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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Mexico Fires

Air Date: Week of

Environmentalists say that the recent fires in Mexico represent the country's "biggest ecological disaster of this century." That's no overstatement. Authorities are still trying to assess the damage to a million and a half acres which included virgin rain and cloud forests. Living On Earth correspondent Janna Schroeder tells us of her recent, first-hand look at the damage, as well as her exploration of the region's new problems.


CURWOOD: The smoke is finally clearing from the more than 200 separate fires that swept across Mexico this spring and sent plumes of haze as far north as Wisconsin. Some call it Mexico's biggest ecological disaster of the century. Authorities are still taking stock of the damage, especially in the hard-hit areas in the southern state of Oaxaca. There the fires ravaged the Chimalapas, a unique region of a million and a half acres, including vast stretches of virgin rain and cloud forests. Reporter Janna Schroeder ventured into the forest with local villagers to get a first-hand look at the damage.

(Engines running; a vehicle over terrain)

SCHROEDER: A turn off the Pan-American Highway leads us onto a rocky dirt road that slowly curls up the mountainside. It's one of the few passages into this vast forested area known as the Chimalapas. We're heading into a region that's a unique mosaic of tropical rainforest, pine and oak forests, and also examples of one of the scarcest ecosystems in the world: cloud forests that team with biodiversity. Because the region is so rugged and immense, most of it is unexplored. Our journey comes only weeks after fires devastated the area, and local residents are still struggling to grasp what's been lost here, and what can be recuperated.

(More rolling across terrain and hard rain)

SCHROEDER: We find the humble community of San Antonio tucked into the hillsides. We arrive in time to be drenched by a sudden cloudburst. It was rainshowers like this one that finally brought the fires to an end. San Antonio is one of the few communities on the edges of the Chimalapas. About 50 families live here in dirt floor homes with no electricity. The Zoque Indians who claim the land as their own have given the villagers small plots to grow corn and beans. In exchange, the villagers attempt to serve as gatekeepers to the forest, to hold back the creeping expansion of civilization. Maria Garcia is a robust middle-aged woman with a confident stride, who struggled to raise 3 sons here. She walks down a dirt path to greet us. She says for the community it's been a year of tears. As the fires blazed her sons, the youngest only 14, risked going into the forest to try to douse the flames with the water they could carry on their backs.

GARCIA: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: Everything we've been protecting for so many years, to pass onto our children, all of a sudden we saw it was being destroyed.

SCHROEDER: Members of the community agreed to help us make a journey into the mountains to see what's been lost. Although the villagers rarely venture deep into the forest, they organize a team to help us make the difficult trek.

(A horse snorts; footfalls)

SCHROEDER: The skies have cleared, so our guide, Miguel Maya, prepares the horses to take us up the mountain. Villagers like Mr. Maya and Maria Garcia have developed a special connection with the forest around them. They say they coexist with the forest. They use it without using it up. They've had to fight to keep their place here.

GARCIA: (Speaks in Spanish)

SCHROEDER: Maria Garcia has lived part of a turbulent history of conflicts over land in this part of Oaxaca. Farm land has long been scarce, and powerful interests have feuded over this area so rich in natural resources.

GARCIA: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: We're not taking care of it for ourselves, but for everyone. We know these forests are important for the world. They are the source of water, of life. Forests like these in other places have been destroyed.


SCHROEDER: We set off on our journey accompanied by a Mexican biologist. Our procession of 2 tired pack horses and 5 villagers begins the long, winding climb.

(Horses snuffle; more footfalls and voices)

SCHROEDER: After passing through an open area of scattered pine trees, we're suddenly enveloped in a lush, dense forest where exotic red-blossom bromilia shoot from the branch of tall trees. They're epiphytes that grow on the surface of trees and get their moisture from the rain, their nutrients from the air.

(Bird song)

SCHROEDER: We've arrived in a cloud forest. This ecosystem, known for its diverse vegetation, was the most damaged by the recent fires in the Chimalapas.

MAYA: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: Sometimes, where we're standing right now, it's covered with clouds. And you can hardly see in front of you. That's why these forests are called cloud forests. It's because we are up so high.

SCHROEDER: Our guide, Miguel Maya, knows this area well. He says cloud forests are usually wet and humid all year long. They aren't expected to dry out. But during this year's drought they did, to the astonishment of scientists. And that's why the fires were so devastating. Elsa Ramirez, a biologist with the local environmental group The People's Forests of the Southeast, catches up with us on the trail. She says little scientific research has been done in cloud forests, partly because these areas are so hard to get into.

RAMIREZ: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: In cloud forests, we find a lot of endemic species that are exclusive to a certain area and can't be found anywhere else. That's one of the reasons they are so important to preserve.


SCHROEDER: Leaving the horses behind, we walk along a narrower path and quite abruptly the green gives way to an eerie forest of dead, leafless trees with no sounds of life. Miguel Maya squats down to show us that what seems to be dirt under our feet is actually a thick layer of ash left from the fire.


SCHROEDER: He pokes around in some of the ash and uncovers a burned snail. He believes many larger animals, some threatened with extinction, also burned in the fires.

MAYA: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: The jaguars, ocelots, mountain lions, and deer. Those animals that could run away were safe from the fires. But others couldn't, like all the baby animals, those still in their nests. Even the snakes.

SCHROEDER: On the edge of the burned mountain ridge, we pass around the binoculars to get a glimpse of the distant slopes. What was a continuous stretch of green is not interrupted with patches of white limestone rock. In the week since the fires, any organic material left in the burned patches was washed away with the first rains, leaving rocky bald spots. Biologist Elsa Ramirez explains why the fire seems to have jumped from one place to another.

RAMIREZ: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: In some places, the fires spread underground, burning the roots of the trees. So from a distance, you could not even tell the fire was spreading. But all of a sudden, trees would just begin to fall over. It was one of the most amazing things people had ever seen.

SCHROEDER: In other areas the trees are still green and standing, but their roots were destroyed from the underground fires. And in the months to come they'll dry out and die. That's why some experts are still hesitant to make final estimates of the fire damage here.


SCHROEDER: As our weary group trods down the mountain, Elsa Ramirez says she's worried about the forest's future.

RAMIREZ: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: In order for areas like these to go back to how they were before, it's going to take many, many years. Some say between 100 and 200 years.


SCHROEDER: Those who live and work in the Chimalapas are still stunned by what's happened and continue to ask what caused all the fires. They know that farmers and ranchers set fires every spring to burn their crop and grazing land. And this year, because of the drought, those fires burned out of control. And some local residents say drug traffickers have moved farther into the jungle to burn areas for marijuana crops. But just how the fires started even deeper in the forest remains a mystery. Local villagers don't talk of global climatic changes as a cause for the fires. Instead, they fear the government wants to take their land away. They suspect someone set some of the fires in order to make it easier to push through projects for constructing dams and highways in the region.

(A car door slams. A motor starts up.)

SCHROEDER: After we reach the bottom of the mountain, we head to another part of the Chimalapas, taking another winding dirt road to the Zoque community of Santa Maria. Heriberto Hernandez, a slight gentle Zoque Indian man who is usually soft-spoken, is angry because so much forest has been destroyed.

HERNANDEZ: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: It's a loss for the community. It's as if we wiped out a part of our generation. A lot of people are not aware of what we've lost. But for me, it's as if part of my family is gone.

(Bird calls)

SCHROEDER: Mr. Hernandez says the government should help fund small businesses in the Chimalapa communities, so people have options for making a living without cutting down trees.

HERNANDEZ: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: If this kind of aid isn't sent here, people have to figure out how to survive. They see the thousands of acres burned out there,and they think about the surrounding trees that can be salvaged for selling. Plus there will, of course, be people coming in with plans that turn burnt areas into grazing land. The trees are gone, so it's easy, and instead of recuperating, the areas will be totally destroyed.

SCHROEDER: This concern is also shared by scientists, like Leo Schibli, a researcher from Switzerland who studied the Chimalapas for a decade from his base in Oaxaca. He says fires are not the worst threat here.

SCHIBLI: The biggest danger to Chimalapas is not the fire. The biggest danger to the wilderness of Chimalapas is the change of land use. So if because of the fire the use of the land is changed, then we lost it. If not, It's still a wilderness. A bruised one, but it's still a wilderness.

SCHROEDER: The Chimalapas are one of the last remnants of the forests that once blanketed this part of Mexico. Agriculture and logging have already plundered the region. Unpredictable climate changes now bring an added uncertainty for these virgin forests.

(Bird calls)

SCHROEDER: Heriberto Hernandez says it's the local communities' and the government's responsibility to protect the forests from the growing threat of droughts and fires in the coming years.

HERNANDEZ: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: Because who knows what would happen to the climate? A drought could happen again next year. That's what we should be worried about right now.

SCHROEDER: For Living on Earth, I'm Janna Schroeder in the Chimalapa forests of Mexico.



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