In Mexico, a clean-air bucket brigade

A grass-roots group to monitor air quality has sprouted in one of Latin America's largest industrial corridors.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Changed man: Gonzalo Rodriguez used to burn his trash. Now, he's spearheading a push for increased environmental awareness.
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As most people here, Gonzalo Rodriguez grew up with little environmental consciousness. He often washed up with chlorine and burned his plastic bags of trash.

Today he walks around this southern Mexican town with a clear plastic bucket equipped with a vacuum, which he uses to draw and test air from this industrial corridor, one of Latin America's largest.

He is a leader of the country's first "bucket brigade" to test air for hazardous pollutants. And he hopes that with this project, a low-cost initiative that depends on community participation, he can awaken that same environmental consciousness within others – particularly young people. He and his family have mobilized dozens of their neighbors, friends, and family to force industry standards and more government oversight.

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"Some people think we are crazy," said Rodriguez on a recent day, sporting a beige "Bucket Brigade" cap. "We know that we aren't."

While bucket brigades have sprouted up in industrial communities across the US in the past decade, this is the first of its kind in Mexico. Supported by a US nonprofit and led by a group of small farmers and fishermen called the Ecological Producers Association of Tatexco (Apetac), the project has been limited to this petrochemical and refinery hub, but leaders are hoping to expand to neighboring states. The goal: to bolster "social consciousness" in the face of weak pollution laws and the sheer power of big industry.

Apetac's most important role "is organizing rural people on the impact of hydrocarbon [pollutants]," says Lorenzo Bozada, an ecologist who has documented pollution here since the 1970s. "To be successful, a social consciousness must grow here first."

Growing ecological push

The stretch, rich in oil fields and installations, is one of the heaviest industrial zones in the region. The population here grew by 20 percent in two decades, mostly due to rural workers seeking jobs with the state oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex).

Scientists have long been concerned about the impact that such heavy industry is having on both the environment and residents' health. Studies show high rates of some diseases and contaminants among locals, who also cite anecdotal evidence. Rodriguez's daughter, for example, was born in 1986 with a facial deformation.

A brewing ecological movement here grew in force in the late 90s, after a local fisherman saw a Pemex subcontractor dumping toxic waste in a marshland. The community prevailed in a lawsuit, the first successful prosecution of environmental crime in Mexico's history.

Now organized under the Apetac umbrella and headed by Rodriguez, the movement's 3,000 members seek to increase community participation. They view the "bucket brigade" as the perfect vehicle.

The San Francisco-based Global Community Monitor first launched the low-cost system in the 1990s, and has since trained communities in 19 different countries and 20 US states. They train them not only to collect samples, but to use the data to press companies to clean up and politicians to enforce tighter responsibility laws. "It's an empowerment model," says Denny Larson, who heads the organization.

Their first Latin American project was in Mexico, where they helped launch Apetec's project two years ago. Since then, Rodriguez says, he has trained some 150 people, from fishermen to members of women's groups – but mostly youths. This month they are planning to send a third batch of samples to a lab in the US. (Mexico lacks a certified laboratory of its own.)

The workshops have piqued the interest of many who had never given the environment a thought. "I became curious about what I'm breathing," says Ezequiel Jimenez, who has since become a leader in the youth movement, collecting money to pay for sending samples to the US.

While Mexico does monitor air quality in more than 20 parts of the country, including its infamously polluted capital, Mexico City, there are no government-run monitors in this region, according to the website of the National Institute of Ecology. They did not respond to requests for an interview.

Cecilia Navarro from Greenpeace México says the work of the "bucket brigade" is crucial. This is particularly true, many say, in a country that has weak environmental laws, and where many politicians have not fought against big industry. Their tests revealed high toxin levels, including levels of benzene 130 times higher than the maximum approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency – and carbon disulfide, which has been associated with birth defects and other illnesses.

Apetac has written letters to local politicians about their results, but they still need to carry out more tests, says Bozada, who advises the group.

Controversial effort

Trying to develop environmental consciousness in Ixhuatlan del Sureste has not been easy. Rodriguez was sued by a peroxides plant for defamation. His wife, Julia Cano el Faro, says he is constantly harassed. In pushing against local industry, the group often runs up against Pemex, which funds up to 40 percent of Mexico's national budget. It is also one of the largest employers in the region.

"These efforts have always been controversial," says Anna Zalik, an assistant environmental professor from York University in Canada who helped Apetac launch the "bucket brigade." "People in the region are aware of the environmental impacts, but in this case, the economy is so dependent on that industry. They are concerned about their health, but they are also worried about employment."

She and many others say the Rodriguez family's dogged persistence is paying off. Rodriguez says Pemex has been more responsive to their complaints, and the government has been open to their work. He was recently hired by the local mayor's office to carry out a reforestation project with several community youths.

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