Foresight will curb flood damage

Following this month's deluge, one of Mexico's governors aims to reverse past environmental wrongs.

As Mexico wrings out after damaging floods, complaints of bureaucratic muck-ups and corruption are rising faster than a rain-gorged river. But areas whose governments had a dose of foresight are hoping for calm after the storm.

Like Veracruz. In this Gulf coast state, hit hard by October rains, response has involved less finger-pointing and more self-searching.

"For too long we have followed a chaotic development pattern, building where we shouldn't with no respect for nature," says Carlos Castaeda Gonzlez, mayor of Gutirrez Zamora, a heavily damaged farming town. No one agency or former government is responsible, he says. "All of us with public authority are guilty."

A new philosophy

That thinking reflects a new philosophy in Veracruz, where, even before the storms hit, the state government under a new governor began efforts to reverse past environmental wrongs and promote development more compatible with nature's flow.

Two weeks ago Gutirrez Zamora, population 15,000 and located along the Tecolutla River near the Gulf coast, was under water. The town lost 700 houses, a small but devastating part of the estimated 110,000 houses that were either heavily damaged or destroyed across a swatch of south-central Mexico.

The month of flooding caused more than 400 deaths across six Mexican states.

The previously little known Gutirrez Zamora became the focus of national attention when TV cameras captured dramatic scenes of helicopters snatching stranded residents from roofs and treetops that had become their final refuge from the swirling mire around them.

Today public work crews of local adults and children earning $5 a day are shoveling mud out of houses, businesses, and streets, as soldiers operate heavy equipment. Century-old cedars and other trees that were tossed about like toothpicks are being sawed up and cleared.

Mayor Castaeda says the 700 destroyed houses will be replaced. But he vows that old practices of building in river channels will be stopped, and a rush to rebuild will not be an excuse for opening the door to the shoddy materials or building practices that have been the trademarks of corrupt development schemes in the past.

Much of the credit for new thinking about development and respect for the environment is going to Veracruz Gov. Miguel Alemn Velasco. Son of a former president, Mr. Alemn took office 11 months ago saying the state's development pattern had to change.

In April, before the year's rains began - in fact while the state was still suffering a severe drought - the governor signed a decree paving the way for what will eventually be the relocation of as many as 20,000 families now living in houses built in natural river beds and other high-risk zones. With the phrase "Rivers have memories" - and with the devastation of Central America as a consequence of last year's hurricane Mitch still a vivid memory - Alemn launched a plan that goes from reforestation in stripped and destabilized watersheds to environmental education for schoolchildren.

'No respect' for the environment

"There is no respect" for the environment, says Alemn, we do "nothing favoring our rivers, lagoons, and woods ... It's a problem of culture, and we don't have it." Speaking of this lack of a "green" culture with a group of foreign journalists, Alemn says "the development we need for progress must be carried out now without hurting the environment." Farmers have to be taught to stop the age-old practice of burning fields, and rural residents must be given alternatives to clearing forests for cropland and firewood.

As for the common practice of public officials issuing permits for construction in high-risk zones, often without extending basic services such as drainage or sewage treatment, Alemn says, "It's criminal."

Although he says his focus is less on pointing fingers at past mistakes than on how to change things now, Aleman says the state's attorney general is already investigating eight cases of suspected illegal action by public officials involving development in restricted zones.

And more cases will depend on the public coming forward and denouncing them, he says.

Placing the blame

A few of Veracruz's opposition mayors have accused past ruling-party governors of paving the way for the glut of illegal housing and other developments.

But the highest-profile charges involve the neighboring state of Tabasco.

Mexican Environment Minister Julia Carabias last week blamed past governors of the state - including Roberto Madrazo, a presidential candidate for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) - for allowing landfills and developments in high-risk areas that ended up inundated by the rising floodwaters.

Water continues to rise around Tabasco's capital city of Villahermosa after the federal government opened the floodgates on a bursting reservoir located upstream on the Grijalva River.

Mr. Madrazo, who is not the favorite of the PRI establishment, characterized the response of federal authorities to the floods in the Tabasco area as a "political blow, obviously to try to slow my candidacy" for the PRI's presidential nomination.

But beyond simply criticizing past actions, Ms. Carabias and other environmental officials say Mexico must rebuild after the recent rains with the understanding that similar storms are likely to be more commonplace in the future.

Citing rising average temperatures and the effect of carbon emissions, they say the likelihood of more extreme weather like the October storms makes "green" development all the more important.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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