When I began photographing the environmental crisis my country is going through, I never imagined what I would have to face. After working on this project for a while, I've realized that I cannot stop documenting the crisis; I believe that in the future, when we face the consequences of this incredible indifference towards our surroundings, my work can help others understand what went wrong. I trust that everything will change once we are forced into new ways of thinking by realizing the scarcity of our resources.
In 2005, La Primavera, a very important nature reserve area close to Guadalajara, went through one of the worst situations it has had to endure: a forest fire that went through more than 11,000 hectares, a third of the whole protected forest area. According to the investigations, the fire was induced, but those responsible were never found. Inappropriate planning and authority coordination, together with low resources allocated to prevention and
containment of this kind of events, resulted in a fire that took more than
seven days to be extinguished.
In 2012, a new fire swept through La Primavera; this time it was caused by someone who was burning garbage in one of the irregular populated areas found at the outskirts of the forest. This time, the fire damaged 8,000 , while the fire continued to roll forward,new fire-fighters and volunteers kept arriving from different parts of thecountry to help fight the fire. By the time the fire was extinguished, therewere more than 900 people there.
This time, the fire swept through the forest for 7 uninterrupted days.
The main difference between thetwo fires at La Primavera is that there were more resources, people, equipmentand helicopters available at the second one. Nevertheless, there was aparticular situation I found quite interesting: I had already spent more than 8hours in the forest with a brigade troop who had neither slept nor eaten in awhole day. The fire had started 24 hours earlier and they had been the firstones there. When we finally found another truck with supplies, they gave uswater and some sandwiches; while we were eating I began to think about who wasactually going to feed that hard-working and hungry army of fire-fighters andvolunteers.
I had imagined the Government was going to provide them with food... butit wasn't so. Help came from the city, from the people who had realized howimportant the forest was and wanted to save it. A whole lot of food arrivedwithin the next hours and continued to arrive during the next few days. Therewere even some vans sent by local restaurants: the forest was protected by thecitizens. The State Government and the current Head of the Ecology Departmenteventually arrived to the place, but not before the fourth day of the fire. Federal authorities came once the fire had been completely extinguished.
There's no positive scenario forthe worst affected areas; the damage suffered can take up several decades to recover,because once the storms and rains start, the soil is further eroded and aformer biological community turns into a wasteland. The problem of this forestare the humans: fires and other disruptions caused by visitors and residentsalike, as well as property speculation from the city nearby, sheltered by laxauthorities willing to trade public assets for a few bucks.
The first impression of El Salto,Jalisco, can be quite shocking. The landscape is rather industrial: you arewelcomed by a long stretch of fabrics and a variety of chemical smells. Thefoam in this picture is the result of the phosphates in the Santiago river. Thelatest research shows that this water contains more than 1,090 chemicals —mercury, zinc, lead and arsenic, among others.
I first went there 7 years ago,looking for the polluted river I had heard so much about. My editor asked mefor some ecology-oriented shots to add to the photographic archive of theoffice I worked for back then. It was then when I decided to go to El Salto andsee the river for myself. I was very worried about how to best documentpollution, I thought it wouldn't be visible.
The Santiago river impacts all ofyour senses. Ironically, I was lucky enough to see the river at its worst;totally damaged and probably with the highest levels of pollution ever. Itcould not only be seen, but also smelled and felt; it was, no doubt, anexperience that changed my life. I could not believe what I was seeing, I couldnot grasp what was happening there; my lack of knowledge and experience did notlet me understand what was happening and why. Next day I went back to the sameplace and that very same night I started reading about the subject. I decided Ineeded to start shooting the whole Santiago river
Lerma river swamps in Estado de México; the springs of the Lerma-Santiago river. Even the sources of the river are polluted and it has very large lifeless areas.
"El Ahogado" sewage treatmentplant. This plant cost around 858.9million pesos. According to Federal authorities, this plant was supposed togive life back to the river; nonetheless, it only treats 40% of all the wastewater. The worst thing is that "El Ahogado" is incapable of treating thechemical waste dumped by industries into the Santiago river.
And,on top of this, the plant requires continuous transformation due to theincreasing population rate of the communities surrounding the river, especially around the
Guadalajara metropolitan area, one of the areas of the country withthe greatest growth, according to the official numbers. The question remains:What will they do with the subsoil, which has
continuously receiveduncontrolled waste?
An engineer is walking in therotor room at the El Cajón dam, in Nayarit. This dam is part of the system providing electric power to the national network. How long will these facilities —which required such millionaire investments— be useful if the river is being killed upstream by pollution? When this question was posed to one of the engineers, his answer was that the river will never die because it rains every year.
View of the Huentitán Canyon,just outside of the Guadalajara metropolitan area. There are twelve communitiesliving in the canyon that not only must live right by a polluted river but alsoface the impact of two landfills polluting the basin and altering the qualityof the aquifer that feeds the river.
A bovine stallion lays dead onthe on the Copala region fields, in Zapopan. This animal died from drinkingfrom the river. During the rainy season, the landfills dump all leachates intothe tributaries of the river, turning its water poisonous.
The population of the area has been forced to electrify the river banks in order to stop their animals fromdrinking; they must provide them with external fresh water to quench theirthirst. Local authorities have stated that in 2015 they will launch a series ofresearch to determine how bad the damage is and the measures to be taken duringthe next 20 years, when the landfill will continue to be operated. The ZapopanMayor has officially stated that although there are leachates in the area, theyare harmless and that people may continue to live safely there.
Mrs. Cruz Prieto, in habitant ofthe Paso de Guadalupe community, taking a moment to tell us what it was like to live by a clean river. She used to eat fish almost every day; her brothers would go fishing and their mother would cook it immediately. A few months ago she decided to move back to her house. She had previously been forced to leave it because the smell of chemicals of the river was unbearable. So she livedwith her sister for a while, but now she has gotten used to the stink and doesn't need to leave anymore.
During the 70's, thousands ofgolfina turtles would arrive to Costalegre, Jalisco, according to the localswho lived there then. Year after year, the beaches would be covered bychelonians arriving to lay their eggs. Nowadays, if you are luckyenough, you will see a single turtle per night during the spawning season. Innights with a good moon, there are up to 25 turtles. But it is precisely thosemoon-lit nights when the hueveros —riding horses orbicycles and armed with machetes and dogs— steal the eggsfrom the nests. Some of them kill the mothers and keep their skin. The egg iswidely appreciated as an aphrodisiac by the Mexican popular culture.
Seeing a turtle walking into the landto spawn is an incredible experience. I've had the chance to photograph theseanimals throughout the Pacific coast of Mexico and it has been an incomparableprofessional experience. At El Playón de Mismaloya, in the Jalisco coast, you easilyfind the places where the skinless bodies of turtles are dumped. That day wediscovered more than 80 turtle shells. According to the biologists of theUniversidad de Guadalajara, the animals had been killed on that very same spotthroughout the last three weeks. Around 30% of the turtles arriving to thesebeaches are killed by the hueveros, while 50% of the nests are sold inthe local black market.
Mexico is lucky enough to have 7different turtle species spawning in its shores; nevertheless, if thisdepredatory practice continues, some of them may disappear, like it's alreadyhappening with the carey and laúd species. A newborn turtle hasonly a 1% chance of reaching adulthood once it is in the ocean, but, sadlyenough, humans reduce this percentage before they even reach the sea.
n July 2012, the avian influenza H5N1 arrived to Mexico. The authorities said there was nothing wrong and that everything was under control, The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations informed the death of more than 8,000 domestic poultry infected.
With this in mind, we planned aphotographic project going through a route of poultry farms in the state of Guanajuato, where the main outbreak of the disease was. Every time we arrivedat a new farm, we were faced with mistrust and negatives. People even refuse toshake hands with us and was fast to declare that everything was ok.
I finally met with a Federal officer who asked me what I was doing there and, when I explained I was lookingfor the contaminated farms, he admitted —asking that his
identity remained anonymous— that contaminated poultry feed had been confiscated and dumped into the municipal landfill at Dolores Hidalgo, without any kind of controlor regulation other than
having some lime poured on top. I immediately went tothe landfill and, just as expected, there were some Sagarpa [Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food of
Mexico] workers dumping contaminated gallinaza [poultry feed], with noregulation whatsoever and in the middle of the avian flu crisis. 22.3 millionbirds were killed, causing millions in losses.
This should help us reflect on where our food comes from and whetheror not it is healthy having so many animals in feed lots and living in those conditions.
Each morning there were some dead fishes on the shores of the Laguna de Cajititán, at the Tlajomulco de Zúñiga municipality. Finally, in September 2014, more than 200 tons of dead fishes covered a big portion of the lagoon.
Tlajomulco de Zúñiga, a municipality belonging to the Guadalajara metropolitan area, has been one of Mexico's municipalities with the biggest growth in low-incomehousing construction for the last 5 years. This disproportionate amount of houses has resulted in over 47,000 uninhabited houses. This problem is furtherenhanced by the fact that these residential areas' treatment plants are incapable of treating the waste water volume generated, which then usually ends up going straight into the lagoon.
For several weeks, the local government of Tlajomulco de Zúñiga tried to sell thepublic opinion the ridiculous idea that the fish mortality of the area was dueto the natural life cycle of the fishes. These claims were completely refutedwhen the Federal authorities ascertained the insufficient operational efficiencyof the treatment plants. This is an ongoing problem which will remain unaltered—and all living forms ofthe lagoon will disappear— aslong as the local Government continues allotting construction grantsunrestrictedly.
After 15,000 of their 20,000 hectares of forests had already been lootedby loggers linked to organized crime, on April 15, 2011 the settlers overcamefear, rose up and took control of their forests and their fate.
The Government has never done anything about it; not then and not now.
But that day the neighborhood became a self-aware community: peoplestarted talking about something that was rousing in the streets.
Then the bonfires began, one in every corner. No stranger would go out,no stranger would come in. Fear was bigger than certainty when it came to whattheir plan was but that fear kept them around the flares that would later beknown as the Cherán "F"s.
Among the many towns located in the Purépecha plateau, in the state ofMichoacán, Cherán is the one that decided to stop the criminals and theirrampant looting of the forest that surrounds them.
Armed with little more than their anger, the inhabitants entrenchedthemselves in the streets waiting for the violent attacks from theheavily-armed looters, protected and —even encouraged— by the corruptgovernment.
There's an amusing story (so to say) recalled by Toño, a young man thattold his father he'd be standing his ground at the corner of his street, by oneof the 270+ fires that were burning then:
"An armed group was coming in and all we could think of at the momentwas to throw a large fire cracker at them; it landed right into a man's belly.When they saw it bursting and burning him they got scared and ran off. They hadlarge weapons and we were terrified, but they were shocked and thought we hadgood weapons so they ran", he said laughing.
More than four years have gone by since then and the Cherán people havesorted many adversities to maintain their autonomous government, formed by acommunal council and a security patrol to watch and protect the population.
A group called Guardianes delbosque [Guardians of the Forest] was formed by 12 armed men who patrolevery day the Purépecha plateau, keeping their lands safe from illegal loggersand looters.
The Guardians have endured many hardships caused by the elements likecold and the unforgiving sun, lack of food and water, and the ever present fearof being ambushed each time they go, blindly, into the mountains. In thoseambushes, they have lost at least nine men.
This picture shows one of their patrolling rounds, at dawn.
When you see a group of armed men, the last thing that comes to yourmind is that they are trying to solve an environmental problem but, in thiscase, those problems easily turned into an armed conflict.
Sadly, this situation is becoming the norm in many other small towns.They will bring their own dawns.
It was in 1995, in the Diamond Zone in Acapulco, when the Colosio luxuryhousing project began; this residential area, together with the well over 4,000houses that followed, were built on wetlands that had to be filled as rivers were diverted to accommodate them.
Poorly regulated, the construction continued, even against the protestsof the people who knew those lands would, as they always had, eventually flood.Even the experts, who warned against the danger of living on a naturally fragileland were ignored.
Finally, on September 2013, a tropical storm landed, causing thecurrents to return to their natural bed. This left the whole settlementunderwater and thousands of houses were lost. The buyers had intended to investin their retirement with those houses, as they were built in a hot touristspot, near Mexico City. Up to this day, no guilty party has been singled outnor has a single thing been done by the authorities to alleviate the problem.The remaining houses are still there, waiting for the next natural disaster.
In 1970, a vast zone in the Estado de México was declared a radioactivewasteland. 78 year-old Petra Sánchez knew that the landfill was not safe as itdid not comply with any standard; she knew this would mean trouble for the peopleliving near the zone. That is how she started a campaign demanding the FederalGovernment to remove the Radioactive Wasteland Centre. The struggle lasted for20 years and, as she recalls, nobody ever listened to her.
Nowadays she is tired, so she has given up on it. The extent of damagecannot be seen as everything is buried underground. Trucks arrive at night,guarded by soldiers, and the waste is buried. By the morning there is not asingle piece of evidence in sight, but she knows that more than 200 people inTemascalapa, the small community where she was born and where she raised herfamily, have died. All of those deaths were caused by cancerous tumors.
Located at about 15 kilometers from the wasteland, Temascalapa is thenearest community. At the beginning, some tubes were installed around the townand some engineers would come to measure who-knows-what. They told people theyhad nothing to worry about, that they were safe and everything was undercontrol. Later on they advised the inhabitants to leave the town if they could,and then, one day, they never returned. The wasteland continues to operate andthe Temascalapa people are tired and skeptical; they refuse to be interviewed:nobody listens, nobody helps them and the waste continues being buried in thewasteland.
Journalist Ángel Ramos walks near the valves of a shale gas drillingwell, the result of hydraulic fracturing or "fracking". This type of drillingfirst started in Mexico in 2014, after the Energy Policies reform was approved.To liberate the gas, rocks have to be fractured, and more than 25,000 cubicmeters of water are needed for each single well. According to the EnergyCouncil data, more than 20,000 wells are planned in the zone; the resultant gasis expected to cover the national demand, but it is well known that it will besold to transnational companies. Water cannot be reused due to the chemicalresidues left behind by the process, so it is completely wasted after it isused in the wells.
Water is not the only resource impacted by fracking: river beds and even underground reservoirs are polluted by the chemical compounds used in the process.
Fracking also increases the seismic activity in the zone, someearth quakes have been as intense as 4.3. Enrique Jiménez shows us the damage caused to his house by the earthquakes since the fracking began. Some days, asmany as three earthquakes will hit, and his house is falling apart piece by piece. He has lived there his entire life and there had never been a singleearthquake until these men came and started drilling.
The environmental disaster was caused by Grupo México, the same companythat, in February 2006, left 65 of its workers buried in the Pasta de Conchos mine, in Coahuila, after an accident. No efforts were ever made to recover thebodies.
As a matter of fact, Grupo México declared that the incident was caused by "above average" rainfall, which was proved to be a lie by Conagua [National Water Commission]. Some time later, a broken pipe was determined to be the cause of the spill.
As a result of the incident, the water supply for at least 24,000 people was affected. The Tinajas creek stream for 17.6 kilometers, the Bacanuchi riverfor 64 kilometers, the Sonora river for 190 kilometers and el Molinito dam, with its contents of 15.4 millions of cubic meters of water, were all polluted. The dam is currently closed as a precaution.
40 °C in the Nuevo León State and we are walking: fuel thieves broke anoil pipeline looking for gasoline. When they realized the gush was notgasoline, they just left the area; the leak formed a stream running to the San Juan river in Cadereyta. More than 20 kilometers of the river were contaminated.
Some 100 workers tried to contain and clean up the initially 4kilometer-long stain. The stain grew and the cleaning process took ten weeks.
Once again, the margins of the stream and the soil suffered permanentdamages and only time will be able to clean and repair them. People in thenearby communities are worried: as long as the thieves continue with theirenvironmentally high-risk practices, these incidents are bound to happen again.In the same month this spill occurred, another four were reported in differentrivers across the country, all of them related to oil stealing.
One of the rivers with melt-water from the glacier in the Iztaccíhuatl National Park. Mexico's volcanoes make for an astounding natural scenery, butit might well be a condemned landscape: two majestic volcanoes (its neighbor,the smoky Popocatépetl) are trapped amid Mexico City, Puebla, Cuernavaca andEstado de México; isolated in an island of heat and pollution that worsensyearly with the rise of the average temperature: the result of the globalclimate change, caused by the rise of industries across the planet. Parkrangers fight deforestation, cattle, forest fires and the shocking ignoranceand irresponsibility of the visitors, but there is not much they can do againstthe many forces that seem to be conspiring against nature.
I had originally planned to visit Cuatrociénegas, Coahuila, as the firststop in my journey to document Mexico's environmental crisis but, due tounexpected circumstances, it ended up being our last stop. I am glad it turnedout that way, because had it not been so, I could probably not have been ableto continue with the project. It has been one of the most shocking andsaddening places I've found.
Cuatrociénegas is a very particular desert: there are some large areaswith wetlands right in the middle of it; this areas known as pools are fullwith nutrients such as phosphorus, carbon and nitrogen. These compounds feedcyanobacteries that, in its turn, give way to estromatolites underwater. Aplace unlike any other in the country.
However, its existence is constantly threatened by the indiscriminatewater extraction performed to keep up forage activities in the area. Once thewater near the cities was used up, farmers came to this place to use the poolsto harvest alfalfa.
The Federal Government banned the excavation of new wells, but it iscommon to find a blatant disregard for such ban, and new and illegal wells areeasy to find all across the region. Nobody has ever been brought to justice forthis.
An estimate of 1,000 liters of water are needed to harvest one kilo ofalfalfa, and this same kilo is sold in the market for 4 pesos. All the alfalfais used to feed the livestock in the largest and most prolific milk-producingzone of the country. The demand for milk in Mexico is very high and there arethousands of cows in stables where they are fed all day long so as to cope. Weshould ponder if this is worth it.
In 1960 there were at least 1,120 wetlands hectares in Cuatrociénegas.According to the last census, in 2007, there were around 120, and the Churincelagoon, a major water source of the region, has been completely dry since 2009.
These open channels do not only impact the environment by carrying watercontinuously out of the pools but also, since they are out in the open, theyprevent the spills from the mountains to reach the ground and recharge thepools. With a small yearly rain fall, this is an area of highenvironmental fragility.
These pools are a window into the past that allow us a glimpse into theorigins of life, preserving Cuatrociénegas is a matter of the greatestimportance.