Editorials Burning Forests: Arson by Developers? by Homero Aridjis
WHILE MEXICO and the world were being consumed by World Cup fever, almost one third of Los Chimalapas, the most biodiversity-rich ecosystem of the Americas, was ravaged by over 60 fires. The worst fires are still raging in El Espinazo del Diablo (literally "the Devil's backbone"), the biological corridor that links the Selva El Ocote Biosphere Reserve, an area of 48,140 hectares of upland forest, with the moist tropical forest of Los Chimalapas. The area straddles the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, and is full of important archaeological sites some of which have been flooded by the Netzahualcoyotl dam. The danger, even now, is such that, even i f the rains do come to the rescue, i t could be another two weeks before the larger fires are extinguished, since several are currently out of control, and some are underground. The carnage has not only devastated irreplaceable flora and fauna of Mexico, but has also upset the economy of the people who live in the area, and whose children wil l know only an altered climate, calcinated rocks, piles of ash, and serious water shortages. In short: poverty.
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The area has provided a 'paradise on earth', but i t has also been the scene of squalid human conflicts, beginning with the border disputes between the states of Chiapas, the clearcutting by loggers and ranchers, the damage caused by the traffickers of flora and fauna and the threat of government and business projects, such as the 240-kilometres-long, four-lane Chiapas tol l road from Veracruz to Ocozocuauntla, whose original design would have cut through the El Ocote Reserve, the far north-eastern sector of Los Chimalapas, and the far eastern end of Uxpanapa. Equally i f not more disturbing is the plan to build a trans-isthmic corridor which would consist of a high-speed train joining the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico, and a four-lane highway from coast to coast: i t would be a "dry canal" (a dream since the early 20th century of both Mexican and foreign governments) - an alternative to the Panama Canal. In February 1998, Carlos Ruiz Sacristan, Secretary of Communi
cations and Transportation, declared tri umphantly that the Tehuantepec Isthmus Integral Development Program would begin this year; he described i t as "a consensus-backed project" with an investment of 250 million to 300 million dollars. But Luis Miguel Robles Gil of the Chimalapas Defense Committee said that a project of this magnitude "would lead to soil depletion, the disappearance of species, attrition of ground water supplies, the indiscriminate use of agro-chemicals, high levels of contamination of the bodies of water, and strong pressure on the forests."
Researchers Ana Luisa Anaya and Marcel a Arvarez have estimated that a single hectare of undisturbed tropical vegetation in Los Chimalapas may be home to as many as 900 plant species and more than 200 animal species. According to the booklet Reservas de la Biosfera y Otras Areas Naturales Protegidas de Mexico (Biosphere Reserves and Other Protected Natural Areas of Mexico), the forest com-
The Mexican government and private sector are known to have a great many ambitious development plans for the region, and so it has been suggested among others by Rosendo Montiel that the fires are no accident. "It's very peculiar that virgin forest, where the animals are tame and the damp vegetation hard to burn, should have caught fire in a straight line. "
plex of Los Chimalapas, Uxpanapa and El Ocote is one of the most important centres of biodiversity in Mexico and worldwide. In addition, since i t is the habitat of threatened, rare and endemic species, and given its complex of caves and caverns, geological formations and archaeological wealth, i t is a priority conservation zone. In the Selva El Ocote there are over 2,000 species of plant and fungus, 12 precious
For nine months, the author, a Mexican poet and international spokesman for freedom of expression, has not stepped out of his house without the bodyguards that shadow him everywhere. He has been the victim of repeated death threats which many people believe are connected with his outspoken criticism of indiscriminate economic development.
tropical woods such as mahogany, and the Chamaedora (xiate) palm. And in terms of animal wildlife, El Ocote has more than 500 species of higher vertebrate, 3,000 species of insect and arachnid, 445 species of diurnal butterfly, 31 species of amphibian, 62 species of reptile, 184 species of mammal (such as the jaguar, the ocelot, the white-lipped peccary, the howler monkey, and the spider monkey, all in danger of extinction). Also native to the area is the American crocodile. There are 350 bird species, 38 of them migratory birds from the United States and Canada, two of the three species of toucan found in Mexico, and the King vulture, Harpy Eagle, White Hawk, Quetzal and Scarlet Macaw. Large groups of these species have been seen trying to escape the flames.
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We wil l not know the extent to which unique species have become extinct in the Selva El Ocote and Los Chimalapas, nor the negative effects in the Grijalva and Usumacinta watersheds, until the flames are put out. But no matter how much money, i f any, is spent on reforestation of the area, i f the Espinazo del Diablo is fractured by fire, and i f the biological corridor is destroyed, the effects wil l be largely irreversible, and the world wil l have lost one of its most valuable treasures. We wil l
The Ecologist, Vol. 28, No 6, November/December 1998 have brought about yet more extinctions in the name of development.
The Mexican government and private sector are known to have a great many ambitious development plans for the region, and so it has been suggested, among others by Rosendo Montiel, coordinator for ecological land management for Maderas de Pueblo del Sureste, a community-based group working in Los Chimalapas, that this holocaust of nature, endless fires throughout the forests, is no accident: "It's very peculiar that virgin forest, where the animals are tame and the damp vegetation hard to burn, should have
caught fire in a straight line. The Americans say that someone could have dropped so-called ping-pong balls from the air, which are balls impregnated with chemical substances used in the United States to set counter-fires and which cause flames to spring up. In Mexico, as in Brazil and Indonesia, fire has been an efficient means of doing away with the forest."
A protected reserve, for wildlife and peasants alike, has yet to be created in Los Chimalapas, as its inhabitants would like. In June, during a meeting between Mexican Minister of the Environment Julia Carabias and people from the local com-
by David W. Orr
munities, the latter said that it was of no use to them for the government to establish the biosphere reserve instead of a reserve managed by the peasants themselves. "El Ocote is a biosphere reserve and i t is burning. Timber is being looted, and the people live in worse conditions of misery."
Who can blame them? Why would anyone want a paradise protected on paper, but ecologically devastated in practice? O
Homero Aridjis is a poet, novelist, founder and President of the environmental activist Group of 100, former ambassador of Mexico and current President of International PEN.
"The implied objective of 'progress' is not exactly perhaps the brain in the bottle, but at any rate some frightful subhuman depth of softness and helplessness. " - George Orwell
SCENE ONE: Entry to a classroom building. With a deafening noise he revved up the two-cycle engine on a blower preparing to clean the leaves, paper and cigarette butts that had accumulated in the entryway. He made considerable progress herding the debris away from the building and down the sidewalk until cigarette butts lodged in the seams in the concrete. Turning, he blasted the miscreant trash at right angles, but this only blew the debris onto the grass, posing still greater difficulties. Moving cigarette butts and bits of paper in an orderly fashion through grass is a challenge, even for a machine capable of generating gale-force winds. Then the apparatus stalled out - "down time" it's called. In that moment of sweet silence, I walked over and inquired whether he thought a broom or rake might do as well. "What do you say?" he responded. "Can't hear anything; my ears are still ringing!" I repeated the question. "S'pose so," he said, but they think I' m more productive with this piece of *&!@."
Perhaps he is more productive. I do not know how experts calculate efficiency in complex cases like this. If, however, the goal is to disrupt public serenity, burn scarce fossil fuels, create a large amount of blue smoke, damage lung tissue, purchase expensive and failure-prone equipment, frazzle nerves, interrupt conversations and
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improve the market for hearing aids, then rakes and brooms cannot compete. When the technology and the task at hand are poorly matched, however, there is no real efficiency. In such cases the result, in Amory Lovins' telling phrase, is rather like
we were casually asked to pronounce our blessing on a plan to link the entire campus so that everyone would be able to communicate with everyone else via computer, 24 hours a day, without leaving dormitory rooms or offices. This, we were told, was
If the goal is to disrupt public serenity, burn scarce fossil fuels, create a large amount of smoke, damage lung tissue, purchase expensive and failure-prone equipment, frazzle nerves, interrupt conversations and improve the market for hearing aids, then rakes and brooms cannot compete.
"cutting butter with a chainsaw".
Scene Two: Committee meeting. I serve on what is called with some extravagance the Educational Plans and Policies Committee. It is a committee to which one is elected, or sentenced, depending on one's view of committee duty. In one meeting
what our competitor colleges were doing. We were assured that this was the future. Information, we were informed, is doubling every six months. Electronic networking was judged to be an adequate response to that condition of information overload. Curious, I inquired what was
The Ecologist, Vol. 28, No 6, November/December 1998