While I was writing this review, in May 1998, some 9,000 bush fires were said to be burning across Mexico. I don’t know how anyone ever counted that number, but I wasn’t going to argue. One night we sat on our terrace and counted twelve of them on the other side of Lake Chapala, as the lake disappeared into a thick grey haze. Some of them burned for four days. The smell of burning was everywhere, and our normally blue sky was the color of smoke. In addition, there are problems with Lake Chapala. When we walk in the evening we can see that the lake is getting noticeably smaller every day. If I thought a rain dance would do any good I’d cheerfully go out and buy a drum. May just wasn’t a good month to read a book about Mexico’s environmental problems.
There’s no good news in Joel Simon’s book either. It’s a catalog of the awful things that have happened in Mexico since the time of the Conquest. Mr. Simon is an associate editor with the Pacific News Service, and lives in Mexico City. His work appears in several U.S. and Canadian newspapers.
The Spanish brought smallpox, which wiped out thousands.
They chopped down entire forests in order to get timber for mines and houses. The forests have never recovered. The cattle and sheep they brought thrived, and trampled down thousands of hectares of prime farmland. None of this land has been restored to its former productivity and when people come up with remedies for the problems, they only seem to make things worse.
The saddest part of this tale is that Mexico was once such a beautiful place. Three quarters of the country was pine forest. It had a wonderful climate and the richest diversity of plant, insect and animal life of any country in the world. Now, all over Mexico, people are leaving the land that won’t support them. Many towns, which once prospered, have lost 85 per cent of their residents. Only old people remain. The younger people have gone to either Mexico City or to the U.S., or to the border areas to be exploited in foreign-owned factories.
Going to Mexico City isn’t the answer. Between 1950 and 1990 the city’s population grew from 3 million to 18 million. Migration has been such that Mexico is now an urban society with only 25 per cent of the population living in rural areas.
Also, according to author Simon, Mexico City is sinking. Downtown Mexico City is thirty-four feet lower than it was when Cortes arrived. Simon describes the many historic buildings that are tilted as much as 10 degrees as a result. Through the centuries so much water has been pumped out of the underground aquifer that the ground holding up the city is collapsing. This is a place that was once situated in a lake and was famous for its canals – the Venice of the New World. Yet, as Alfonso Martinez Baca, the head of the city’s Water Commission tells Simon: “Water is the most serious threat facing the city. Tomorrow everyone could ride bicycles and the air pollution would clear up. But where on earth are we going to get our water from?”
There’s a chapter on Cancun and a chapter on Pemex, which simply make you very angry to read. According to one company official Pemex has cost Mexico more than $5 billion in environmental damage through its colossal ignorance and arrogance. There’s another chapter on the maquiladoras, the foreign-owned assembly plants. There are more than two thousand of them now, strung along the U.S. Mexico border. Tiajuana has 550 of them. Simon cites many cases where these companies have taken advantage of lax attitudes towards environmental issues, with dire results for individuals and communities. Again, you get very cynical and very angry.
And yet, what’s the point of getting upset? No environmental dispute has ever been litigated in Mexico. There is no mass membership environmental organization. Ecology is an elitist issue. Mexico has moved into first place worldwide in deforestation – 2.5 million acres of forest are lost every year. Its capital is the most polluted city on the planet. Yet one has the feeling that the message of environmentalism has never penetrated. Maybe the population at large agrees with a recent president who described concerns about pollution as “hysterical exaggeration”.
Personally, I would feel better about Mexico if on our morning walks we didn’t see so much garbage strewn around the streets and a population that just doesn’t seem to give a damn. It’s bad enough to throw away an empty pop bottle, but do you have to make sure you smash it, too? Doesn’t anyone care about people tossing empty food cartons out of car windows? Mexicans are good at sweeping their front doorsteps but don’t seem to give a damn about going a few feet further to pick up old plastic bottles and paper bags on the same street. Vacant lots in our village are a complete disgrace. We occasionally carry plastic bags with us to clean up the mountainside where we take our morning walk. Maybe with such a slipshod national attitude there’s little hope for a solution.
I realize that it’s easy to point fingers. And Mexico isn’t the only environmental villain. I come from Canada, which has also done quite a job on the codfish in the Atlantic Ocean, the salmon in the Pacific Ocean, pollution in the Great Lakes and the clear-cutting of forests in British Columbia. However, there’s an awareness of problems there, that simply doesn’t exist here in Mexico.
Joel Simon has an interesting chapter about political attitudes. The land in many places is so used up that it will only produce crops using copious amounts of fertilizer. And the government (i.e. the PRI) is the only place to get fertilizer. PRI campaigners have no hesitation in telling the farmers: “If you don’t vote for the PRI there will be no more fertilizer.” On election day, hundreds of bags of fertilizer magically appear. Then there’s the story of the PRI candidate for state governor who spent more on his election campaign than Bill Clinton spent becoming U.S. President….
There aren’t many ideas or proposed solutions to this crisis. Oddly enough, Joel Simon suggests that greater U.S. involvement would be beneficial. He’s convinced that the border is too vast and the would-be migrants too determined for enforcement to be workable. In other words, despite any hopeful words about guarding the border, the two countries have been bed-mates for years and will only become more so. “The integration between the developed and the undeveloped world is not unique to the U.S. and Mexico,” he writes. ” It is part of a global trend. That is why the United States needs to take a greater interest in Mexico’s environmental crisis.”
You should read “Endangered Mexico”. I must confess I usually avoid such books. I find the authors rather hard to take and I don’t always understand the issues. And despite any indignation I feel, I never think I can do much about the problems anyway. But I read this one because I’m interested in Mexico and I was relieved to find an absence of hand-wringing and finger-pointing. Simon has done his legwork and he gives us facts and observations. Despite the grim subject matter and the general lack of solutions, it’s a surprisingly “easy” book to read.
Verdict: A good readable overview of the environmental situation in Mexico.
Endangered Mexico – An environment on the edge
By Joel Simon
A Sierra Club Book, 1997.