National Assembly of Environmentally Affected Groups Warns of an “Environmental Disaster” in Mexico
The following is a talk presented by Dr. Andrés Barreda in the V Assembly of Environmentally Affected Groups, November 8, 2009, in Chichicuatla, Puebla, Mexico, near the industrial hog farm Granjas Carroll.
1. Why was the National Assembly of Environmentally Affected Groups (Asamblea Nacional de Afectados Ambientales—ANAA) created?
The Assembly was created in response to a grave concerns from around the country, to organize ourselves against the environmental destruction taking in the communities and cities in Mexico. This destruction serious consequences for human health, our surroundings, and our conditions of life.
It was also created due to the impunity with which large private and state-owned corporations act, destroying our living conditions, dispossessing us of lands and livelihoods. The federal, state, and municipal authorities D are complicit of our with the companies that destroy our ecosystems and our lives. Our culture is destroyed when our traditional ways of life are wiped out, by the destruction of our processes of agricultural production. Most media and universities, and research institutions not only have remained silent on this devastation taking place, but they have fanned its flames.
If we continue in silence we are going to die. If we continue struggling separately, each person alone, not only will they defeat us, but they will also blame us for not having had the courage to protest. We don’t want to be slaves to the American, Spanish, and Mexican monopolies that are destroying this country.
2. How was the Assembly organized?
Initially, it was out of dissatisfaction and protests by different indigenous people and peasants, neighborhoods, and social organizations, and citizens of the country and the city. This carried out all kinds of actions–institutional negotiations, sit-ins, dialogues with authorities, dealings, and court proceedings. As usual, this didn’t amount to anything and we began to organize road blocks, reports and condemnations in the press. The protests grew stronger each time, but the authorities didn’t pay any attention. Instead, we have been met with intimidation, court proceedings against our representatives, warrants for our arrest, incarceration, police brutality, threats, kidnappings, disappearances, and even selective assassinations.
Because of this, in each region of Mexico different organizations and citizen councils began to develop and network with dozens of aggrieved communities in the states of Guerrero, Morelos, Puebla, Oaxaca, Jalisco, Tlaxcala, Mexico D.F., Hidalgo, Michoacán, Veracruz, and others. From this, all types of coalition fronts were created in defense of land, water, and air, citizen councils, coordination by area, etc.
We also organized several mobile presentations to learn about our common problems and learn to empathize with each other. We organized forums, workshops, and local information sessions. We began to meet groups of exceptional professionals, researchers, and lawyers truly sensitive to the suffering of communities and committed to their resistance struggles.
Coming together, we realized that we could also exchange our experiences of self-management in the care of our crops and lands, in the management of water and garbage, in the conservation of forests, and other environmental themes.
As both our capacities and our necessities grew larger, the moment arrived when we began to meet together and really began to accompany each other and to take care of one another in our long struggle against the powerful.
3. When did this all start?
On Aug. 31, 2008, we met for the first time in the Ho Chi Minh Auditorium of the Faculty of Economics at UNAM. Close to 35 communities attended and we discussed our issues until the early morning. Thanks to the support of a large group of students at UNAM, we dined and spent the night on the university campus so that, the next day, amidst a national civic strike, in the company of new organizations, we marched to the National Water Commission (Comisión Nacional del Agua—CNA) and to the Environment and Natural Resources Secretariat (Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales—SEMARNAT) to show our profound discontent with current water and environmental policy throughout the country.
There we decided to meet again on Oct. 13 in Mexico City to discuss how we could have a minimal form of organization that would permit us to integrate our struggles, experiences, and demands. We agreed that the assembly would meet regularly twice each year to exchange information about our situation and to make our organization better.
It was also agreed that these meetings should travel to all the places of struggle that most needed it. As beginning the work of the organization was urgent, it was agreed that in the first half of 2009 there would be two assemblies rather than just one, and in the second half there would be one.
The third meeting was held in Tláhuac in the month of March, to show solidarity between ourselves and the resistance struggle of local peasant communities against Mexico City megaprojects (landfills, industrial parks, and the number 12 subway line).
The fourth meeting took place in El Salto and in Juanacatlán, in the state of Jalisco during the month of May, to show our solidarity with these communities’ struggle against the massive contamination of the Santiago River by industrial companies and landfills from the city of Guadalajara. At this meeting 120 communities from 10 states across the country attended for the first time. In El Salto we agreed to have the fifth Assembly in the communities that neighbor the Granjas Carroll [industrial hog operations], in the Perote Valley.
During this process, a discussion developed about the best forms of organization and the work that we should adopt as a national resistance network.
4. And where are we now?
Today we are meeting here in Chichicuautla to strengthen our organizational relationships and the clarity of our movements. As the situation has deteriorated and government aggression against all communities and workers in Mexico is horrific, we are here to strengthen the support and solidarity that we owe to each other and ourselves.
We are also meeting to agree on new forms of organization that will permit us to correct the problems that we have encountered this year, to move on in the best possible way.
And finally, we are meeting here to set out the principal common actions that we can take forward in 2010.
5. What comes next?
We need to do the following:
- Strengthen our indigenous/original cultures.
- Defend our resources, which are being depleted each day.
- Define our collective priorities to establish alliances with other movements.
- Follow the example of communities in Jalisco and begin to organize ourselves by regions.
- Construct our own communication methods (bulletins, web pages, pamphlets, posters, videos, alternative radio, etc.).
- Conduct activities in which we exchange experiences to mutually gain skills, carrying out various self-improvement activities.
- Improve our technical, legal, political, and economic capacity in order to reconstruct our common networks that have been destroyed along with the environment.
- Deepen our relationships with networks of lawyers, doctors, professionals, and researchers that have approached us to express support and solidarity with the National Assembly of Environmentally Affected Groups (ANAA).
To accomplish all of this, we need to rid ourselves of distrust, sectarianism, and opportunism that only divides us and creates confrontation among us.
We need to make each other responsible for publicizing the true depth of environmental destruction that has reached our country, as well as our important resistance movement. We have to make this visible in our regions, in the whole country, and around the world.
We have to stop this shameful destruction in its tracks; we need a life for ourselves and for our children.
6. What are some of the struggles in which the members of ANAA have been participating?
- Against the destruction and contamination caused by metal and non-metal mining.
- Against hydroelectric dams, principally the Sierra Madre Occidental.
- Against unbridled urbanization.
- Against contamination from industrial mega-farms (pigs, chickens, shrimp).
- Against oil-related pollution.
- Against municipal, hospital, industrial, and nuclear landfills.
- In defense of corn.
- In defense of forests.
- Against the plundering of our rivers, springs, and aquifers; against the over-exploitation of the aquifers that has converted them into fountains of arsenic-contaminated water, and against the lethal contamination of our rivers.
- Against displacements due to ecotourism and conservation projects that limit or destroy peasant ways of life that are viable and necessary for everyone.
Everyone here at this meeting knows that our struggles occur simultaneously in these areas and we have to support each other.
The giant project to make Mexico into a great economic center, through the Urban-Industrial Corridors and Plan Puebla-Panama has completely collapsed and business is facing huge losses that the global economic crisis. In this context, the Mexican oligarchy and their commercial associates have decided to make Mexico into the new mineral emporium of Latin America. The mining companies boastfully declare that 70% of the country is likely to contain mineral deposits in which new mineral reserves could be detected that have no precedent in the history of the country. They are motivated, as usual, by mining fever caused by rising international prices for minerals, increasing investments, and other factors that have been occurring in Mexico and around the world continuously since the 1990s, but especially since the year 2000.
The other scheme that Mexican businessmen have designed to continue to shamelessly increase their fortunes is uncontrolled urbanization. They promote the rural exodus and the growth of urban sprawl, creating settlement zones completely unrelated to urban centers and without public transit services, permitting the development of highway projects everywhere, urban freeways, second levels, rapid access routes to suburban airports, miles and miles of new gas stations, extending subway lines, etc. Unbridled urbanization is accompanied by facilities for transnational automotive companies, which with the real estate capital that privatized the construction of homes are the principal winners in this process of destruction.
We must not forget that there is a group of powerful businesses that benefits along with those already dedicated to privatization, including water companies, garbage collectors, triple-play communication providers, and the web of capital that is privatizing healthcare (hospitals, pharmaceuticals, insurance companies, private childcare, etc.).
All this necessitates new struggles against the deterioration of the quality of life created by the fraudulent conditions under which these unrestrained entities were constructed, against the inadequate location of gas stations, against mega-malls and convenience stores, against genetically modified corn, and against any other type of project that displaces the rights of the citizens in the place where they live.
7. Who is here attending?
The turnout at this meeting is magnificent, bringing together in an eloquent way the principal environmental problems of Mexico and positively expressing our growing discontent and our force of organization. Nevertheless, it must be recognized that we are still a long way from being coordinated—inside and outside of this Assembly—we are all resisting, we are all mobilizing and fighting for the defense of our rights and an appropriate environment and health, and for our right to the place in which we live.
We are not the only ones that resist in these aforementioned areas. But many other people in the fight against environmental destruction are not here and we know of them because the alternative press and communication networks tell us about them.
We have to integrate our assembly into the following struggles, among others:
- Against destruction by the hotel industry and megaprojects on beaches and in mangroves;
- Against megaprojects like windmills in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, new airports, etc.;
- Against the privatization of environmental services;
- Against mega-malls;
- Against the forms of conservation that involve dispossession of lands and expulsion of legitimate and ancestral inhabitants of the territories;
- The struggle of city inhabitants, who are getting ever sicker due to the avalanche of health problems (colds, influenza, dengue fever, tetanus, etc.) that cause the convergence of numerous crises in infrastructure and urban services;
- The struggle of citizens in neighborhoods in the large cities against the authoritarian way in which services proceed to be organized, conserving trees, ravines, parks, springs, etc.;
- The struggle of neighbors in large cities who block roads and highways to protest weeks and months of suffering without water services, electricity, etc., or due to the way that privatization of these services means paying indecent billing rates or forces them to buy bottled water from transnational companies.
And surely many other problems exist of which we are not even conscious.
8. What are the central themes of our struggle?
A variety of general themes run through our resistance struggles:
The defense of water is the priority, and is understood as not only a struggle against the dispossession of water sources, but also against contamination, the growing shortage of water, and above all else, against its privatization. The struggle against the divestment of lands, water, air, coasts, neighborhoods, etc., and against the denial of all kinds of rights is also beginning to occur across the entire country.
From here our struggle joins with all of the other struggles in Mexico that are currently being fought, such as the movements against the privatization of oil and electricity. But also with the struggles that today are being fought for the rights of women, the elderly and youth; against discrimination owing to sexual, cultural, religious, or political preferences; against racism and in defense of migrants; for the defense of lands, unions, public education; for real democratization of the country; and for self-management and autonomy for indigenous peoples.
All our struggles require the assistance of lawyers who know the laws and who help us in our developments, complaints, demands, and above all, our defense before processes that criminalize and attack those engaged in the struggle. We also have a growing need to construct a national assessment of the state of collapse in which the national legal system is found and the current condition of the laws related to environmental problems, as tools of defense and struggle.
We have to strengthen our resistance against the destruction of our health and the state of disinformation in which the diverse health authorities in the country maintain us. We have to learn about and disseminate the real consequences of environmental destruction in relation to the growing deterioration of our health. In order to do so, it is necessary to conduct diagnostic clinics at the regional and national level.
We are all united by the general need to intervene in an effective and democratic manner to determine the use made of our vital resources and of our territory and of our environment.
9. Why does Mexico face this crisis?
The lamentable situation of decadence and agony in which Mexico finds itself has brought us to this critical situation. As we all know, the country suffers, along with other afflictions, from severe environmental devastation that is not only disastrous in numerous regions; there are places in which the collapse of ecosystems has already happened. Some of us believe that this destruction could be the worst witnessed in the world. The consequences of social and natural destruction are already enormous, and they are causing, among many other things, harm to the health of the population that is very deep, painful, shameful, and even, irreversible.
We realize that, disgracefully, there are still few organizations and many fewer researchers who share these certainties. The situation of generalized anaesthesia is so serious that in more than a few situations, populations who are extremely sick with diverse degenerative problems or even with genetic deformities do not necessarily associate their problems with the obvious environmental and dietary conditions in which they are living.
From here the ANAA and the Environmental Observatory of the Union of Concerned Scientists (Union de Científicos Comprometidos—UCCS) are dedicated to the tedious task of collecting, systematizing, piecing together the puzzles, and the critical analysis of abundant first-hand data. Without conducting this work, we believe that it would be impossible to overcome the media conspiracy, regrettable indifference, as well as the systematic fragmentation that create these types of problems.
We believe that the underlying problem of environmental injustice is the decline of civilizations in which capitalism has been trapped for many decades, but which makes a great effort to regrettably hand over Mexican sovereignty to the United States, and behind both we find the destructive role of transnational corporations and a variety of Mexican government authorities, in plundering and denying strategic resources and the rights of communities and through the destruction of environmental laws, the corruption of governmental monitoring systems, or the complicity, corruption, and impunity with which they act.
The following is an appalling reality that, unfortunately, no one remembers properly. Mexico has made environmental deregulation its principal comparative advantage in the process of liberalization and commercial globalization. Since 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force, the Mexican government has prioritized attracting foreign investment, offering the Mexican workforce at extraordinarily low prices to maquiladora industries, as well as a lack of environmental regulation. Holding tight to these disgraceful standards, the same government signed all kinds of free trade deals left, right, and center, until Mexico has been made into the country with the most free trade agreements in the world.
Nevertheless, when China joined the World Trade Organization at the beginning of the last decade, it offered a much more competitive and inexpensive workforce than that of Mexico or Central America, sounding the death knell of the irresponsible maquiladora adventure undertaken by the Mexican bourgeoisie. Because of this, since the beginning of the decade the only option left for the national oligarchy has been to maintain the possibility of selling Mexico as an ideal location for whichever transnational company would come to its run environmentally destructive company here.
In order to sustain this despicable situation it has not been enough to maintain numerous legal loopholes or to deform a variety of existing environmental laws considered to be barriers. Rather, added to this has been the corruption of the very federal, state, and municipal institutions charged with monitoring the environment and the health of the population. In this way, the corruption of judicial power, as it exists in all areas of national life, is now only dedicated to imparting injustice.
This outlook caps off the scant or nonexistent scientific investigation that exists around this environmental disaster. And above all, the chronic lack of courage on the part of numerous professional scientists, doctors, lawyers, all sorts of researchers, centers of research, institutes, etc., directly involved in these types of processes. This lack of courage is not only reflected in a failure to stop the devastation, but even more so in the lack of visibility or reporting of the serious socio-environmental and health crisis that exists around the country.
This analysis is not the result of subjective speculation, but rather the fruit of a long tour across the various regions and institutions of Mexico, observing problems and crises, listening to complaints and protests, and accompanying many diverse popular struggles. It is work that the ANAA, along with many other organizations and resistance networks, undertakes with diverse communities, organizations, and social struggles, across the whole country.
Santiago River—”The River of Death”
The Fifth National Assembly of Environmentally Affected Groups [AAA in Spanish] brought together Mexicans from throughout the country. While many groups focused on specific problems affecting their community or region, several issues representing crisis situations emerged again and again. The Santiago River—which residents refer to as “the river of death”—is one of these issues.
The Santiago River receives the waste and discharge of many industrial centers in the region; its waters are among the most polluted on earth. In February 2008, an eight-year-old child, Miguel Ángel López Rocha, died of arsenic poisoning after falling into the river. The UN has criticized the use of the Santiago River and has issued a report on violations of right to health and a safe environment in the communities of Juanacatlán and El Salto, declaring that the river “is now one of the most polluted in the country. It has become a health risk for the residents of Juanacatlán and El Salto.”
The Americas Program attended the Fifth Assembly, which took place in November 2009, in Chichicuautla, Puebla, an agricultural community located near the Smithfield-Carroll hog farm, where the first outbreak of the H1N1 swine flu pandemic occurred. We spoke to a group of representatives from the community surrounding the Santiago River about their local battle to restore the river and save themselves from an environment that is becoming more and more toxic.
“Salto de Vida”
Precisely because of the significance of the name of the village, El Salto (The Leap), its inhabitants have called their environment group “Un Salto de Vida” (A Leap of Life). Most of the new group activists are women, which is natural considering that they are the ones who deal with threats against their families on a personal and direct level.
Guadalupe Rivera explained to us why the members of the community organized to defend their environment and why they have joined forces with the National Assembly of Environmentally Affected Groups.
“The government ignores what we’re saying about the river being polluted, what the water is like, and the sickness. It’s highly polluted. The government isn’t doing anything for us. The water smells bad. I live nearby and it smells like rotten eggs, lots of foam. Because of the river I no longer have plants in my garden—it stains the skin. They did a blood test on me; my DNA is degenerating. They want to remove a school because it’s right by the river. They say that children are sick, but what they really want to do is build a parking lot there for government employees. Children are no longer in school but they continue to live by the riverside. It’s illogical.”
Virginia Vasquez, who also lives in El Salto on the bank of the Santiago River, spoke of the dangers caused by the river.
“There are people dying of cancer, kidney problems, heart attacks, etc. My husband’s brother died last year as a result of the pollution. It’s very serious. There are two, three deaths a day. The factories are there and they leave all their waste with us. You can take a ‘horror tour’ near the river, where you can see the pollution, dead fish, etc.”
Another member of the group, Humberto Cervantes, says: “More tests should be done to find out what illnesses are caused by the river. The river has a very strong odor. Communities have to come together to take action. The government wants to relocate all these people so it can do whatever it wants with the river.”
José Casillas, of Ixtacán, added: “Our way of earning a living—vegetables, ranching, plants—is disappearing—all because of the river’s pollution. The government is forcing the pollution on us. It’s going to lead to ecological destruction and the destruction of our villages.”
Casillas sums up the disaster: “Our source of life is disappearing—that’s why we’re here at the Assembly, because we want to join forces and fight to save our villages and our lives. They have built garbage dumps there—not just domestic waste, but dangerous wastes. We’re invisible. Ten years ago this river was our life. Now there’s nothing left. If it continues like this, soon we won’t be able to do anything … not even plant seeds.”
Michael Collins and Laura Carlsen
Translated by Barbara Belejack.
Link to “Un Salto de Vida”:
Andrés Barreda is professor of Economics in the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), director of the Center for Social Analysis, Information, and Popular Training (Centro de Análisis Social, Información y Formación Popular—CASIFOP), and is a contributor to the Americas Program at www.ircamericas.org.
Translated for the Americas Program by Erin Jonasson.
For More Information
Local Battles to Save the Brazilian Amazon Pits Residents Against Loggers and Government
Americas Program Biodiversity Report – December 2009
The Life and Death of a Mexican Environmental Prophet