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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 / March 4, 2008

Changed man: Gonzalo Rodriguez used to burn his trash. Now, he's spearheading a push for increased environmental awareness.

Sara Miller Llana


Ixhuatlan del Sureste, Mexico

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.

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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.

"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.