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ENDANGERED MEXICO: An Environment on the Edge.\o7 By Joel Simon\f7 .\o7 Sierra Club Books: 276 pp., $27\f7

May 04, 1997|SCOTT SHERMAN | Scott Sherman writes about Mexico for a variety of publications, including Newsday and the Boston Review

Last July, Pati Ortiz, a 34-year-old mother of three, was sitting at an outdoor food stand in the poor Mexico City neighborhood of Iztapalapa when she disappeared into the ground. There was a loud noise, witnesses said, and seconds later, she was gone, sucked into a 20-foot sinkhole. In a doomed rescue attempt, several bystanders jumped into the hole and were immediately met by poisonous underground fumes. When an ambulance arrived 90 minutes later, four people, including Ortiz, were dead.

This is one of the many terrifying images in Joel Simon's "Endangered Mexico," a powerful corrective to the glossy travel magazines and tourist guidebooks whose pages are filled with seductive photographs and appealing descriptions of Mexico's natural landscape. But for every natural wonder like Zihauatenejo, Tulum and the Copper Canyon, countless areas have been soiled by industrialization gone awry.

"Endangered Mexico" is a portrait of a nation reeling from five centuries of environmental degradation. The consequences are apparent to anyone who has experienced Mexico City (or "Makesicko City," in Carlos Fuentes' formulation): a place where birds fall dead from the smog-choked sky, where the nitrogen dioxide levels are equal to levels in New York's Lincoln Tunnel and where one can get intestinal parasites simply by breathing the air.

Yet Simon, an associate editor at Pacific News Service, comes to realize in the course of his investigation that Mexico City's air pollution is symptomatic of a much deeper crisis. Armed with camping equipment and a notebook, he embarks on a journey that takes him from the shantytowns of the capital to the impoverished Mixteco villages of Oaxaca; from the Lacandon jungle, home of the Zapatista rebels, to the lakes and rivers of Tabasco, ruined by decades of brazen abuse by Pemex, the state oil monopoly. Wherever he goes, he finds environmental destruction and plunder and, among the local population, a strong undercurrent of sadness and resignation. But he also finds activists determined to protect their land, resources and dignity, even if it means confronting hired thugs and violent drug traffickers.

Simon's story begins five centuries ago, when a small group of Spaniards led by Hernando Cortes arrived in Mexico and discovered the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, which consisted of thousands of small islands divided by canals--the "Venice of the New World." Aztec engineers had constructed a dazzling urban infrastructure: A giant stone aqueduct delivered fresh water to the city, while other ingenious methods were employed to dispose of human waste. In contrast to filth-ridden 16th century European cities, Tenochtitlan's streets were lined with flowers and rooftop gardens.

But most of the city's hydraulic infrastructure was deliberately destroyed by Cortes during his two-year campaign, and in subsequent years, Tenochtitlan--renamed Mexico City--degenerated into squalor. Ignorant of the complex ecosystem they had inherited, the Spaniards dumped the corpses of Indians, dogs and horses (not to mention garbage and other refuse) into the canals. Frustrated by continuous flooding, the Spaniards eventually made a fateful decision, one that would forever influence the future of Mexico City: Hundreds of square kilometers of lakes and rivers were drained in a massive undertaking that effectively destroyed the ecological makeup of the entire region.

These are the roots of Mexico City's late 20th century woes, which include a severe water shortage in addition to air pollution. Today, 70% of the water supply for a city of more than 20 million people is provided by an underground aquifer that is rapidly drying up, resulting in a contraction of the soil. Consequently, Mexico City is literally sinking: The downtown portion of the capital is 34 feet lower than it was at the time of the conquest. The sinkhole in Iztapalapa--which like many poor barrios was built on a dried lake bed--is a direct result of this subsidence.

While the harrowing chapter on Mexico City is essential reading for any visitor to the sprawling metropolis, the rest of the book contains equally fine reportage and analysis. In a chapter on the crisis in the countryside, where many villages have been abandoned by people looking elsewhere for work, Simon argues that the exodus can be traced, paradoxically, to the popular agrarian reform policies undertaken in the 1930s by Lazaro Cardenas, Mexico's most revered president. Much of the redistributed land was barren, barely suitable for growing corn and beans, and in a relatively short time became useless. Later, the government urged peasants to make use of chemical fertilizers, but few villages could afford them.

Three years after the unrest in Chiapas burst into the news, media coverage of the conflict has waned. But Simon reminds us that the region remains volatile.

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