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Endangered Mexico: Environment on the Edge.

Think of Mexico and the environment, and familiar images come to mind: the shame of the sludge-filled Rio Grande and the brown layer of smog over Mexico City, the relieving beauty of white beaches and crystal-blue oceans in tourist escapes such as Cancun and Cozumel.

But while Americans are quick to decry the environmental devastation of Mexico's cities and industrial zones, the key to understanding how this country's astonishing array of natural resources has been forever damaged lies where you might least expect it -- in those very same beaches favored by pale-skinned travelers and environmentalists on vacation.

Cancun, after all, was an island inhabited by three fishermen and accessible only by boat before the Mexican government and foreign investors set their eyes on its crescent-shaped shore three decades ago. They dredged the ocean to enlarge the beaches, built a highway across the wetlands, and used the earth to fill in a vast lagoon. The isolated isle was transformed into an absurd mass of grand hotels, clogged sewers, and urban-style decay that most wildlife has long since fled.

The government and investors were able to build Cancun and a series of other resorts that scarred Mexico's coastline because of a central truth about the country to our south: Whatever environmental consciousness Mexicans once had was subsumed long ago by a culture of resource exploitation, deceit, and corruption at the highest levels of government and industry. And as long as this country remains as deeply undemocratic as it is today, Mexico's power wielders will continue to rape its treasures of air, land, and sea. The poor, meanwhile, worry more about feeding their families than saving a tree.

A new book, Endangered Mexico: Environment on the Edge, by Joel Simon, an American freelance journalist who lives in Mexico City, takes the reader on a disheartening tour of centuries of attacks on Mexico's resources. Writing simply and passionately, Simon argues that environmental degradation is both the cause and consequence of Mexico's economic crisis. In linking Mexico's failed environmental policies to its political and social instability, Simon tackles a theme that up to now has been broadly explored only by a narrow band of environmentalists.

Unfortunately, the work is less impressive when Simon surveys some of the politics and history that have been better analyzed by others before him. And although Simon attempts to communicate how central the story of the environment is to grasping Mexico's tragic history, he comes up short. On the thorny issue of how to reverse the environmental damage, the author is almost mute.

Simon strains to make the case that environmental destruction south of the border is directly relevant to people in the United States. But his segues into discussions of illegal immigration, drug trafficking, and trade policy will probably fail to convince most readers that Mexico's tragedy is our own. The truth is, if you don't care about the Mexican environment on its own terms, because of what it means for Mexico and for the Earth, you are probably never going to crack open this book.

But you should care. As a journalist who lived in Mexico City and wrote frequently about the country's polluted oceans, farmland, and cities, I saw ample reason to despair. (I met Simon while he was in the capital writing his book, and should note that an article I wrote on pesticide abuse is among the hundreds of sources he cites) So, whatever its shortcomings, I applaud the book's sincere effort at unraveling the causes and consequences of Mexico's shameful environmental record.

Trouble in Paradise

What makes the story of Mexico's environmental devastation particularly tragic is the abundance of its natural heritage. The third most biologically diverse nation on the planet, Mexico is home to more than 30,000 species of plants -- more than half of which are found nowhere else on earth. In the jungles of Chiapas, rare butterflies flutter past birds and reptiles native only to Mexico. In the waters off Baja California, gray whales give birth in an annual watery dance. Clear, deep rivers rush through the red walls of Barranca del Cobre, a series of canyons that eclipses in size our own Grand Canyon. Endangered giant sea turtles lumber up the beaches of Oaxaca each autumn to leave their eggs.

But that fragile legacy has been under increasing attack for the last four centuries. As authors before him have done, Simon chronicles how first the Spaniards, and later the Mexican government, annihilated thousands of varieties of Mexican flora and fauna, and how the Spanish version of taming nature by building cities and vast public works, and introducing foreign animals and plants, forever altered the natural balance in which the pre-columbian Indians lived.

The book is at its most compelling, however, when Simon moves on to what he can describe with his own eyes. Again and again, he lets the reader taste his own horror at what he sees before him. Following the open sewer line that drains 23,200 gallons of raw sewage and industrial waste out of Mexico City every second of every day, Simon describes a canal of "thick black sludge, the consistency of syrup," that seems not to flow but "to percolate"

That sense of genuine dismay is the book's greatest strength. As a journalist, Simon cannot and does not claim scientific expertise. He acknowledges being deeply influenced by the extremely small group of middle- and upper-class Mexicans who make saving the environment their full-time job. His book owes a great deal, perhaps more than Simon acknowledges, to Homero Aridjis, an internationally recognized Mexican poet who is also the country's most famous environmentalist. In nearly every chapter, Simon is guided by dedicated environmentalists working under extremely difficult conditions. Often they are part of Aridjis's network of friends.

That reliance is understandable, given the Mexican government's indifference to the natural world, and the pervasiveness of that attitude throughout the rest of Mexican society. But in a study purporting to stick to the facts, Simon's dependency on the environmentalists is also dangerous. Because accurate statistics are astonishingly hard to come by in Mexico, Simon is forced to rely on hearsay from environmentalists, published reports by other U.S. journalists, themselves sometimes based on shaky data, and often wildly conflicting scientific studies. In his discussion of water use in Mexico City, for example, he cites two vastly different figures on the same page for how much the city's subsidized water service contributes to the Mexican government's deficit.

While Mexican government efforts to cover up the mess are often comical, the book would have benefited from an exploration of how officials answer Simon's charges. Give the Mexican government enough rope, and it will hang itself.

Beneath the Surface

Simon uncovers Mexico's deepest truth when he drives into a chain of mountains once blanketed with dense vegetation. Coming over a rise, he spies what at first appears to be a vast forest. Getting closer, he writes, "the forest revealed itself as a veneer, a tree theme park."

This veneer is an apt description of much of Mexico today-on the outside a democracy and on the inside Latin America's most enduring dictatorship. On the surface America's newest trading partner, underneath it is a land where drug-trafficking money is deeply enmeshed in the nation's biggest investment projects. Pressured by international opinion and by its eagerness to increase its trading role with the United States, the Mexican government in recent years has spent millions of dollars on high-profile environmental research. Mexican government experts regularly attend international conferences devoted to saving the environment.

Mexico's environmental laws do their part to preserve the veneer. On paper, the country is deeply regulated, in many ways more so than even the United States. Dozens of laws and hundreds of regulations were passed by the Mexican Congress over the last two decades, most in a flurry to impress U.S. lawmakers into granting Mexico entry into the North American Free Trade Agreement.

But those laws are rarely enforced. While trade in endangered species is strictly prohibited in Mexico, go to Mexico City's Sonora Market any day to see rare parrots, monkeys, leopards, and even jaguars for sale. The government mandates that industrial waste be strictly controlled and treated, but the Rio Grande flows thick with syringes and chemicals drained from border factories.

The Mexican people share blame with their government for what they have wrought. In Mexico, peasants think nothing of cutting down trees in protected forests when they can earn enough by doing so to feed their families. Upper-class Mexicans around laws that prohibit driving on certain days of the week by buying extra cars and driving a different one each day. Throwing trash on the ground is a daily offering in the lives of most Mexicans:

In the southeast corner of Mexico, one of the world's great rainforests is slowly dying -- the victim of colonization by generations of peasants who have torn down countless trees with the encouragement of the government. Despite the well-catalogued threat to the rainforest, Simon points out that neither the authorities nor the local peasants have good reasons to stop the devastation. "No one," he writes, "is advocating for the jungle." In doing so, he pinpoints the enduring tragedy of the Mexican landscape.
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Author:Schrader, Esther
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1997
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