Magazine article Geographical

A Mexican Warning

Magazine article Geographical

A Mexican Warning

Article excerpt

Imagine serene white Mexican beaches, ancient Aztec cities and lush green forests. Now take a look at these pictures. Julie Cohen reports on how behind the idyllic veneer, Mexico's natural environment is close to collapse.

MEXICO IS FAST BECOMING one of the most popular destinations for holidaymakers worldwide. The number of British tourists visiting Mexico has gone up by a staggering 145 per cent in the last five years. Yet, in the past few decades, unfettered industrial development and population growth have ravaged Mexico's wild places, stripping away ten per cent of its tropical rainforests, polluting nearly all its rivers and lakes with often lethal chemicals and notoriously producing the world's most polluted capital, Mexico City.

Here, the lingering smell of sulphur -- pumped out by 60,000 factories, four million cars, 200,000 buses and 35,000 taxis -- hits you the moment you set foot in the city. Some days the yellow haze which hugs the skyline is so dense it can feel like you are sucking the air through a narrow straw. Even on normal days the air is so bad that it is common to see mothers covering their children's mouths in an attempt to protect them from the vile pollution.

As the problem has intensified, the city's 18 million inhabitants have had to adjust their lives according to the level of pollution that day. Sometimes the smog is so bad joggers are advised not to take their exercise and many people prefer to stay indoors away from the noxious, eye-stinging fumes.

In an attempt to relieve this critical situation, the government has set Up schemes which limit the number of cars in the city. On normal days, a fifth of vehicles are banned from the roads based on a rotation system of licence-plate numbers. When days of smog emergencies are declared, the factories cut back activity by between 30 to 40 per cent and two out of every five motorists are banned from driving.

One of the reasons the pollution is so intense in Mexico City is that it is located in a 113 kilometre-wide basin ringed by mountains. This prevents the fumes from dispersing. The situation is aggravated further by the heat. In most cities, ozone levels of 100 points or above are considered unsatisfactory and those above 200 are considered harmful. Last year, the ozone level in Mexico City reached a high of 250 points.

Apart from the obvious unpleasantness, the pollution has serious health implications. Jose Luis Benitez Gil, chairman of the environmental committee of the city's legislative body says the high levels of lead in the atmosphere are affecting the pulmonary functions of residents. Children and the elderly are more vulnerable. In the case of school children, the high concentrations of lead have been proven to cause neurological damage and have had a direct effect on learning and cognitive function. For very young children the pollutants can sometimes be fatal. Environmental health researcher Margarita Castillejos of the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana (UAM) says minute particles of sulphur dioxide and nitric dioxide blowing from industrial parks in the city have affected infants and school children. Last April, she published a study of records of children under one year old which found an average of three deaths per day in the south western area of Mexico City between 1993 and 1995. She believes the contaminated air contributed to the infants' lung damage.

Environmental decay throughout the whole of Mexico is now fuelling an enormous social crisis with far ranging implications for the entire continent. Peasants whose land has been degraded by the use of chemical fertilisers routinely burn their plots to restore nutrients to the degraded soil. These fires often bum out of control, igniting huge tracts of forest.

In the first six months of last year, fires raged throughout Mexico burning approximately 2,000 square kilometres of forest. Most of the fires are thought to have been caused by farming practices, including slash and burn agriculture. …

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