the area.

Meanwhile, students at the University of Guadalajara “are analysing the water and taking biopsies from the animals we are eating and samples from the pastures that feed the cattle,” said González.

In Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, the U.S.-based non-governmental group Global Community Monitor has been advising the Association of Tatexco Ecological Producers (APETAC). The group taught farmers to take air samples that are then sent for analysis to a laboratory in the U.S.

According to Rodríguez, the farmer, in the Coatzacoalcos area there are 500 oil wells, four petrochemical complexes, 30 companies from other industries and a refinery. The result? Periodically, a toxic cloud forms, polluting the air breathed by the surrounding communities.

The initial findings of the air samples show high concentrations of benzene and toluene, both of which are carcinogenic.

“They also analysed the eggs from yard chickens and found a harmful substance called dioxin,” a highly toxic by-product of certain industrial processes, Rodríguez said.

In its 13 years of operation, APETAC has produced results. “In 1997 we were the first in the country to win a lawsuit for environmental damages against (the state oil monopoly) Petróleos Mexicanos,” for its constant oil spills and leaks.

“In the past, they were very common and nothing was done about it. They just covered the oil with dirt and quicklime and that was it,” he said.

These cases can be a threat to powerful private sector interests. According to UCCS, that is why there are efforts to sweep them under the rug.

That is what happened to the residents of the impoverished settlement of El Tigre II, in the municipality of Zapopan, Jalisco. El Nixticuil forest, a 1,800-hectare oak and pine wood, was threatened by a luxury real estate project.

One early morning in May 2005, municipal authorities sent machinery and workers into the forest, where they cut down 400 trees. When women from the settlement forced a halt to the logging, problems began.

“We had police dressed in civilian clothes hounding us outside our houses, and there are still signs saying that anyone who opposes the project will be written up,” says Sofía Herrera, a psychology student.

Herrera is part of El Tigre II Save the Forest Committee, made up of 10 families. Its greatest achievement so far has been getting 1,500 hectares declared a natural protected area. But pressure on the forest has not ceased.

The committee, a member of AAA, also works to care for the forest. “We have a brigade that collects and plants acorns, digs furrows (around the trees to maintain soil moisture), applies fungicides and fights fires,” said Herrera.

For some of these activities, the committee gets technical support from researchers at the University of Guadalajara.

If everything goes as UCCS plans, in a few years there will be a scientific tribunal in place, “of an ethical nature, that will judge the authorities for each one of the cases, based on the technical and scientific information gathered. Something like the Latin American Water Tribunal,” according to Espinoza.

Meanwhile, the AAA strategy is to maintain unity among its groups in calling public attention to the environmental problems they face. The focus now is to publicise the coalition’s next meeting.

The date has not been set, but the location has already been decided: Valle del Perote in Veracruz. The severely polluted area drew international attention in the past few months as home to the pig farms where the swine flu virus H1N1 may have originated.

*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by Inter Press Service (IPS) and the International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ), for the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (

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