Tag Archives: Environment

Editor’s Letter

“We look and listen to the mortally wounded nature … where the worst is yet to come.”
Zapatista Manifesto

We have been waiting in sweltering humid days for drops from the sky to give us a respite. We move through the world masked-up, struggling to breathe and wondering when relief will come. Grey skies that yield not a drop and thunderous sounds seem to taunt us. May and June on the Oaxacan coast are months filled with longing and anticipation. The landscape is brown and thirsty, its hunger mirrored by the people, who after an anemic tourist season, are also in limbo.

This month our writers explore the environment. To most of us, this means nature but it is also a state of being. We accept in nature the cycle of life which inevitably leads to death; dry tree branches or a fish that ends up on our plate. That which once danced through the fantastic blue depths of the ocean eventually stops swimming, whether by having fulfilled its allotted time or by being prematurely snatched up in a net.

For the past year we have lived in a collective environment, whether you are in Calgary or Delhi, we have all been moving towards a common purpose and defeating a common enemy. Humanity has become a school of fish that moves in sync like some other worldly dance. Yes, there are still so many things that we disagree about, but we are like the great network of trees that communicate through root systems; united by our fears and worries.

I have never felt greater reverence for nature than I have this past year. The symphony of birds is like the voice of god, whichever one you believe in, majestic trees have been reminders of our own individual insignificance. How can we ever improve our environment more than a tree does?

The world is slowly unfolding into its previous normalcy. People say it will never be the same but I believe they are wrong. We will slip back into our minutiae of concerns; getting more stuff, more power, just more for the sake of more. Will this time have been in vain? I hope we will remember the importance of nature when contrasted with the human experience and revere the one that has the greatest importance.

Then the sky opened, rain fell and suddenly everything is green.

See you next month,

Jane

Huatusco Showcases Bamboo at Its Best

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

Standing in the midst of a massive grove of bamboo is a sensuous experience. The beauty and power of the fastest growing plant in the world is breathtaking – literally. The genus Bambusa regulates the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide, and so one feels a sense of rejuvenation simply being amongst the vast expanses of bamboo. A simple grove of bamboo releases 35% more oxygen than an equivalent stand of trees.

Bambuver

A visit to the nonprofit (or A.C., Asociación Civile) Plantación Bambuver in the tropical town of Huatusco, Veracruz (only 4 ½ hours from the city of Oaxaca), teaches about not only the environmental importance of the 1,200 or so species of bamboo (the most common being Bambusa vulgaris), but also the multiplicity of diverse uses and applications: from commercial/industrial to artistic/aesthetic, from domestic/home to, of course, horticultural. Within the context of a three-hour tour of its installations, one cannot help but be impressed, through learning of the plant’s remarkable versatility and its environmental and ecological value as a sustainable industry.

Bambuver works in collaboration with the state of Veracruz, the national forestry commission, the national science and technology advisory board, and other national as well as state and local government branches. Its mission centers on the ongoing development and promotion of an integrated bamboo industry.

The Bambuver facilities are spread over three main locations in and around Huatusco, all easily visited in an afternoon.

  1. The green area consists of expansive forests comprising several species of bamboo, and includes a science and research center in addition to greenhouses for propagation. There is also a sales component so visitors can purchase small plants in plastic sleeves, and three-meter lengths of mature bamboo also suitable for growing back home. One can also buy large sacks of compost, with or without lombrices (earthworms). Lombrices create the compost from feeding off the exterior casings of coffee beans. Nearby coffee plantations (which can also be visited) provide Bambuver with the outer bean casings, otherwise waste, to use as feed for the lombrices. You’ll learn of the symbiotic relationship between the bamboo industry in Huatusco and the current as well as historical presence of the region’s coffee plantations; each and every bamboo forest at Bambuver has been nurtured with the aid of this natural fertilizer. You can even buy a bag of lombrices enabling you to kick-start or enrich a compost bin!
  2. A showroom in downtown Huatusco displaying examples of the plethora of uses for bamboo for domestic/home applications.
  1. A processing factory where the bamboo is treated and then fabricated for home and commercial/industrial use. The natural/renewable resource can be substituted for other building materials, to the extent that entire homes are now being built using bamboo rather than reinforced steel and other manmade construction products.

In the course of a tour of Bambuver, one inevitably begins to appreciate and consider the use of bamboo in construction, given that it is available in a variety of thicknesses, strengths, textures and colors (natural and dyed). It is used for building frames and beams, roofs, flooring, walls, windows, decorative interior panels, home bars, furniture, craft products, and much more.

Interesting Stops En Route to Huatusco
Starting from Oaxaca (or perhaps the Puebla-Cordóba-Acayucan route to Huatulco), consider a 2 – 3 day driving trip. The route north and east on the toll road from Oaxaca passes through several appealing towns and regions, some steeped in history (Córdoba), others producing crafts using materials native to the particular area (San Antonio Texcala for onyx and marble), still others showcasing environmental attractions (the water museum near Tehuacán, the biosphere near Cuicatlán, and the thoroughly impressive snow-capped Pico de Orizaba). And for the home garden aficionado, you’ll be passing through Fortín de las Flores, noted for cacti, succulents and anthuriums, to name just a few.

The Drive
Take the toll road north from Oaxaca until reaching the junction of 135D and 150D. Exit to the right, towards Orizaba / Córdoba, and continue along 150D. Leave the toll road when you see the Fortín / Huatusco sign. After paying a toll, keep right, and then left at the Huatusco sign, then left again at the next Huatusco sign. This takes you to Mexico 125, on which there will be clearly marked signage to downtown Huatusco.

Lodging and Bambuver Contact Info
Hotel Huatusco has underground parking, a restaurant, and even a conference center. It’s clean, with reasonably priced rooms (including a floor fan for the asking): Av. 1 Ote 399, Centro Huatusco 94108 (tel: 273 734 3852).

Bambuver A.C. is located a few blocks from the hotel: Av. 4 Ote 336 (tel: 273 734 0680 – both their website page list other numbers); you can learn more at http://www.bambuver.com.

Tours are available for 6 – 20 people, but smaller group / private tours can be arranged with sufficient notice, in either case at a nominal charge.

The one three-meter length of mature bamboo Alvin Starkman purchased at Bambuver several years ago is now a small forest. Alvin operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

Sembrando Vida – Seeding Life?

By Julie Etra

Sembrando Vida in Mexico

On October 8, 2018, President Andrés Manual López Obrador (AMLO) kicked off a new program, Sembrando Vida (Sowing Life), in the hope that it would achieve two parallel purposes. The program encourages sustainable communities through cultivating trees with commercial value – fruit-producing (mango, cinnamon, soursop) and timber (mahogany, cedar, rubber, cocoa) trees. It also combats rural poverty and environmental degradation; planting trees combats environmental degradation because they uptake carbon, a greenhouse gas, thus fighting climate change.

By paying residents of rural areas to plant the trees, along with garden crops for their own use, the government hopes to “rescue” rural areas, reactivate local economies and regenerate the social fabric in communities. The program works by turning communal land into a strategic tool for developing the countryside, increasing the productivity of rural areas, and thus reducing the economic and social vulnerability of farm families in remote areas. Inaugurated in 2019, Sembrando Vida has been adopted in 20 of Mexico’s 32 states.

Sembrando Vida will end up costing the Mexican government between 12 and 15 billion pesos; growers receive 4,500 pesos a month in addition to the value of what they grow. Many of these people participated in a program fielded by the previous administration, through which communities were paid to protect and maintain the jungle and its ecosystems. Sembrando Vida replaces that program, with the unfortunate result that, in order to provide land to qualify for Sembrando Vida, farmers have chopped down or burned the same jungles they had been protecting. This is not encouraged by Sembrando Vida, of course, which intended to reforest/replant “degraded land.”

Sembrando Vida and the World

But this unintended consequence (among others) is not why Sembrando Vida is in the news in 2021. In April, at U.S. President Biden’s virtual Leaders Summit on Climate, AMLO promoted Sembrando Vida as a tool to resolve the dual continuing crises of Central American migration north to the United States through Mexico, and climate change. AMLO claimed that planting three billion trees in southern Mexico and Central America would create 1.2 million jobs, which in turn would cut down on northward migration to the U.S.

The U.S. would pay for the expansion from Mexico into Central America. Reuters reported that AMLO also suggested that the “U.S. government could offer those who participate in this program that after sowing their lands for three consecutive years, they would have the possibility to obtain a temporary work visa” to the U.S., followed by U.S. residency or citizenship.

Most analysts consider the Sembrando Vida program to be naïve, simplistic and unlikely to substantially curb the violence and poverty that has fueled immigration from Central America. According to the Mexican newspaper Reforma, the U.S. responded a little more clearly: “The United States is not interested in President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s proposal to link an extension of the Sembrando Vida program to Central America with a plan that offers work visas to Central Americans.”

If you check out the official government webpage for Sembrando Vida, it makes no mention of Central America (www.gob.mx/bienestar/acciones-y-programas/programa-sembrando-vida). It’s been suggested by Carolina Herrera, a writer for the U.S. nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), that AMLO was “attempting to distract from Mexico’s failure to advance a clean energy transition.”
In his presentation at the Leaders Summit, AMLO offered two other proposals – first, Mexico would limit crude oil production to domestic use and refine it locally, and second, Mexico would modernize existing hydroelectric plants to displace the use of fossil fuels. Given that Mexico has made few efforts on the federal level to curb greenhouse gases and encourage renewable resources, the first proposal demonstrates AMLO’s intention to support PEMEX, the state-owned petroleum company, over working on renewable energy options. Modernizing hydro plants supports the state-owned electric company CFE at the expense of solar and wind.

AMLO’s proposals, Herrera argues, will “essentially ensure that Mexico will not meet its international climate commitments and clean energy targets” for the international Sustainable Development Goals set for 2030.

Mexico’s Green Energy -Potential, Promise, Problems

By Randy Jackson

POTENTIAL

Few countries on earth have such an abundance of green energy potential as Mexico. The geography and geology of Mexico provides three substantial sources of green energy: solar, wind and geothermal.

Solar: Potential energy from solar projects seems obvious, with much of the country bathed in sunlight for a good portion of the year. Also, the lower the latitude, i.e., the lower the distance from the Equator, the higher the energy concentration of the sun. The northwest area of Mexico has the highest average number of days of sunlight in the country. The sunniest spot on earth is just north of Mexico, in Yuma, Arizona, and the surrounding areas stretching well into Mexico have a very high average number of days of sunshine. Days of sunshine, concentrated by lower latitudes, end up in a measurement called “insolation.” Insolation is a measurement of kilowatt hour per square meter, essentially a measurement of sunpower at a given location. All this leads to the calculation (using existing solar panel efficiency) that just 25 square kilometers of solar panels, were they located in the Sonoran Desert or the state of Chihuahua, would be sufficient to provide 100% of Mexico’s electricity demand.

Wind: Many of us who are familiar with Huatulco and the surrounding area know of the substantial wind energy facilities in the narrower part of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The Eurus Wind Farm in Juchitán de Zaragoza is the largest wind farm in Latin America. In Mexico overall, the states of Oaxaca, Yucatán and Tamaulipas all have locations with average wind speeds greater than 28 km/hour – 15 Km/hour is the minimum average speed normally required for a wind farm. Average wind speed is one determining factor for wind farms; the other is air density. Sea level locations, as at the Eurus Wind Farm, have higher air density when compared to higher elevations. This means the air has more mass, essentially giving the wind more power to turn a wind turbine. REVE, the Spanish wind energy magazine, reports that Mexico has wind energy potential of about 70,000 MWH (megawatt hours), about the total current electrical generating capacity in all of Mexico.

Geothermal: Mexico has 48 active volcanoes, a testament to the high degree of tectonic activity below the earth’s surface in Mexico (has anyone not experienced an earthquake in Huatulco?). Geothermal resources are most often found along tectonic plates where the earth’s magma is closer to the surface. This superheats rock that can be easily drilled into from the surface; water is then injected and the resulting steam drives turbines to create electricity. The world’s second largest geothermal power station is located in the state of Baja California, near the city of Mexicali. This location, known as Cerro Prieto, sits atop of a unique geological fault usually only found under the oceans. The Mexican ministry of energy envisions 1,670 MWH of electricity from geothermal plants by 2030.

PROMISE

Before hosting the 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancún, Mexican President Felipe Calderón set out goals for Mexico to reach one-third of its energy from renewables by 2024. Some reforms and laws were initiated in Calderón’s term of office to move towards these renewable energy goals. In Mexico, energy is state owned and controlled.

Energy resource ownership, particularly oil but also electricity generation, is a sensitive national concern for Mexico. However, in 2013, President Enrique Peña Nieto was able to pass a reform that allowed private companies to participate in the energy sector, with the control, transmission and distribution of energy remaining exclusively within the control of the state. This initiative, followed up with specific regulations, allowed private investments in renewable energy projects to recover their investments over time, by selling electricity to the state owned CFE (Comisión Federal de Electricidad) under negotiated contracts.

These reforms and Mexico’s abundant green energy potential allowed many Mexican and international companies to step forward to propose and develop green energy projects. To facilitate these projects under state control, Mexico held three auctions to purchase renewable electricity under long term contracts; 41 projects were selected under the auction process. Solar energy projects accounted for 4,867 MW, wind energy 2,122 MW and geothermal 25 MW. In 2017 private investment in renewable energy in Mexico was $6.2 billion USD. Mexico seemed to be off to a good start towards its green energy goals.

PROBLEMS

In 2018, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (often referred to as AMLO) was elected. Shortly after taking office, AMLO cancelled any future auctions to purchase green electricity by CFE. Then, in early 2020, under the guise of COVID-19 measures, Mexico changed the rules of how wind and solar projects could access the electrical grid. The new policy imposes a new requirement on developers of wind and solar projects to obtain a generation permit. These permits are subject to further regulations that prioritize CFE electrical generation from oil and gas electricity plants. These changes have raised international concerns regarding regulations that effectively cancel existing legal contracts. The European Union sent a letter to Mexico’s Energy Minister, Rocío Nahle García, saying the new rules would negatively impact 44 renewable energy projects and jeopardize $6.4 billion (USD) in renewable energy projects from EU companies. Bloomberg News reported March 16 of this year that the Canadian government expressed concern to the Mexican Economy Secretary, Tatiana Clouthier Carrillo, about stranding a potential $4.1 billion (USD) in renewable projects by Canadian companies. These concerns have also been expressed by the US and other countries using diplomatic channels.

The arguments made by the current Mexican administration in defending their change to regulation regarding private investments in the electrical energy grid are numerous. AMLO has suggested that corruption was involved in awarding some of the contracts to purchase electricity. He has also argued that the sporadic nature of renewable energy destabilizes the electricity grid. He also said there is just too much bureaucracy overseeing the energy sector in Mexico, and more central control is needed.

Some of these regulatory changes are currently being challenged in Mexican courts, so the final outcome is yet to be determined. However, the substantial green energy potential of Mexico is out there, available, awaiting the right political conditions for it to be harvested.

Mexico’s Natural Wonders

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

Ten major-to-middling mountain ranges, replete with volcanoes and caves. Two oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea, and the Sea of Cortez. Mega-biodiverse, with over 200,000 known species of flora and fauna. A plethora of online lists of 7, 10, 25 “natural wonders you must see in this lifetime!!!”

There are many must-see natural destinations spread across Mexico – Copper Canyon in Chihuahua, the Rosario sanctuary for Monarch butterflies reserve in Michoacán, Lake Chapala in Jalisco, or Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl volcanoes covered in fourth-grade geography. You could even argue that the ghastly mummies of Guanajuato are a natural wonder, created by the arid soil in which they were hastily buried (apparently too hastily in multiple cases) during a cholera outbreak in 1833.

But if you’re already ensconced in Huatulco, there’s no need to wander afar – southeastern Mexico has plenty of natural wonders at hand.

Oaxaca: Hierve el Agua (“the water boils”) is located high in the mountains about an hour from Mitla, the archeological site to the east of Oaxaca City. Hierve el Agua offers a stunning pair of petrified travertine waterfalls, cascada chica and cascada grande, “falling” from high cliffs to the valley below. The falls themselves are twelve and thirty meters (about 40 and 100 feet) respectively. (The only other petrified waterfalls in the world are at Pamukkale in Turkey, so ¡Aprovechar!)

The small falls are more accessible and actually offer a better understanding of how the cascades were formed. At the top of the falls is a 60-meter-wide (about 200 feet) platform with four springs that bubble up (“boil”) and flow to small natural pools and two large man-made pools where you can swim – the high mineral content of the water, is supposed to have healing qualities. One of the springs spills over the edge, depositing minerals that extend the falls bit by bit, year over year.

There are visitor accommodations for changing clothes, getting a bite to eat, and souvenir shopping; there’s a basic hotel for an overnight. As is common in Oaxaca, you may also experience a bloqueo, a protest blockade, closing the road to Hierve del Agua. You can arrange a tour in Oaxaca City, or take a bus to Mitla and arrange a local tour or just transportation via a colectivo.

Chiapas: Sumidero Canyon is near the Chiapan capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez (the cañon is the defining feature on the state’s coat of arms). Just north of the town of Chiapa de Corzo, about 35 million years ago, the earth cracked and the Rio Grijalva emerged to start carving out the eight-plus miles of canyon. In places, the walls are now a thousand meters (about 3,300 feet) high; the canyon ends with the Chicoasén Dam, which has created an artificial lake and raised the water level in the canyon – the gorge used to be higher. Should you be a geologist, the walls diagram the history of the earth’s crust in this area, with layers of limestone boasting marine fossils.

The canyon is located in the Sumidero Canyon National Park, designated a RAMSAR wetland. (RAMSAR is the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, Ramsar, Iran, being where the Convention was signed in 1971 – Mexico has 142 RAMSAR sites.)

You can view the canyon from any one of six miradores (overlooks), but the best way to “do” the canyon is via boat. (There was an EcoPark within the national park, to which the boat would take you, but at last word it had closed for financial reasons.)

Most boat trips leave from Chiapa de Corzo. The round-trip boat ride takes about 2-3 hours, because it takes a while to get from Chiapa de Corzo to the actual canyon. You might see wildlife – the park is home to several endangered species (spider monkeys, jaguarundis, ocelots, anteaters). The vegetation in the park is mostly deciduous rainforest (Chiapas is much higher than Huatulco, which has mostly selva seca, dry deciduous jungle.) You can see the entrances to a couple of cave systems in the walls.

You can arrange a tour in Tuxtla Gutiérrez or San Cristobal de las Casas (apparently the best prices are in San Cristobal, and you should make sure your tour includes at least some of the miradors and the town itself). You can also just get yourself to Chiapa de Corzo (less than 20 pesos in a colectivo) – if you can get one to drop you off at the embarcadero (boat landing) in Cahuares, great, otherwise find a colectivo in the square going to Cahuares. If you get to Chiapa de Corzo, you will have no trouble getting to the canyon boats.

The Yucatán, ah the Yucatán! The Yucatán peninsula is all nature, all the time – and archaeology, and beaches, and swimming with sharks, and shopping – but mostly nature. You could go to the flamingo reserve, visit a biosphere, or canoe through the mangroves in Celestún, in the state of Yucatán. You can swim in the hundreds of cenotes, or sinkholes formed when underground rivers caused the limestone above them to collapse (some say Cenote Ik Kil, near Chichen Itza, also in Yucatán state, is the most beautiful). You could visit the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, Mexico’s largest – it also contains the Calakmul archeological site – located in Campeche state. Or the colored lakes at the Las Coloradas salt flats, back in Yucatán. Or go kayaking on the brilliant, multicolored blue waters of Lake Bacalar in Quintana Roo.

But the Yucatán peninsula is home to the 700-mile-long Great Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the world’s second largest, which runs along the Caribbean coast from the tip of the peninsula down through the shores of Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. Sometimes called the Great Mayan Reef, it’s been described as an “underwater wilderness,” with, at last count, over 100 species of coral, over 500 species of fish, not to mention multiple species of sharks, sea turtles, and dolphins – and a few sunken ships serving as artificial extensions of the barrier reef.

You can book dive trips all along the Caribbean coast of the peninsula. SCUBA divers might have the most fun, especially for the wrecks and the Museo Subaquático de Arte (Cancún Underwater Museum). Never fear, though, there are two galleries in MUSA, and both snorkelers and riders on glass-bottom boats can visit the shallower one to see the sculptures of pH-neutral concrete that explore the human-reef relationship.

Manchones Reef, off Isla Mujeres (Quintana Roo), is considered a “true paradise” for snorkeling and SCUBA diving. The waters of Parque Nacional Arrecifes de Cozumel have great visibility; SCUBA divers can visit the Felipe Xicoténcatl, a C-53 gunboat sunk by the Mexican Navy to start an artificial reef. Ideal for snorkeling is the section of reef in the Biosphere Reserve of Banco Chinchorro – only 5 feet deep and partly comprised of wrecked pirate ships. Banco Chinchorro is off the coast at Chetumal, Quintana Roo. At the Parque Nacional de Arrecifes de Xcalak, also in Quintana Roo near Tulum, the “coral heads” of the reef start only a few meters off the beach and are only 2-3 meters below the surface. The main reef is 400 meters out – if you swam the 440 in high school, and can still do it, you’re good). Xcalak is perhaps the least crowded dive site for the Mesoamerican Reef, and arguably the least spoiled by tourism.

The impact of tourism is perhaps the greatest threat to all of Mexico’s natural wonders, but this is particularly true for coral reefs. You can catch a boat out from the beach at Puerto Morelos in Quintana Roo to see or snorkel Kan Kanán, a huge snake-like construction of hollow pyramids made of cement and micro silica. (Kan Kanán is a guardian serpent in Mayan mythology.) Over a mile long, Kan Kanán lies between the beach and the Mesoamerican Reef; it is the longest artificial reef in the world, intended to protect the coastline from erosion, kickstart the formation of new natural reefs, and regenerate the marine ecosystem. Hope for the future.

Ten Simple Steps to Help Preserve Mexico’s Ecology

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

  1. Sunscreen: wash it off before swimming in lakes, lagoons or ocean bays. Previously, much of coastal Mexico was a natural aquarium, teeming with brightly colored fish and exotic sea life feeding off myriad varieties of coral. Today, many of the most accessible bays and lagoons have a visible oily slick of sunscreen on the surface, with mainly dead coral and greatly reduced sea life. Many inland lakes have also been polluted.

There are still wondrous places to snorkel and dive, mainly accessible by boat. If you are fortunate enough to visit some of these sea or lake homes to see thousands of aquatic creatures, please help preserve them by wearing a sun-guard shirt (an inexpensive teeshirt will do) instead of poisoning the waters with sunscreen.

  1. Picnics: if you carry it in, carry it out. The beaches, vista points and forests in Mexico are great places for a picnic. It’s tempting after an afternoon of eating and drinking to just leave your empties and other trash behind. If you do, you’re basically creating an unattractive garbage dump and providing the animals with materials that can choke or otherwise kill them. It’s so simple to bring and use paper bags to collect your detritus (recyclables in one bag and trash in the other) and dispose of them in bins for recycling.
  2. Flora and fauna: observe but do not disturb. Plants and animals, both on the land and in the water, are fascinating. We can spend hours watching whales playing in a bay, or geckos scrambling around our patio walls, or an octopus hiding under a rock and sending out a tentacle to catch a fish or a sea turtle nesting on a beach. We’ve also watched in horror as people use sticks to poke at iguanas and disfigure other animals, or disturb nests of turtle eggs, or surround whales with multiple motor boats, or dig up plants that support multiple forms of animals. Please remember that you are a guest in their homes and, just as you wouldn’t enter a human home and purposely maim or torment your hosts, be a good guest to the animals and plant life here.
  1. Paths and trails: stay on the beaten path. In addition to not trampling or otherwise disturbing flora and fauna, staying on the beaten path will help you avoid unpleasant encounters with the native life. Many forms of plants and animals in Mexico have developed excellent forms of self-protection, including sharp spines, toxic stingers, pincers and teeth that can deliver a painful bite. Not all snakes rattle or give a warning before they spring. So keep on track and keep your eyes where you are about to step.
  2. Drinking water: avoid plastic bottles. In many places in Mexico the water is fine to drink. If you are at a moderately or expensively priced hotel or restaurant and you are served water from a pitcher, it generally is filtered and potable. The same is true of ice. If you are at an economy-priced place where you are not sure about the hygiene, you can ask for a glass of water from their garafon, the huge jugs of filtered water kept on hand for the staff to use. But please, please, please, help stop the world-wide pollution of the earth with billions of tons of plastic bottles. Until someone figures out how to turn plastic back into its natural components (a future Nobel-Prize-winning discovery), every plastic bottle of water you drink and discard will contribute to choking off life in Mexico and around the world.
  3. Restaurants: no plastic straws or one-use plastic anything. Plastic straws are literally killers. They find their way into the ocean and are gobbled up by short-sighted sea turtles. Hundreds of turtles die each year from ingesting a plastic straw. Many fish and sea-birds are also injured. Other plastic utensils also contribute to the injury and death of marine life. If you must use a straw, at least use a paper straw. But folks, who really needs a straw? Every sip from a plastic straw you take shortens the life of rapidly disappearing species.
  1. Shopping: bring your own bags and select ecofriendly packaging. Buy organic.
    Fortunately, most Mexican supermarkets are legally prohibited from providing plastic bags for packing your purchases. And there are wonderful colorful cloth or other material shopping bags for sale in gift shops and from vendors all over Mexico. They’re not always environmentally friendly but they are easily packed, great souvenirs. But before you even reach the checkout counter, please think ‘green’ before you place something in your shopping cart. Two or three tomatoes really don’t require a thin plastic bag to keep them separate from an avocado; and the avocado comes in its own natural wrapper. By reaching for the fruit and vegetables that are labelled ‘organic’ you may pay a little more, but you are helping keep toxic pesticides out of drinking water and out of the bodies of many living creatures – including your own.
  2. Signs: read them and obey them. Much thought and effort has been spent on placing signs around Mexico to protect wildlife and to protect you. The road signs depicting silhouettes of local fauna are charming – but they are danger signs. Keep your eyes peeled on the road in front of you and to either side and slow down so you can stop in time to avoid an animal that darts out to cross to the other side. The signs on beaches and in parks that have the universal multiple “no” symbol should be studied and heeded. At the very least, they will give you a heads-up about human behavior required to protect life in Mexico. And ultimately, you may be saved from a hefty fine or even drowning.
  3. Showers: keep them short. Many places in Mexico, as throughout the world, are suffering from severe water shortages. You are encouraged to shower off before entering pools to save filtration systems; but all that is required is a quick rinse to remove sand and salt. A long hot shower before you dress is as passé as a flip-top cell phone. Remember to save water in other ways too. Turn off the water while you’re brushing your teeth. If you have a kitchen, fill that dishwasher before you run it. And although washing your hands frequently is highly recommended, turn off the water while you soap and sing the canonical ‘happy birthday’ song twice.
  4. Prevent COVID: You may be on vacation, but the coronavirus never takes time off from work. Until Mexico vaccinates most of its population and enters a low COVID tier, wear your mask, frequently wash your hands and stay at a safe distance. The life you save could be your own.

Oaxaca and Air Quality: Protocols, Accords and Agreements

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

The state of Oaxaca has traditionally been one of Mexico’s top ranked in terms of air quality. That’s because we have virtually no industry except for tourism and agriculture. However, that’s no excuse for our government’s doing relatively little to combat climate change. This is particularly problematic given that, first, the country as a whole has been priding itself on its efforts since 2005, if not earlier, to combat climate change, and second, Oaxaca is being increasingly subjected to the negative impact of environmental change every year.

In early 2005, the Latin American & Iberian Institute at the University of New Mexico published an article entitled “Mexico Strongly Endorses Kyoto Environmental Accord.” Vicente Fox, president at the time, was quoted as saying that Mexico was among the early signatories of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on climate change, contrasting his country with the US, which did not endorse the accord.

Jump to the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change Mitigation, supported by upwards of 200 countries, including (at the time) the US. Mexico was one of the first nations to ratify the agreement. Despite the US having begun formal withdrawal proceedings late last year, Mexico has remained steadfast. In fact, shortly after the US announced its intention to leave, Mexico issued a press release on June 1, 2017, reaffirming its support for and commitment to the agreement. Mexico had been one of the main leaders in the negotiation process, which had taken five years to conclude.

Mexico then went even further. In April 2018, the senate approved harmonizing the agreement’s global goals with the country’s own national legal framework (General Law on Climate Change); 84 votes in favor, 0 against, with one abstention.

That was at the federal level. Turning to Oaxaca, the state is one of the most vulnerable in all of Mexico due to its complex orography, or mountainous topography, having the greatest diversity of climatic zones in the country. Perhaps most importantly, its geographical location is in the narrowest part of the nation; it’s heavily influenced by both the Pacific ocean and the Gulf of Mexico as well as two cyclone forming areas, the Gulf of Tehuantepec and the Caribbean Sea.

Residents of Oaxaca have been experiencing the effects of climate change continuously over the past three decades, at a minimum. Some of the impacts I have been witnessing include:

· Our hot season begins earlier than traditionally has been the case.
· Our rainy season is much less predictable than before, with farmers never knowing when to plant and if their crops will grow to their potential, the result being lost revenue. When the rains do arrive, they can be monsoon-like, destroying those very crops, and wreaking havoc in the state capital. Our antiquated drainage system was not built to withstand the new flow pattern.
· Our municipal water delivery system is much less predictable than before, residents never knowing when the water will arrive and to what level their home and business cisterns will be filled. Much more often than even a decade ago, we see water trucks wending the streets delivering up to 20,000 liters at a time to hotels, restaurants, other retainers, and homes.
· Wells run dry, necessitating excavating deeper or people scrambling to find alternative sources of water.

Academia has recognized the gravity of the situation. The state funded university, Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca (UABJO), has instituted a Master’s program in climate change. In 2017, Environmental Science: An Indian Journal, published an article on using Oaxaca’s State Program for Climate Change (Programa Estatal de Cambio Climática) as a planning tool, defining policies to mitigate emissions of greenhouse gases and suggesting adaptations for those in high risk areas.

But throwing pesos at the problem and instituting policies at the federal level, self-lauding all the while, means nothing without enforcement at the local level. True enough, some Oaxacan city residents actively participate in recycling programs, most no longer burn their garbage, and there are nearby villages in which green trash bins are strategically placed no more than 20 yards apart. However, all the protocols, accords and agreements do little without enforcement, except perhaps enabling the government to boast about being a world leader in the fight.

Here in Oaxaca, our verificación program dictates that one must have vehicle emissions tested twice yearly. In some first world jurisdictions, you cannot renew your license plate without proof that your car has passed. In these countries, without a new plate or renewal sticker, the police pull you over. In Oaxaca, on the other hand, you renew your plate (if so inclined), and part of the fee covers the emissions test. Once your car passes, you get a sticker. But only late-model vehicles seem to appear at the testing facilities, given that owners of older cars know they won’t pas, and that state enforcement is effectively non-existent.

Rent a car. Tell the rental agent you will be driving out of Oaxaca state. Then, and only then, will you get a vehicle that has been tested and has the sticker. While other states do enforce, everyone knows that Oaxaca does not, though there is a law on the books. With my own car I have been stopped outside of Oaxaca when I have not had the sticker, but never in my home state.

Just look at the black smoke spewing out of some city of Oaxaca transit buses. Does government really care, or does it all simply enable Oaxaca to appear in the federal government’s good books?

There are issues with emissions control programs. They have been scrapped in some first world jurisdictions due to equity concerns, test accuracy and their questionable impact on air quality. Regardless, the point is that without enforcement, rules and regulations mean nothing, and are just window dressing.

Let’s assume there was enforcement. Yes, it would be unfair to car owners of modest means to be compelled to pay the same amount as the wealthy for emissions testing. However, banning their clunkers from the road would likely result in greater use of public transit, meaning bus companies would have more revenue to upgrade vehicles and it would be easier for government to enforce laws against public transit culprits. Commuter parking lots and mass transit are still rare in Oaxaca, though dedicated bus lanes have arrived. With a bit of enforcement, the city would be a better place in which to live, and to visit.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

Trash to Cash: The Positive Impact of Scavenging on the Mexican Economy

By Kary Vannice

On November 18, 2020, the Mexican Senate approved a bill that first had been proposed back in February of 2019. The bill proposes an overhaul of waste management at every link in the supply chain, starting with city garbage collection and ending with a “zero waste” circular economy where all garbage is either recycled, reused or composted.

However, there is one critical link in the chain that is often overlooked by policy makers because it comprises the politically disenfranchised and socially marginalized poor – scavengers.

In 2014, a study sponsored by Boston University estimated that somewhere between 500,000 and 4 million people scavenge through trash for a living in Latin America. Six years and at least a dozen economic crises later, it’s only logical that number is now much higher. And like much of the rest of Latin America, Mexico has not been spared economic hardship in the last six years.

When interviewed by Bloomberg Law, Rusty Getter of Balcones Resources, an American environmental services company with close ties to the Mexican recycling sector said, “Any significant change in the Mexican waste processing landscape will be a major challenge and affect untold throngs of people who currently depend on that stream for their livelihood.”

He went on: “I would go so far as to say that the true recycling rate in Mexico is significantly higher than that of the U.S., due to the fact that the ‘hand-picked’ commodity volume can apparently allow a family to eke out a subsistence income.”

According to Greenpeace, Mexico produces more than 37.5 million tons of garbage a year. And while Greenpeace and other environmental organizations are applauding the bill on the grounds that it will mean reductions in land based pollutants as well as improvements in both air and water quality, they are leaving out the fact that families who make their living from scavenging trash bins and dumpsters may suffer if the government’s total cleanup a success.

Martin Medina, a Mexican-born political scientist, has dedicated his life to the study of trash scavengers. He remembers as a child often seeing men, women and even children picking through piles of garbage in the Mexican town where he grew up. He is one of the world leaders on the underground economy of turning trash to cash and just what it means to local, regional and national economies.

His studies have helped shed light on what most societies and governments would prefer to keep in the dark, or at least push to the outskirts of what they consider to be civilized living. In an article published by ReVista: Harvard Review of Latin America, Medina broke down the numbers of the true economic impact of the life of the lowly scavenger:

The World Bank estimates that about 15 million people worldwide work as scavengers. Assuming a median income of US$5 a person per day, their global economic impact is at least US$21.6 billion dollars a year, and about US$7 billion in Latin America. Scavenging cuts down on imports of raw materials, which enables the country to save hard currency. Scavenger-recovered materials are often exported, thus generating hard currency. In Argentina and other countries, for instance, PET, the clear plastic used to make beverage containers, is exported to China, where it is recycled into new products. … In Brazil alone, scavenging has an annual economic impact of about US$3 billion.

But plastics aren’t the only high ticket item here in Mexico. Medina’s article also pointed out that wood pulp in Mexico is seven times more costly than the recycled wastepaper recovered by scavengers. Couple this with the fact that recycling factories are cheaper to build and use less energy, and all of a sudden, those scavengers are dramatically helping to reduce a company’s bottom line.

Medina also often debunks the myth that scavengers have no place in the modern waste management systems. He argues that relying heavily on advanced technology not only reduces the number of available jobs, but also edges out the critical link scavengers play in the garbage chain. They essentially offer free labor to municipalities. Their positive impacts are not only economic, but also environmental, since they contribute to more items being recycled than normally would be, which saves both energy and water. It also means fewer raw materials are needed to manufacture goods, thus reducing the destruction of Mexico’s valuable natural resources.

While last month’s “Zero Waste” bill did pass, the means to achieve that lofty goal have yet to be determined. Perhaps Mexican policy makers, like Medina, will see scavengers as part of the solution and not the problem, and find ways to ensure they can continue to feed their families and positively impact the Mexican economy.

The Ahuehuete, Mexico’s National Tree

By Julie Etra

Designated the National Tree of Mexico in 1921, officially confirmed in 1924, the evergreen ahuehuete tree has a complex linguistic background. Taxodium mucronatum, the ahuehuete tree or Montezuma bald cypress, is called ahuehetl in náhuatl, which means “water drum” or “old water” (atl = “water” and hueheutl = “old”). The “old” part refers to the epiphytes that festoon the ahuehuete tree; these are lichens or bromeliads often attached to and hanging from the branches.

The ahuehuete also has numerous common names associated with the indigenous language of the particular area where it is growing; for example, in Oaxaca it is known as tnuyucu or t-nuyucul in Mixteca and yagaguichiciña in Zapotec. It is related to the giant sequoias of northern California as well as the bald cypress found in the southeastern United States. The Spaniards named the tree sabino as it resembled a pine from their mother country.

The ahuehuete grows throughout Mexico, but its complete range runs from southern Texas to Guatemala; it is found in a wide range of climates, from the semi-hot to temperate to cold. It is associated with water – riparian (riverbank) areas, springs, or high groundwater, and is remarkably fast growing. Rate of growth can be up to six feet per year on good soils, but will grow fast even under drought conditions. It has an unusually thick trunk toward the base, even on young trees. In maturity, it has a broad-topped, spreading shape.

Perhaps some readers of The Eye have had the opportunity to visit the Tule Tree (El Árbol del Tule), the enormous specimen of Mexico’s national tree in Santa María del Tule on the outskirts of Oaxaca City (see Alvin Starkman’s article elsewhere in this issue). At 48 meters (over 157 feet) in circumference, its trunk is the largest of any known tree in the world, although the tree is only 43 meters (about 141 feet) in height. It is also one of the oldest trees on the planet, at about 2000 years old according to carbon dating.

But where is the water it’s supposed to need? Like the ancient Lago del México, the location of modern CDMX (and ancient Tenochtitlan), there used to be a lake at Santa María del Tule; it was surrounded by marshes, supporting lush growth of bulrushes and cypresses. Hence the name “Tule,” the common Mexican name for the long-gone bulrush. In recent archaeological excavations at Tlapacoya II, in the state of México, an ahuehuete trunk was located in a layer carbon-dated as being 23,150 +/- 950 years old, indicating ancient riparian forests that no longer exist.

Before the arrival of the Spaniards and the subsequent conquest, the Mexica group of Aztecs cultivated the trees as ornamental and shade plantings in the center of their chinampas (floating agricultural systems) and along pathways throughout the Basin of Mexico, which included six lakes.

Designated the National Tree of Mexico in 1921, officially confirmed in 1924, the evergreen ahuehuete tree has a complex linguistic background. Taxodium mucronatum, the ahuehuete tree or Montezuma bald cypress, is called ahuehetl in náhuatl, which means “water drum” or “old water” (atl = “water” and hueheutl = “old”). The “old” part refers to the epiphytes that festoon the ahuehuete tree; these are lichens or bromeliads often attached to and hanging from the branches.

The ahuehuete also has numerous common names associated with the indigenous language of the particular area where it is growing; for example, in Oaxaca it is known as tnuyucu or t-nuyucul in Mixteca and yagaguichiciña in Zapotec. It is related to the giant sequoias of northern California as well as the bald cypress found in the southeastern United States. The Spaniards named the tree sabino as it resembled a pine from their mother country.

The ahuehuete grows throughout Mexico, but its complete range runs from southern Texas to Guatemala; it is found in a wide range of climates, from the semi-hot to temperate to cold. It is associated with water – riparian (riverbank) areas, springs, or high groundwater, and is remarkably fast growing. Rate of growth can be up to six feet per year on good soils, but will grow fast even under drought conditions. It has an unusually thick trunk toward the base, even on young trees. In maturity, it has a broad-topped, spreading shape.

Perhaps some readers of The Eye have had the opportunity to visit the Tule Tree (El Árbol del Tule), the enormous specimen of Mexico’s national tree in Santa María del Tule on the outskirts of Oaxaca City (see Alvin Starkman’s article elsewhere in this issue). At 48 meters (over 157 feet) in circumference, its trunk is the largest of any known tree in the world, although the tree is only 43 meters (about 141 feet) in height. It is also one of the oldest trees on the planet, at about 2000 years old according to carbon dating.

But where is the water it’s supposed to need? Like the ancient Lago del México, the location of modern CDMX (and ancient Tenochtitlan), there used to be a lake at Santa María del Tule; it was surrounded by marshes, supporting lush growth of bulrushes and cypresses. Hence the name “Tule,” the common Mexican name for the long-gone bulrush. In recent archaeological excavations at Tlapacoya II, in the state of México, an ahuehuete trunk was located in a layer carbon-dated as being 23,150 +/- 950 years old, indicating ancient riparian forests that no longer exist.

Before the arrival of the Spaniards and the subsequent conquest, the Mexica group of Aztecs cultivated the trees as ornamental and shade plantings in the center of their chinampas (floating agricultural systems) and along pathways throughout the Basin of Mexico, which included six lakes.

The trees lined the canals and were planted in the pre-Hispanic parks and gardens, which were abundant – Mexico has had a long and storied love affair with gardens, and particularly trees.

Ahuehuetes were a major feature of the gardens of Moctezuma, and before him Nezahualcoyotl (see the 100-peso bill). And it undoubtedly sheltered Hernan Cortés on the Noche Triste, the Night of Sorrows, where he supposedly wept as his invading army of Spanish conquistadors and their native allies were driven out of the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan (not for long). As the lakes have been drained and paved, many of these trees have succumbed to loss of habitat and altered hydrology.

Pre-Hispanic Mexicans prepared various parts of the tree for medicinal purposes. They burned the bark for an astringent, to heal burns, scars, and skin ulcers. Other medicinal ailments were treated through the preparation of resin, leaves, buds, stems, fruit, and bark included edema, heart conditions, diarrhea, and hemorrhoids. The wood was used for furniture and beam construction, and burned as fuel. Ahuehuete trunks, due to their hardness and resistance to rot, were used to make canoes.

Ahuehuetes also had spiritual and mythic significance, and were considered ancestors, brothers and/or gods associated with creation stories. The Mixteco chiefs of Apoala (northwest of Oaxaca City) believed that the gods and the first chiefs originated from the branches of majestic trees growing adjacent to rivers. The “broken tree” (arbol quebrado) myth of the Mexica, which is portayed in the Codice Boturini, represents the birth of the Mexica people as an independent nation. In general, pre-Hispanic texts reference the religious, magic, and cosmic properties of trees, particularly those species that grow close to rivers and springs.

Another legend about the ahuehuete is related to its use as temporary housing. By divine mandate a husband and wife took shelter in the hollow trunk of an ahuehuete in anticipation of a flood. The gods drained the land and the couple survived. Currently, among the people of the Huasteca (a geographical and cultural region of the Meso-American Huastec people – it runs along the Gulf coast and inland to include parts of five states in central Mexico) – the tree plays a role in the holiday celebration of the initiation of planting, in accordance with the agriculture calendar. Other current religious rites consist of petitioning the gods for rain by wrapping a statue of San Antonio de Padua in braided roots of the ahuehuete, then burying the statue in a well dug near the river. Archaeobotanical studies have revealed that branches of the ahuehuete were used as offerings in a variety of religious ceremonies, particularly in the Basin of Mexico.

Through its continued traditional and religious uses, therapeutic qualities, versatility in construction, and use as a fuel, the ahuehuete maintains is its place in contemporary Mexican culture.

Even Guinness Acknowledges Oaxaca’s Famous Tree

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

In the town of Santa María del Tule, just seven miles and no more than a 15-minute drive from the city of Oaxaca, stands the tree with the widest girth in the world. Both Guinness World Records and National Geographic acknowledge the stature of this 2,000-year-old Montezuma cypress (Taxodium mucronatum). Attracting more visitors every year than any other tourism site in the entire state, the tree means much more to the residents of the region than simply its record-breaking size. And no, despite the occasional suggestion to the contrary, it’s not the oldest or tallest tree, nor the one with the greatest volume. In Spanish this type of cypress is known as a sabino, in Nahuatl as an ahuehuete, and in Zapotec as yagaguichiciña.

Santa María del Tule derives its name from two sources:

1. Its 18th-century church, dubbed El Templo de Santa María de la Asunción (Temple of the Virgin Mary of the Assumption).
2. Tule, which comes from the Nahuatl word tulle or tullin which means bulrush; the municipality used to be a lake surrounded by marshes including cypress trees, and bulrushes.

Because of the tree’s economic importance to the town and municipality, and indeed for the state of Oaxaca, over the years all levels of government, even the feds, have taken steps to ensure its continued health and more importantly its haughty worldwide status. In fact, Mexico has recognized the tree as part of the country’s heritage (Patrimonio de México).

In addition to a large complement of employees, which of course includes security police, the tree employs two full-time arborists to keep it in good spirits. When the botanists became concerned about the likely adverse impact over time of vehicular gasoline and diesel fumes and the sheer weight of all that traffic, the main highway to and from the tree was actually moved a hundred yards or so away. The old road was converted into a pedestrian corridor.

Because of its size and the impact of climate change, a further concern became water shortage. Thus a well was dug, and an underground sprinkler system was installed, extending far out from the trunk so as to guarantee the root system did not shrivel and die of thirst.

This part of the town has about a dozen other large cypress trees, one of which is roughly 1,500 years old and in close proximity to its older sister. About a decade ago one of the trees was struck and damaged by lightning. As a consequence, the authorities decided that the lightning rod at the time was not close enough to most of the trees, and so a new one was erected to better ensure against lightning strikes.

Once its massive girth became acknowledged by pre-Hispanic populations such as the Mixe, Mixtec and Zapotec ethnic groups, the tree was worshipped and in fact became the subject of mythology. Both the town’s baroque church and the municipal offices were constructed right beside the tree, a recognition of its importance at least for indigenous groups, long before the tourism boom.

Tourists only began to flock in earnest in the 1940s with the arrival of the Pan American highway system. With the locals already converging at the tree for ritual, what better way to attempt to have them recognize the importance of modern government and Catholicism than to erect buildings right there, alongside and almost on top of the tree. Even today, when town gatherings are convened, two men stand atop the government offices and blow a conch as a reminder of an imminent meeting.

A gardener’s delight, the grounds are kept immaculate, in large part as a result of the irrigation system. Trees, bushes, flowering shrubs and topiaries abound. The grass puts to shame the greens of the golf course just outside the state capital. With the lovely natural environment in front of the church and tree, the town has become a favorite spot for Oaxacans to celebrate weddings and quinceañera parties (when a young girl turns 15), and it’s a photographer’s dream. And with the site’s increasing popularity for rites of passage festivities, numerous event halls have sprung up within walking distance of the tree and church, one of which is a restored hacienda.

Weekends, especially Sundays, have become customary days for Oaxacans to visit the tree for family outings. Accordingly, a plethora of restaurants, smaller eateries and stalls selling barbacoa and carnitas have become favorite brunch and comida spots for not only locals from Oaxaca, but also national and international tourists. The town marketplace now houses a large craft section where one can pick up all manner of Oaxacan crafts.

Regardless of your interest in visiting Oaxaca, the short drive to Santa María del Tule should be a must for everyone arriving in the city, or for that matter anywhere in the central valley districts. It’s along the highway that takes you to Teotitlán del Valle (rugs), Tlacochahuaya (16th century church with restored 17th century German organ), the Sunday market at Tlacolula, mezcal factories, the ruin at Mitla and Hierve el Agua (bubbling springs).

The Montezuma cypress at Santa María del Tule is still growing, and boasts roughly:

· Age of 2,000 years
· Height of 40 meters
· Weight of 630 tons
· Circumference of 40 meters
· Diameter of 12 meters

Alvin Starkman first visited Santa María del Tule in 1969. A permanent resident of Oaxaca, he operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).