Lucía Gascón Castillero
Society & the Environment
March 21, 2013
The activity that I chose was a tour called “The Horror Tour”, in which we visited several points in the Cuenca El Ahogado, the basin along which the main river in Guadalajara, Río Santiago, passes by. The Santiago River is one of the most polluted rivers in Mexico. It receives dense toxic waste from an industrial development corridor in the state of Jalisco, as well as the sewage of Guadalajara Metropolitan Area and smaller urban centers like Ocotlán, El Salto and Juanacatlán.
This tour took place on Saturday, February 23rd, 2013, from 8 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon. It was organized by the members of a volunteer group in ITESO called Por Nuestro Río, which is mainly focused on the problem of the Santiago River through collective actions, communication and education. Their purpose is to build a bridge between the sectors involved in the death of the river, and participate in bringing life back to it and those who suffer its pollution from nearest. The objective of the tour was raising awareness in all the participants who attended, and who, like me, did not really know the seriousness of the problem.
The tour consisted on the following: We met at ITESO at 8 in the morning, and all took a bus to several points that have certain relevance to the Cuenca El Ahogado. The points we visited, in order, were: Capilla Tepeyac, ITESO Water Treatment Plant, San Sebastianito, Las Pintas, Santiago River, and El Ahogado Dam.
Along the tour, we met people involved in the conflict, who are directly affected by the problem of the river, and who talked to us about their personal experiences; we also met professionals, like professors or the members of the group Por Nuestro Río, who gave us explanations on the conflict to help us understand better.
There are several actors involved in the conflict of the Santiago River, each of them holding a posture about the problematic, and therefore playing a role in it. The town halls in the Metropolitan Area, the state government, the industries throwing their waste on the river, scientists, environmental activists, and of course, the population living along or close to the river, are all amongst these actors.
According to what we saw in class, when it comes to the environment people appeal to different ethical principles or values to justify their particular vision of nature. On one side, the municipal and state governments are behaving with indifference, not doing anything significant about the problem because they do not take responsibility for it, but they attribute it to one another. The only relevant action that took place recently was the installation of a water treatment plant near the industrial corridor, which removed both the odor and the foam present in the water, but not the toxics or the chemicals.
On the other side, there are the industries that shape the El Salto industrial corridor, which hold a vision of economic growth. As long as they keep getting wealthier, there is nothing they are willing to change. As long as they can produce the greatest amount of goods for the smallest amount of money, they will not turn to cleaner energies, better infrastructure, and most importantly, they will not stop throwing their residual waters to the river. There have been more than 40 illegal downloads of residual waters into the river discovered by the authorities, yet these companies have not been punished. Anthropocentrism could also fit in their ethics, since they are not giving nature the value it deserves; they are behaving like the environment (the river in this case) is at the service of their needs and is valuable in as much as it serves their needs.
Scientists and environmental groups defend biodiversity, intergenerational justice, and sustainable development. They defend biodiversity because most of the species that used to inhabit the river and surroundings are gone, and it is fundamental to preserve the few that are left if the river wants to show any sign of environmental health at all. They defend intergenerational justice because we are currently compromising the future of unborn generations; they have the right to enjoy the same standard of living that we aspire to, but the only bill we are passing on to them is sickness, disease, ecological disaster, and a toxic river. Sustainable development is equally important because the Santiago River and its waters are being exploited in a way that will lead to their eventual depletion. The environmental organizations currently involved in the problem are: The COFEPRIS (Comisión Federal para la Protección contra Riesgos Sanitarios), a government agency; and Un Salto de Vida and Greenpeace, both non-governmental organizations. At Las Pintas, we met members from a collective called Colectivo Precaución, who told us about their labor of diffusion in this neighborhood, because people do not know about the problem with the water; unfortunately, we were told that they are not given much attention by most people, since it is obvious that a community with no education on the topic lack both awareness and interest.
Finally, the people in the communities close to the river, such as El Salto and Juanacatlán, are the most affected by the river pollution. Its impact on health has been denounced by these local residents and physicians, who have observed an increase in the incidence of diseases such as cancer and leukemia, as well as in the number of spontaneous abortions, respiratory problems and skin rashes. However, in the absence of epidemiological studies, government officials tend to deny the existence of any link between these health problems and the pollution of the Santiago River. Their vision on the problem involves local-stakeholder preference, because they are the original inhabitants of the area, and they should take preference over other stakeholders in conflicts affecting that area.
At El Salto industrial corridor I saw the most shocking things from all the points visited during the tour. The air was so corrosive that the wiring was completely rusty, and there were signs warning people not to touch the water for safety.
Overall, we noticed that in Mexico water is not given the value that it deserves; we realized the interesting fact that none of the buildings located along the creeks of the basin are actually facing them, but turning their backs to the stream.
This activity was very valuable for me because it really helped me realize what is going on in the world, in my country, and not too far away, in my own town; furthermore, it made me realize my role as an environmental actor too.
The government incompetence is what shocks me the most. I am disappointed on my country because during the tour I gathered enough evidence to say that the authorities’ intentions are only to cover the problem, to cover the obvious, the noticeable, in order to say that everything is working fine. Are they ever going to attack the root problem though? Are they ever going to halt these companies from downloading their waste into the Santiago River? Are they ever going to stand up for our resources, our ecosystems, and defend our biodiversity? Are they ever going to give the river the value it deserves for carrying our waste all these years?
When it comes to the industries, I think we are talking about enterprises with “double moral”, since they dare call themselves “socially responsible” or claim to have a “social compromise” by telling people to plant trees or to recycle, when on our backs they are throwing all their toxic waste to our own rivers. Can company owners really care that much about money? Do they ever think about the impact of their actions on our people, health and nature?
I realized this is where my role as an environmental actor becomes important. I think that conflicts like the one concerning the Santiago River and its health require both social pressure and citizen participation. Collective actions can achieve more than individual ones, and there are already several groups working in favor of a change.
Management and control are also fundamental in solving a conflict. Municipal and state authorities should be responsible for managing and controlling the industries’ irresponsible actions. Nature is so wonderful that it has proven its capacity to recover by itself. If residual waters containing chemicals and other toxic substances stop getting thrown into the river, the water will eventually become clean and recover its health.
In the meantime, diffusion is elemental to draw public attention to the conflict, and I realized that it is also my duty to spread the word, to diffuse all of this information, and to let the people in Guadalajara and surroundings know what is going on.
As for myself, I share the same vision with scientists and activists because I defend the ethics of sustainable development, intergenerational justice, and biodiversity. Furthermore, I see this problem form the point of view of respect for the sacred, because our Mother Earth provides us with life, and we are responding with damage and disrespect for it. Also, I sustain a vision of solidarity with all the people that are being exposed to the hazards of the river pollution, and who are currently suffering from cancer, intestinal problems, or even death without any possible alternative but conforming; the river carries the waste of all of us, so we should compromise with these people too. I think the impact of the Santiago River’s health is reaching serious social and environmental consequences, but it is never too late to start recuperating what is left, and to recover what is already gone.