On Yucatán Peninsula, slash and burn endangering forests

HICHIMILA, Yuc. – Since time immemorial, the Maya have inhabited the northern lowlands of what is now the state of Yucatán, a sun-drenched place where pre-Hispanic wooden shacks and dirt roads serve as a reminder of how little life has changed.

The local ecosystem, however, has changed considerably, and not much for the better. The dry tropical woodland has suffered widespread deforestation due to ranching and slash and burn, a nomadic farming practice the Maya have used for ages to sustain their families. Thousands of trees have been burned down to clear the way for cornfields or sacrificed for firewood and building material, threatening to irreversibly alter the area’s unique biodiversity.

In a painful irony, as slash-and-burn agriculture has intensified under pressure from the growing farming community, the resulting erosion and desertification have reduced crop yields. Now hundreds of hectares have been reduced to wasteland.

Photos special to the News/Diodora Bucur

Photos special to the News/Diodora Bucur

Three decades ago, forests accounted for 74 percent of Yucatán’s territory, or 3.2 million hectares, a number that dropped to 52 percent, or 2.2 million hectares by 2000, according to figures from the Yucatán Urban Development and Environment Secretariat. The state lost more than one million hectares of forestland between 1976 and 2000. Meanwhile, agricultural projects gained ground, increasing from 900,000 hectares to 1.8 million hectares over the same period of time.

“While slash and burn agriculture is part of the story, large government colonization projects in the 1970s and subsequent large agricultural projects, such as rice and cattle production, are a big factor in deforestation,” said Peter Klepeis, a professor of geography at Colgate University in New York who has investigated deforestation patterns in southern Mexico .

The Maya benefit from forest clearing in the short term because it provides a form of livelihood, Klepeis said. But over time, the process degrades natural resources, and that makes the Maya more vulnerable to ecological and social shocks such as hurricanes, weeds, soil fertility decline and market changes.

“Helping the Maya communities requires empowering them and expanding their range of choice for livelihood,” Klepeis said.

“In other words, part of the problem is poverty.”

Magdalena Matú Canul and her husband Agustin Kantun get by on only $100 per month. The young family lives in a modest one-room hut off the main road into the village of Chichimila, a one-hour drive from the Maya ruins of Chichén Itza.

“We learned how to use organic fertilizers to enrich the soil and grow fruit and vegetables,” said Matú Canul, a 28-year-old mother of two, while giving a tour of the garden where she grows potatoes, tomatoes, and “flor de jamaica,” or roselle, the plant used to make Mexico’s famous “agua de jamaica” drink.

Still, most farmers in this rural part of Yucatán believe that burning vegetation provides the best way of enriching the soil and controlling pests. That may be true if practiced on a small scale with enough time between burn-and-slash cycles for fields to recover, experts say. But slash and burn is generally carried out every year during the springtime dry season, resulting in soil erosion and desertification.

Italian-born Sigismundo Lucidi made his first trip to Yucatán during the month of April, when slash and burn occurs.

“I felt like I was going from wildfire to wildfire, the heat was infernal,” said Lucidi, who later set up a non-governmental organization with his wife, Angela Petruso Barreta, to combat the problem. They have now helped reforest 5,000 hectares of land around Valladolid in northern Yucatán.

“The villages had 15 to 20 families 50 years ago. Now each village holds up to 100 families, with many going into the fields and destroying the vegetation in order to plant corn,” Lucidi said. “It is their traditional way of working the land which will irreversibly lead to the destruction of forests and the entire flora and fauna.”

Lucidi saw the devastating effects of slash and burn during a flight over the Yucatán Peninsula three years ago.

“It was May 1, and when we landed in Mérida at 6 p.m. it was 42 degrees [Celcius] outside,” he said. “It wasn’t the sun, it was the thousands of hectares they were burning and the millions of cubic meters of carbon dioxide released into the air.”


Environmentalists argue that extensive tree cutting and burning contribute not only to soil erosion and desertification, but also to the increase of greenhouse gas emissions since forests are natural absorbers of carbon dioxide. Forests take decades, even generations, to recover.

According to Greenpeace Mexico , forest clearing is one of the main causes of deforestation in Mexico, along with illegal logging. The international environmental advocacy group places Mexico fifth among nations with the biggest deforestation rate. At 600,000 hectares of woodland lost every year, Mexico ‘s forests could disappear in the next six decades, the group warns.

“The most important cause [of deforestation] is a public policy that has been promoting for decades unrestricted logging and the expansion of agricultural boundaries, in different words, the destruction of forests with the purpose of turning them into crop fields and cattle ranches,” Greenpeace Mexico’s Web site states.

Meanwhile, Héctor Ruiz Barranco, head of the biodiversity conservation department at the Yucatán Urban Development and Environment Secretariat, says a state law protecting forests is currently under review. The law provides for preventive measures against forest fires, but offenders can only be prosecuted under federal law by PROFEPA, the law-enforcement wing of the federal Environment Secretariat, or SEMARNAT.

The Yucatán government has also undertaken a number of reforestation projects, including tree planting. But some critics are not impressed.

“Overall, my view of rehabilitation programs is somewhat cynical,” said Billie L. Turner, professor of environment and society at Arizona State University. “They mean well, but they are often implemented with the green belief that they work, with virtually no science on which the belief is based.”

Recently, Deputy Health Secretary Mauricio Hernández talked about the success of a Calderón administration plan to fight global warming by accelerating tree growth. His comments came during a forum in Mérida in December, only weeks before the project known as ProArbol was slammed by critics, who claimed that nearly half of the millions of trees planted in 2008 had already died.

“I support tree planting because it builds community and helps stabilize soils,” Klepeis said. “However, tree planting is a band-aid approach to the problem. What is needed is the kind of integrative approach that links poverty alleviation with selective use of nature reserves.”

Back at Matú Canul’s home, life changed for the better five years ago when her family stopped burning trees and began living off the parcel of land in their backyard.

“We didn’t know anything about organic farming before,” she said.

EcoHealth Forum does not end here

I was catching a connecting flight in Mexico City on my way back from the EcoHealth Forum 2008 when the conference logo on a hand-made bag jumped at me. It got me thinking how the conference days have come and gone, but the work of climate scientists, researchers, journalists, and policy makers is just getting started.

The environment-friendly bag made from natural maguey cactus fibers belonged to a young man who most certainly took back home more than just a bag filled with research documents, conference notes, and unforgettable momentos of his trip to Mérida, Mexico. He was carrying the hope the world will not simply sit back and watch how our environment and health will deteriorate as a result of global warming.

The young man is among 700 green enthusiasts from about 70 countries who participated in the International EcoHealth Forum 2008. By comparison, about 400 people showed up at the Montreal conference in 2003, a clear indication climate change is a growing concern.

To put it in the words of Dr. Mario Henry Rodríguez López, conference chair and head of Mexican National Institute of Public Health: “It is fantastic to see the amount of young people that came to (the conference). It is inspirational to see new blood into the movement,” he said in his closing remarks at the gala dinner Dec. 4. “Many people after the conference say `thanks God it is finished,` but it is not finished. We are just starting; we are leaving this city with new ideas, with new impetus to change the world.”

As for me, the EcoHealth Forum was an eye-opener and a confirmation of the essential role journalists play in broadening public consciousness of environmental and health issues.

The forum dedicated a considerable amount of time tackling the close link between climate change and the emergence of mosquito-borne viral diseases, such as malaria and dengue, in developing countries.

As global temperature continues to increase, glaciers to melt, sea levels to rise, the potential of frequent bouts of extreme weather (heat waves, heavy precipitation, intense hurricanes) will accelerate, heightening the risk of illnesses and stress-related disorders. The elderly, young children and the poor are at highest risk of being hit. Poorly designed irrigation and water storage systems, inadequate housing, poor waste disposal, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity are facilitating the transmission of mosquito-borne viral diseases.

Malaria, the most deadly vector borne-disease, kills over 1.2 million people annually, mostly African children under the age of five, while dengue is the world´s fastest growing vector-borne disease. As many as 2.5 billion people worldwide live in areas where dengue viruses can be transmitted, according to World Health Organization.

This is only a fraction of the grim picture climate scientists are painting today. But if climate change concerns continue to expand, the next EcoHealth Forum, which will be held in London, England, in 2010, will undoubtedly attest to that.

Solar energy gains ground

While there has been no shortage of presentations and workshops to attend in the first days of the forum, one particular issue that piqued my attention came up in a casual early-breakfast conversation with Martin Wiese, a researcher for the International Development Research Centre. Apparently, China is emerging on the world stage as a major producer and user of solar energy, especially solar thermal power.

And China is not alone.

While solar power solutions were first suggested in the 1970s, it wasn´t until recently that governments have begun giving users incentives to switch to renewable sources of energy. I learned how, for instance, Germany put a solar power subsidy program in place a decade ago to encourage the use of renewable energy. Wiese, who is originally from Germany, tells me that today at least 60 percent of that country´s population are aware of how solar power systems work although only a fraction of them actually afford the clean technology.

Solar panels, known as photovoltaic cells (PV´s), are placed on rooftops to trap the heat from the sun and turn it into electricity. One panel could generate up to 200 watts of electricity when the sun shines. To put things in perspective, a five-panel system could produce anywhere between 10 and 15 percent of the total amount of electricity a home would consume annually.

Of course, the systems cost a fortune to purchase and install (US$12,000 for a two-kilowatt system) but Wiese feels the effort will pay off down the road.

“The energy law is taking off right now. People who already switched to solar power are on the safe side now if fossil fuel prices go up with the economic crisis.”

It appears that widespread anxiety about the harmful effects of burning fossil fuels, coupled with unstable energy prices and improved technology, are creating a favorable market for the exploration and hopefully the affordability of renewable energy systems.

Mérida ready to host EcoHealth conference

MÉRIDA, Yuc. – This colonial capital will be in the spotlight Monday as the International EcoHealth Forum 2008 gets under way in the heartland of the Maya civilization. The five-day conference will focus on boosting global awareness on potentially catastrophic effects of climate change.


Countdown is on for EcoHealth Forum 2008

With only days before the International EcoHealth Forum 2008 kicks off in Merida, expectations are running high about the conference end results. The international community will watch how top environment and health experts will meet in the ancient heartland of the Maya civilization to discuss, share and learn from their experiences, in hopes of moving world´s environmental and health agenda ahead. Nations will hopefully understand that the quest for a clean and healthy environment is perhaps the only global battle they share, politics and trade interests aside.

Developing nations, such as Mexico, where garbage burning and dumping trash into rivers are still common practices endangering the health of thousands every day, could learn from the example of green conscious countries like Canada.

One particular issue that begs attention is the contamination of Chapala Lake and the entire Lerma-Chapala-Santiago-Pacific basin, polluted by agricultural runoff and industrial as well as domestic waste. Metal parts were found in fish from here. Although there have been numerous efforts by local environmentalists to put Chapala Lake, Mexico´s largest lake and a natural jewel, on the international agenda, the issue has unfortunately been relegated to the sidelines.

Having lived in both Canada and Mexico, I understand firsthand the huge environmental gap between the two NAFTA partners. I hope this conference will be a defining moment in narrowing that gap with the end result of making not only this continent but the entire planet a safer and healthier place for future generations.

As I embark on this trip to Merida, Mexico, I can only hope to walk away from the conference feeling certain my one-year-old daughter, Michelle, will breathe fresher air and drink cleaner water.

I hope you will use this space to let me know what you think. I can also be reached at diodoraMTL@yahoo.ca

EcoHealth Forum 2008

In a globalized world in which trade agreements and the war on terrorism run the political agenda, equally important issues such as environment and health sadly take a backseat. This is why conferences like the International EcoHealth Forum 2008 are essential in bringing environment and health concerns to the forefront and building global awareness on how these forces are shaping the lives of future generations.

It is the perfect opportunity to move forward the mandate of the Commission for the Environmental Cooperation (CEC), the body created under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to ensure U.S., Canada and Mexico enforce their environmental laws. After all, promoting a healthy environment is what makes this planet safer.

Let me introduce myself. My name is Diodora Bucur and I am a Canadian journalist based in Mexico. I am writing in hopes of convincing you that I am a candidate worthy of covering the International EcoHealth Forum 2008 in Merida this December.

Let me tell you a little about myself. I hold a bachelor in broadcast journalism from Concordia University and I am fluent in English, French, Romanian and Spanish. I am the recipient of several national and international awards. In 2005, I earned an Honourable Mention from the Quebec Community Newspapers Association for a series on waste management and recycling in Montreal.

Since my arrival in Mexico two years ago, I have been doing work for the Canadian Press and English-language dailies The Herald Mexico and The News. Assignments included Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s visit to Ottawa in October 2006, followed by former foreign affairs minister Peter MacKay´s trip to Mexico City. I also covered the 25th anniversary of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Mexico and contributed to reports on the Merida and Montebello summits in 2007. As a reporter in Montreal, I worked in both print (The Suburban) and radio (940News). Environment and healthcare were among my top beats.

I am currently working on several environmental stories, including a piece on Chapala Lake, Mexico’s largest lake and among the most contaminated natural treasures, assignments that have allowed me to both become acquainted with green issues in this developing nation and learn from the expertise of prominent Mexican environmentalists.

I have a natural ability to work well under pressure and with others, can handle multiple stories simultaneously and deliver them quickly and accurately. I am confident that my skills and experience make me the perfect candidate for the job.