Written by Justine Kelly
Over the past few decades, Sayulita, a small fishing village along Mexico’s 200-mile Riviera Nayarit coastline, has grown into a boutique eco-tourism and retiree destination. It’s known among surfers for its consistent river mouth surf break. The town has a water treatment plant built in 2009, it recycles its rubbish, and many restaurants use only ‘organic’ locally grown food. A common conversation in many cafes around its pretty stone plaza is how to improve the town’s sustainability. This would be an almost idyllic community but for the fact that its small river is heavily polluted.
Unaware of the extent of pollution flowing in the river, foreign tourists and expat surfers wonder about the constant flu and respiratory trouble they suffer from after swallowing the water in Sayulita and other Nayarit beaches.
“We only surf when the water is moving [out] and taking the waste from the river out to sea,” says Mitch Carr, an Australian surfer and long term Sayulita resident. He has a respiratory complaint and lethargy for a few months, but believes he had just some bad luck with a “one-off bit of e-coli” infection and that his immune system is low. He continues surfing daily.
But local Mexicans are aware that the respiratory, bronchial, and stomach problems that people suffer from after swimming and surfing here may be caused by industrial waste that pollutes the once-great El Rio Grande de Santiago or Santiago River — the source of their river and all of the rivers that flow down to the tourism zones of Jalisco and Riviera Nayarit.
They also know that beaches of Riviera Nayarit often host high levels of Enterococcus, a strain of e-coli bacteria that causes various respiratory and stomach infections and is resistant to antibiotics. Enterococcus is often generated as waste in the production of antibiotics. It can also come from agricultural waste. SEMARNAT, Mexico’s environmental agency, rates 100 enterococcus per 1000 ml (1 quart) of water as acceptable. The number deemed safe by the US Environmental Agency is 35 per 1000 ml.
In March 2013, when SEMARNAT deemed all beaches along the Pacific coast as safe, but the beach waters at San Francisco (known as San Pancho locally) five miles north of Sayulita, had a Enterococcus reading of 75 — double the acceptable limit in the US. During the peak tourist season last July, the bacteria count in Sayulita was so high that SEMARNAT posted a warning on its website. The warning was not reported to tourists.
Local Mexicans also don’t eat fish caught from the river during the wet season, when the rivers flow is high. They avoid eating seafood in the rainy season when the rivers swell and gush, instead of trickle, into the sea. Most don’t swim at Sayulita beach, where the river merges into the Pacific Ocean, but go around the corner to the smaller less picturesque beach, Playa de Muertos.
Meanwhile, American and Canadian tourists and expats in Sayulita and other resort towns along Nayarita’s picturesque coastline seem perplexed, even insulted, by the suggestion the waters here could contain industrial waste and infectious bacteria. Part of the problem is that they don’t speak Spanish and can’t read the Spanish newspapers. Instead they get English language papers selling real estate and eco dreams.
The problem of water pollution in the region is like a big elephant sitting on the beach — the Mexicans see it but the foreigners don’t.
The Way the Waters Flow
A journey through central Mexico’s industrial heart reveals a glimpse of its pre-Colombian glory, when all waters connected to form a super highway for the Aztecs empire. Flat boats and canoes carrying colorful fruits and exotic food travelled the water system to Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital (now Mexico City). The rivers and lakes still all flow into each other but humans now use them for quite a different purpose — the disposal of waste.
From Mexico’s biggest lake, Lake Chapala which is situated between Guadalajara and Mexico City, the Santiago River begins its journey to the Pacific Coast. It moves north through industrial zones outside of Guadalajara and the heavy industry zone of Ocotlán.
Near Ocotlán are the twin towns of Juanacatlán and El Salto that face one another across the Santiago River and are connected by a bridge. Once a huge waterfall dominated the landscape where the bridge is today and the river was the center of the towns’ life.
The magnificent El Salto Falls was the “Niagara of Mexico” but it has now been reduced to a putrid trickle best avoided. In 2008 and 2009, a series of frightening images and videos showed the El Salto Falls choked with white foam from industrial effluents, causing the local government and industries a lot of embarrassment.
Valentino Llanas, who has run the grocery store across the road from the El Salto Fall bridge in Juanacatlán, told me that until 2010 the river smelled so badly of acid that nobody could go near. It no longer smells, but it is shallow and the water has a slight yellow tinge.
From Ocotlán, the Santiago flows through massive agricultural zones that produce crops like alfalfa and tomatoes for local and international consumption. (There’s a gigantic Wal-Mart food production center back at Ocotlán). Twenty-four miles northeast of Tepic, the capital of Nayarit state, the river’s flow is regulated by the Aguamilpa Hydro Electric Dam.
This region is home to communities of the Cora and Huichol Indigenous people who say the river water has been making them sick.
In March 2012, the president of the Foundation for Defense Wirrarika of Nayarit, Braulio Muñoz Hernandez, requested Mexicoo’s National Water Commission to investigate the pollution level in the waters near the dam. But so far, no study has been done of either the waters or of its impact on the health of people living near the river.
The Santiago also breaks off into the Huaynamota River not far from here. This tributary river is around 174 miles long and runs southeast for around 1,920 miles along the coast of Nayarit, an area tourists love to visit, and eventually branches into several smaller rivers, including the San Blas River, the San Francisco River, and the Sayulita River.
How long it takes for pollutants to reach the coast and how concentrated they are depends on many factors including rainfall and river water levels, hydrological experts say. It also depends on what the factories are flushing their waste into the rivers at given points in time, they say. While many factories do treat their waste, many others don’t.
So What’s in the Rivers?
Research conducted by the Mexican Institute of Water Technology (IMTA) between 2009 and 2011 revealed Rio Santiago contained 1,090 chemicals, including volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds released by pharmaceutical and cosmetic factories. Some of these are highly toxic substances such as phthalates (known hormone disruptors), phenols (compounds that affect neurological development), toluene (a neurotoxin). They also included residues from flame retardants (carcinogens and hormone disruptors) used in textile and clothing manufacturing.
The discharge inventory for the state of Jalisco states that there are 266 known discharges into the Santiago River. The chemical-pharmaceutical industry contributes 36.5 percent, the food and beverage industry 15 percent, the textile industry 12.3 percent and the rest is the paper and tequila industries.
A 2012 Greenpeace report named the companies responsible for illegal discharges as Huntsman International, Nestlé, IBM, Hilasal, Cervecería Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma, Casa Cuervo, Grupo Celanese, Cervecería Modelo Guadalajara, Servicios Estrella and Azul de Occidente.
Local doctors in El Salto and Juanacatlán have cited an increase in diseases including leukemia and congenital birth defects but there are no reliable statistics due to the high cost involved in carrying out these studies. The limited research done indicates that in Juanacatlán in 2005 the main cause of death was respiratory diseases and the second cause was cancer.
Mexico does have industrial waste treatment regulations but they are poorly enforced. The Mexican government lacks the infrastructure to monitor waste management. It also lacks the incentive to prosecute multinational companies for fear of potential loss of industry.
“The authorities prefer to save information on industrial pollution of Santiago River to protect and license polluters, rather than recognize and report serious risks to which populations are exposed every day and take immediate action to resolve this conflict socio-environmental,” says Maria Gonzalez Valencia, director of the Mexican Institute for Community Development.
In 2008, former Mexican president Felipe Calderón launched a national wastewater treatment fund to revolutionize Mexico’s water and wastewater infrastructure. This has helped with the cosmetic cleanup of the Santiago River. In Juanacatlán, Valentino Llanas shows me the new working treatment plant and a recreational playground that is being built next to the bridge where the great El Salto Fall once crashed (the flow is much lower now) .
However, as a band-aid is laid over one part of the river, a wound is inflicted in another. As recently as January 2013, Greenpeace accused Levi of polluting the San Pedro River, that also flows out of (or into) Lake Chapala and shares its water with the Santiago River.
The clean reputation of Riviera Nayarit’s beaches are worth millions to the tourism industry and real estate interests. But more than money, it affects the lives of the thousands of locals and expats who live here all year round, as well as visiting tourists.
In towns such as Sayulita and San Pancho, the residents have a sense of control over their immediate environment. For example, in San Pancho, expats have turned an old warehouse into a community center called EntreAmigos that includes a free library for local children, Spanish and English classes, an organic restaurant, and workshops where local artists use recycled plastic and other discarded materials to make artworks and crafts. Residents also have the freedom to build unique eco-houses without complicated applications and council approvals. There’s a strong focus on living slow, living sustainable, and living within your means.
But it’s almost as if the foreigners here are living in a “green daze” — ignoring the reality that their water is connected to the greater, much threatened and polluted, river systems of Mexico. All waters connect.
This post was originally published by the Earth Island Journal.
Photo: Carnaval King 08/flickr
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