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.

La Terre pourrait devenir inhabitable

Chaque heure, 4 millions de tonnes de dioxyde de carbone (CO2) sont émis à travers le monde. Dans le même temps 1500 hectares de forêts disparaissent. Dans le même laps de temps, trois espèces de plante ou d’animaux sont éteints dans le monde. Carlos Nobre, chercheur à l’Institut national de recherche spatiale du Brésil (INEP) qui donne ces informations pense que l’humanité est à un point critique de son histoire. De nombreux changements provoqués par l’homme induisent des changements qui modifient les écosystèmes et la biodiversité à un rythme très élevé. Pour lui, « notre génération se doit de présenter des excuses à ses enfants de ne pas assurer la durabilité de l’environnement ». Le Chercheur brésilien était particulièrement pessimiste lors de son exposé de la première journée internationale de l’Eco-Forum 2008 axé sur les défis et les opportunités que le changement climatique mondial a sur notre planète.

Les sombres perspectives climatiques découlent, selon le Chercheur à la fonte de l’Arctique et le Groenland, l’acidification des océans et le blanchissement des coraux, des phénomènes qui ont des impacts majeurs sur le climat, l’économie et la sécurité alimentaire.
L’homme est au centre de ce drame environnemental et est déjà visible dans sa région, notamment l’Amazone, où le déboisement causé par l’exploitation forestière et l’aménagement du territoire est en train de changer peu à peu l’espace à l’écosystème de savane. Ce changement a lieu à un taux compris entre 10 et 30 mille hectares de forêts chaque année.

Le chercheur a une seule recommandation face à cette situation : réduction des émissions de gaz à effet de serre.

Cet article a été publié dans le journal “La Nouvelle Expression”

Les biocarburants pas toujours bio.

La question des biocarburants était au centre d’un atelier à Merida.

La pollution de l’air tue 800 mille personnes chaque année et l’une des principales causes est l’émission de gaz. Il apparaît indispensable pour les habitants de la terre de réduire considérablement l’utilisation des combustibles fossiles et envisager d’autres solutions telles que les biocarburants.
« Toutefois, souligne Dr Jonathan Paz, le président de l’Association internationale de l’OCE, nous devons être attentifs à cette question parce que ce n’est pas une solution simple. Au contraire, elle peut causer de graves problèmes si cette question n’est pas étudiée minutieusement. »

Pour réduire, les graves menaces qui pèsent sur la santé humaine, de la société, il est impératif afin de réduire notre dépendance sur les combustibles fossiles. Le scientifique a fait savoir que 500 mille hectares de forêts et de bosquets se vident chaque année, causant de graves et des effets nocifs sur l’environnement et la santé avec un impact plus grand sur le changement climatique. La destruction des forêts pour cultiver les agro-carburants, notamment, le maïs et la canne à sucre. Pour produire de l’éthanol comme carburant n’est pas aussi efficace qu’on le croit.
Le scientifique a aussi évoqué la consommation de la viande qui est aussi une source de pollution parce que l’élevage de bétail est un processus qui dépense beaucoup d’énergie, la destruction des forêts pour créer des pâturages.

Sur ce point, le Cameroun dont le massif forestier disparaît à un rythme effréné est particulièrement interpellé. L’agriculture itinérante sur brûlis, les feux de brousse dans la partie sahélienne du pays pour la création de pâturages, et l’exploitation incontrôlée des forêts accentue les effets du changement climatique qui impacte déjà sur le rythme des saisons et sur l’agriculture qui dépend encore de l’eau qui vient du ciel.

Cet article a été publié dans le journal “La Nouvelle Expression”

L’UQAM brille à Mérida

Des experts du monde entier se sont donné rendez-vous au Mexique, en décembre dernier, pour discuter «écosanté». Une discipline dans laquelle l’UQAM fait figure de pionnière.

Tous ceux qui s’intéressent à la recherche à l’UQAM connaissent les travaux de Donna Mergler, professeure émérite au Département des sciences biologiques et cofondatrice du Centre de recherche interdisciplinaire sur la biologie, la santé et l’environnement (CINBIOSE). Avec Marc Lucotte et d’autres collègues, la neurophysiologiste a montré l’impact délétère du mercure sur les poissons du Rio Tapajos, au Brésil, et sur la santé neurologique de ceux qui les consomment.

lisez l’article complet dans l’édition du 12 janvier 2009 du Journal de l’Université du Québec à Montréal
www.wfsj.org/files/file/blogs/ecohealth/forget/uqam090115.pdf ]

Health too vital to be left only to health specialists

2008 was a traumatic year. 2009 will bring neither ease nor comfort. But as the New Year kicks off amid a full-blown global financial crisis, it also marks a turning point which can be leveraged to force a choice between inertia and innovation.

Read the rest of this story online at the Asian Age:


El cambio climático propaga las exóticas epidemias del tercer mundo

Los vectores de transmisión de enfermedades como el dengue, el mal de chagas y otros tipos de zoonosis no conocen de clases sociales, ni de limitación geográfica: En busca de temperaturas más agradables, migran hacia los sectores urbanos y sectores que no han sido tradicionalmente endémicos

Nunca han sabido diferenciar entre una cosa y otra, pero como producto del calentamiento global y el incremento de las temperaturas en el planeta, los vectores transmisores de la enfermedad de Chagas en nuestro continente están aplicando aquella máxima científica de la supervivencia del más apto y están emigrando hacia las zonas que les ofrecen mejores condiciones climáticas.

Esto, más allá de lucir como un simple capricho adaptativo de los chinches, podría suponer la propagación de la enfermedad hasta zonas urbanas que no son habituales espacios endémicos, según lo afirmaron diferentes expertos congregados en el Foro Internacional de Eco Salud 2008, que se lleva a cabo en la ciudad mexicana de Mérida.

El mismo hecho del cambio de domiciliación del vector también supone que la enfermedad, que tradicionalmente ha afectado a los habitantes de las zonas rurales y más desposeídas, ya no se circunscriba a estos espacios y traspase las barreras de las clases sociales. Un ejemplo de ello lo tuvimos recientemente en Venezuela, cuando urbanizaciones de las clases medias de la ciudad capital fueron visitadas por el llamado chipo que generó una alarma colectiva entre la población citadina a principios del año 2008.

Precisamente, es el mal de chagas una de esas enfermedades catalogadas actualmente como “reemergentes” en el contexto de un planeta más caliente, entre las que también se encuentran el dengue y más de 100 tipos de zoonosis que se transmiten por el contacto entre el hombre con animales, incluso aquellos domesticados.

Chipo transmisor del Mal de Chagas | Archivo

Eventos naturales que también refuerzan su potencial destructivo por el cambio climático -como los huracanes y alteraciones en los ciclos de precipitación- están incidiendo en la distribución de estos vectores y su migración hacia sitios a los que no pertenecían antes como huéspedes. Tal es el caso del Aedes aegipty -mosquito transmisor del dengue- que ya se ha llegado hasta los Estados Unidos, luego de resistirse por años a la erradicación en buena parte de los países de nuestro continente.

La respuesta de la ciencia no se está haciendo esperar, aunque habría que evaluar hasta qué punto nuestros Estados están dispuestos a desembolsar mayor cantidad de recursos para enfrentar epidemias más agresivas o lo que sería lo ideal aún, para prevenirlas ¿Será posible teniendo como marco el derrumbe de la economía mundial?¿Sufrirá nuevamente la investigación y aplicación científica la marginación ante la “emergencia monetaria” y la radicalización de las crisis políticas y sociales que ya son el pan nuestro de todos los días en el hemisferio?
Lo que bien ya conocemos por la experiencia acumulada es que no hay progreso social pensable sin un avance científico que se traduzca en beneficios directos para los sectores sociales más perjudicados y lo que es más importante aún desde este concepto integrador de la EcoSalud, que involucre la participación activa de las comunidades. Es vital instruirlas a mejorar las relaciones con su medio ambiente y así influir en un incremento en su calidad de vida.

El planeta está en deadline y lo reclama.

Original: http://www.el-nacional.com/www/site/p_contenido.php?q=


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.

The downside of ecotourism

Contact with tourists and even researchers is exposing great apes in conservation areas in Africa to human pathogens. Mountain gorillas in a protected park in Uganda were found to share the same bacteria with the people living in the surrounding area, tourist guides and the scientists who studied them.

“Many of these apes haven’t had any contact with humans before. Because we have the same physiology, it’s likely that they get human diseases”, says veterinarian Innocent Rwego, from Makerere University , in Kampala, Uganda. His conclusions were presented yesterday in the International EcoHealth Forum, held in Merida from 1-5 December.

The study was carried in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park area, in southeastern Uganda. Rwego compared the Escherichia coli bacteria found in fecal samples of mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei)  with those identified in humans.

He showed that genetic similarity was higher between the bacteria found in humans and in gorillas exposed to the daily contact with tourists. The similarity was smaller in animals that only had contact with researchers and even smaller in those who hadn’t had any contact with humans at all.

The study found also that the bacteria found in gorillas that had contact with tourists had the higher resistance to the antibiotics most commonly used in Uganda.

Rwego believes that restricting ecotourism in the region wouldn’t be a solution for this problem. “Tourism is a source of income for local communities living around these conservation areas”, he explains. “If we limit it, it will have a bigger impact on the population.”

“If we follow the he health and vaccination rules, we are likely to reduce any problem of transmission”, Rwego says. “Besides, there should be policies by government to reduce migration of people from other rural areas to the areas where ecotourism is flourishing.”

Read here a more complete version of this story (in Portuguese).