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On the Border

The environmental crisis in Mexico does not stop at our political boundary

By Christopher Weir

THEY DON'T TREAT people like this in San Diego or El Segundo," says a border-town activist in Joel Simon's Endangered Mexico: An Environment on the Edge (Sierra Club Books; $27). "Well, we are human beings too."

These human beings, Simon reveals, are the losers in Mexico's dangerous game of environmental roulette. Forced from their native landscapes by desiccated farmlands, cultural disintegration, and entrenched ecological mismanagement, many find themselves working in American-owned border factories, earning 55 cents an hour and living in shantytowns haunted by their employer's toxic detritus.

Is it any wonder, Simon asks, that these human beings should cross the border to seek a better life brokered by agricultural and industrial fat cats gunning for cheap, illegal labor?

Still, Endangered Mexico is not about placing blame but rather about facing grim realities. From the jungles of southern Mexico to the slopes of the Sierra Madre, from the sun-addled shores of Cancún to the acrid industrialism hedging the U.S. border, Endangered Mexico deftly navigates a land on the brink of ecological implosion and illustrates how the foreshocks already affect the United States.

Strangely, Simon's otherwise comprehensive work sidesteps a central question: What role does population growth play in Mexico's environmental conundrums? Only near the very last page does Simon really engage the population dynamic, and even then he quickly dismisses it as relatively insignificant. If Mexico's population explosion--from 25 million people in 1945 to more than 90 million today--is indeed a comparatively minor factor within the context of the country's general environmental mismanagement, then Simon should have proved that point much earlier--and with more compelling discussion about the cultural, religious, practical, or medical forces behind Mexico's population trends.

Nevertheless, Simon's journalistic prowess makes Endangered Mexico an insightful, incisive, and instructive exposé. His reporting is balanced, but not to the point of indecision or spinelessness. His sympathies and passions never descend into illogic, and he is honest about the cultural and socioeconomic currents to which Mexico's ecological emergencies are wired.

Endangered Mexico ultimately dismantles our collective assumptions to reveal a world teeming with complexities, riddles, and contradictions, a world in which increased border patrols and free-trade agreements are mere fingers in the bursting dikes of economic chaos and ecological bankruptcy.

If the United States wants to develop effective immigration and trade policies with regard to Mexico, Simon argues, then it must eventually confront the tough questions posed by Mexico's No. 1 problem: environmental dysfunction.

"The border is too vast and the migrants too determined for enforcement to have more than a limited effect," Simon writes. "The integration between the developed and developing world is not unique to the United States and Mexico. It is part of a global trend. That is why the United States needs to take a greater interest in Mexico's environmental crisis."

Because while it may be nearing midnight in the once-fertile garden of Mexico, it's not too late to turn back the clock. "Nature, like hope," writes Simon, "does not die so easily."

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From the May 22-28, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent

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