MEXICO’S VAST INDUSTRIAL CORRIDOR TAKES A HEAVY TOLL ON HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT
MEXICO’S VAST INDUSTRIAL CORRIDOR TAKES A HEAVY TOLL ON HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT
The smell has been a constant and unwelcome neighbor for almost as long as Emma Mendez-Garcia can remember. Ever since she was a child, the stocky bricklayer’s wife, now 33, has lived in the shadow of the factories that line Avenida Uniones in the northern Mexican border town of Matamoros. Some of the mostly U.S.-owned plants manufacture products that are relatively benign, such as cooking oils and windshield wipers. But others produce powerful and potentially lethal chemicals: pentachlorophenol for preserving utility poles and railway ties, and agricultural pesticides in highly concentrated form. Those chemicals give the air in the neighborhood its distinctive acrid odor—and, Mendez-Garcia claims, have produced a grim litany of health problems among its residents. “Everything is contaminated,” she told Maclean’s last week. “We know it is harmful,” added Mendez-Garcia, who leads local efforts to close or relocate some of the plants. “Some of my neighbors have asthma. Some have bronchitis, skin irritations and problems with their eyes and liver.”
In the week after a U.S. federal judge ordered the United States government to prepare an environmental impact assessment of the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a visit to the area along the U.S.-Mexico border turned up plenty of cause for concern. Along the Mexican side of the frontier where foreign-owned factories have already enjoyed tariff advantages for more than a quarter of a century, the heavy stench of untreated sewage hangs over thousands of poor colonias, ramshackle neighborhoods where most of the plants’ workers live. A rising toll of birth defects and juvenile can-
cers on both sides of the border may be the even more insidious consequences of toxic industrial pollutants. Still, it was far from evident that the conclusion of a NAFTA pact among Canada, the United States and Mexico would significantly worsen those hazards.
For one thing, the ecological and sanitary horrors that have multiplied along the border have done so until now without a free trade agreement in place. Moreover, the Mexican government has made large strides in recent years towards containing the worst problems, enacting a sweeping new environmental law in 1988, and committing more than half a billion dollars to combat pollution in the border zone. Now, the country’s officials insist that it is only a lack of money, not a lack of political will, that stands in the way of a complete cleanup. Declared Sergio Sansores, a spokesman for Mexico’s environmental agency, SEDESOL: “No country in the world has the level that Mexico has assumed in caring for the environment.”
So far, however, that concern has translated into only limited environmental improvement in the stained and soiled ribbon of land that extends from Tijuana near the Pacific coast to Matamoros on the Gulf of Mexico. In 1965, Mexico and the United States signed an agreement that allowed U.S.-owned companies to set up factories, or maquiladoras (a reference to the fee once collected by millers for processing farmers’ grain), where imported components may be assembled and re-exported with little or no duty or tariff charges. Since then, cities along the Mexican side of the border have grown at a pace that has far outstripped the available services. Matamoros, for one, has exploded from a comparatively sleepy border town of 100,000 people into a gritty industrial centre of 600,000. But it still lacks even rudimentary treatment facilities for household sewage, which instead flows untreated into the Rio Grande. Declared environmental consultant Domingo Gonzalez: “A problem that was manageable when maquiladoras started has run amok.”
The toll of such untram-
meled growth is evident along much of the 3,200-km U.S.-Mexico border. Within sight of the Pacific Ocean, fumes from high-sulphur oil, burned to generate electricity for the industries of Tijuana, drift northward to shroud San Diego, Calif., barely 65 km away, in an unhealthy cloud. At Ciudad Juárez, close to the midpoint of the border, raw sewage flows sluggishly in a 30-km-long canal that parallels the course of the narrow Rio Grande, forming a noxious moat between the Mexican city and neighboring El Paso, Texas.
The same problems are difficult to escape in Matamoros and its U.S. neighbor, Brownsville, Texas, twin cities that straddle the polluted Rio Grande about 30 km west of where the river meets the Gulf of Mexico. Less than two kilometres from MendezGarcia’s neighborhood, a clutch of laughing children took refuge from last week’s sticky heat in the milky water of a sewage canal that drains several nearby industrial parks. Across the city, an early riser could be seen emptying her backyard latrine into yet another reeking sewage canal, where a combination of industrial sludge and human waste has formed a black, rubbery scum along both banks of the slow-moving stream.
Complaints like that of Mendez-Garcia’s neighbors are heard in many of the city’s other colonias as well. One kilometre downwind from the sprawling plant where a subsidiary of the U.S.-based Du Pont company produces poisonous hydrogen flouride, housewife Panchita Hernandez, 42, said that skin rashes and bronchitis are common health problems. For the area’s farmers, she added, “the crops have not grown well since the plant opened.”
Nor are the complaints confined to the Mexican side of the border. Across the 50foot-wide Rio Grande in Brownsville, Paula Gomez, the executive director of the city’s Community Health Clinic, declared: “Pollution doesn’t know a border; the wind doesn’t know Texas environmental law.” In fact, the United States contributes its own share to the pollution along the border. The cotton, sugar, sorghum and vegetable fields that line the U.S. side of the lower Rio Grande valley are heavily treated with a wide variety of pesticides that leach from the soil into the river. Farther upstream, cyanide used to extract gold from low-grade ore has also made its way into the Rio Grande.
What effect the windand waterborne pollutants have on the health of both countries’ residents has only recently begun to be studied—but the preliminary results are alarming. In April, 1991, three babies suffering from anencephaly, the partial or complete absence of a brain, were born within a 36hour period in a Brownsville hospital. That sparked an inquiry that eventually turned up 24 such births over a two-year period—a rate 12 times the U.S. national average. Another study found a 230-per-cent increase in the cancer rate among children aged 4 to 17 in the Brownsville school district between 1991 and 1993. Observed Gomez: “We have a
school right across the parking lot [from her clinic] that is filled with kids that are severely handicapped, physically and mentally. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know it’s not right.”
It was accounts such as that one that prompted three environmental groups to launch a court action that resulted in U.S. federal Judge Charles Richey’s June 30 ruling that NAFTA should be subject to a full environmental impact assessment. The ruling, since appealed by the Clinton administration, could delay implementation of the free trade pact beyond its target date of Jan. 1, 1994. Declared Michael McCloskey, chairman of the San Francisco-based Sierra Club, which initiated the court action along with the Friends of the Earth and consumer watchdog Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen: “NAFTA contains language that will drag down environmental standards in Canada and the United States and exacerbate the pollution along the U.S.-Mexico border without any funding for protection.” «
Mexican environmental officials disá pute that assertion. SEDESOL spokesman Sansores, for one, notes that Mexico’s A congress has more than doubled his envi£ ronmental agency’s budget every year 'i since 1989, committing $280 million for its operations this year. The ambitious Environmental Law Code, passed in 1988, has been reinforced since then. Environmental inspectors, Sansores added, examined 672 factories in the maquiladora zone in 1992, ordering 109 of them to curtail operations until deficiencies were corrected and shutting down 17 others entirely. Plants guilty of lesser offences faced fines of up to $128,000 for each violation of pollution standards.
Sansores’s pride is shared in SEDESOL’s Matamoros office, where a four-man inspec-
tion staff oversees 98 area factories from a cramped two-room office. “We feel we’re doing a good job,” declared one local enforcement officer, who requested that his name not be used. “The system works very efficiently because we have authority to close down an entire plant, the office and everything, if it violates standards.”
But strained resources plainly limit the agency’s good intentions. The nearly 700 maquiladora plants inspected all along the border last year accounted for fewer than
one third of the total, and Sansores acknowledged that even the 1,500 inspectors that SEDESOL hopes to have in operation nationwide by the end of this year will be “insufficient.” In Matamoros, meanwhile, there is no money to achieve SEDESOL’s goal of installing air-quality monitors at the edges of each of the city’s industrial parks.
Measures to treat ordinary sewage lag even further behind SEDESOL’s ambitious plans. Despite a commitment in late 1991 to spend $585 million over the following three
years to clean up the border region, including $283 million for sewage treatment, the agency has not yet begun to build two treatment plants planned for Matamoros. At the same time, a program to extend water and sewer lines to the many colonias that still lack basic services has foundered on the inability of many poor residents to raise their share of the cost of the projects.
In one new neighborhood on the eastern edge of Matamoros, where more than 400 families live in tiny homes without either electricity or sanitation, householders must cany water home in buckets from distant taps. The SEDESOL-administered solidarity program offers to pay half the cost of installing water and sewer lines to each house. But according to the colonia’s president, Enrique Carrillo-Nava, a 54-year-old meat cutter who shares a cramped and dirtfloored two-room shack with his wife and two children, few families can afford to pay their required share of the cost, about $380 each. “A major expenditure like that is very difficult to come by,” he said, noting that with incomes of only $50 to $90 a week, most of his neighbors “can’t even afford food.”
It is the same problem that afflicts the battle against pollution at every level in Mexico. The government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari “does have a real commitment to the environment,” asserts Alfonso Cipres, president of the Mexican Ecological Movement. But, he adds, “It is very difficult
with the budget they have.” And while some steps have clearly been taken towards cracking down on industrial polluters, to achieve the standards demanded by the Sierra Club would demand several hundred million more dollars than Mexico can currently afford— money that Salinas argues will only come with the ratification of the trade agreement that those same groups are attempting to halt.
CHRIS WOOD in Matamoros with AUGUSTA DWYER in Mexico City
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.