Migratory Birds Die in Droves: Can NAFTA Come to the Rescue?
THERE are no more green-billed teals or northern pintail ducks floating on the dull, steel-gray Silva Reservoir. The water's edge begins to tell the story.Skip to next paragraph
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Mixed in among the detritus of everyday human consumption strewn along the reservoir's fetid shore are bills, bones, and feathers of more than 25,000 North American migratory birds that have perished since mid-December at their winter home.
Environmentalists in Leon, a shoe-manufacturing and leather-processing center in central Mexico's Guanajuato State, are still arguing over why the egrets, ibises, and grebes died this year.
What is not open to debate is that the deaths have drawn attention to the complete impunity with which Leon, surrounding towns, and local industries have fouled the waters on which the area depends.
In this era of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and heightened transnational environmental concerns, the tragedy has also taken on international overtones since the birds - from 21 different species, many on United States endangered lists and a few protected by a ``tripartite'' (US, Canada, and Mexico) agreement - will not be returning north.
``This should be an important lesson for our northern neighbors that it is not good enough to protect these birds in the United States or Canada,'' says Homero Aridjis, president of the prominent Mexico City environmental organization, Grupo de los Cien (Group of 100). ``If they spend the winter in other countries, they may never come back.''
Environmentalists and residents around the 100-year-old Silva Reservoir were quick to blame the birds' demise on the leather and chemical plants that dump their untreated waste into streams that feed Silva and nearby reservoirs.
But the National Water Commission (CNA) says its studies found high concentrations of the chemical endosulfan, a chlorine compound used as a pesticide, in the ducks it studied. The commission emphasizes that neither local tanneries nor farmers are known to use the chemical.
That explanation met with heavy skepticism from environmentalists and local experts. ``Before the CNA spoke of 17 suspicious factories that might be responsible, but now they come up with a pesticide that exonerates all the known polluters,'' Mr. Aridjis says. ``I think they're trying to cover up.''
Martha Ramirez, a Leon biologist with the Ecological Foundation of Guanajuato, says the CNA earlier reported finding chrome in the ducks. Chrome oxide is a toxic chemical used heavily in the tanning industry. ``We don't accept the pesticide explanation,'' she says, ``but we fear the investigation into other possible causes has been slowed by economic and political interests.''
In Leon, some four hours north of Mexico City, more than 500 leather and related factories operate. Les leather industry uses many chemicals to prepare some 15,000 hides processed here every day, but the city and plants still do not treat any of their waste water. The city is scheduled to open its first water-treatment plants - one for household waste water, one for industry - in February 1996. In the meantime, waste pours into local streams and rivers.