Lunes, 13 Julio 2020
Artículos relacionados
The Construction of Hope
Este País | Exequiel Ezcurra | 30.01.2015 | 1 Comentario


We live in difficult and distressing times. While increasing violence reigns in Mexico, many of us ask ourselves what use it is to worry about the future of the environment when horror knocks daily at our door. Why strive to carve a future in harmony with the natural world when the present looks so desolately hopeless. Why worry about plants or animals threatened by extinction when tens of thousands of young people die each year in a spiral of violence that seems increasingly demented. Why worry about the conservation of wild species when many people are assassinated for the sole fact of being women, migrants, or students.

As Mexicans, we are anguished. We feel it necessary to do something now, soon, for in this hopelessness we are losing our country.

I want to throw out two ideas, two hypotheses. The first one is that we are confronting a major civilizational conflict, a profound disjunction between a vision of short-term private profit as the central motor of development, regardless of the long-term impact on social legacy, against a vision of long-term public benefits that does not sacrifice the future viability of society in exchange for short-term private profit. The second hypothesis is that environmental sustainability and the social crisis are faces of the same conflict.

Let us first think of the past. The territory that is now Mexico has gone through repeated cycles of civilization and collapse. Teotihuacán fell in less than a century (between the years 600 and 700 A.D.) as a consequence of the devastating use of natural resources. Where, according to climate conditions, there should have been oak and pine, the Spaniards found upon their arrival a barren and degraded landscape. We know, through the work of archaeologists, that the abandonment was not passive: Wars over the appropriation of foreign resources and the subjugation of neighboring peoples preceded the collapse. Similar processes accompanied the fall of the great Mayan metropolises and the multitude of civilizations of the classic Mesoamerican period. It was war tribute, the ultimate expression of Aztec unsustainability, that allowed the alliance of Cortés with the Tlaxcaltecs and the tragic fall of Tenochtitlan.

The history of environmental depredation and social violence continued throughout the Colony and the Independence. First, with the enslavement of indigenous peoples for mining and forced labor: The construction of the Tajo de Nochistongo, an insane project created by the viceroy to destroy the lacustrine nature of the Mexican basin and turn it into a poor replica of the Castilian plateau, cost —by itself — 30,000 lives. Later, the large system of land concessions led to bloody territorial conflicts like the War of Castes against the independent Mayans or the war against the Yaquis, and culminated in the Mexican revolution, a great uprising against the immense injustice of the haciendas under Porfirio Díaz’s rule.


The arrival of the 20th Century did not end this long history of social predation and destruction of our natural resources. Despite some encouraging glimpses, some flares of good common sense, and a few sensible leaders, the backdrop throughout the last 100 years has been the acceptance of the privileges of a few over the rights of the majority. The tragedy of rainforest logging during the decades of 1960 and 1970 is a clear example of how the interests of the agro-food industry were able to drive the destruction of the Mexican tropics in favor of a supposed modernity which had no place for the peasant communities that had taken care of their forests for centuries. In order to validate this displacement, a National Commission for Land Clearing was created, whose role was promoting the destruction of nature as a strategic goal of the nation.

Despite incorporating the environmental discourse into public management through the creation of a Secretariat for the Environment, progress has been slow. The explosion in 1984 of the San Juan Ixhuatepec gas plant in Mexico City left 600 dead and 2,000 injured. The risk of having a highly hazardous industrial facility in the middle of a socially marginalized and densely populated area had never been considered. Despite statements and promises that something like that would never happen again, seven years later, in 1991, a fire in the Anaversa pesticide plant in Córdoba, Veracruz, generated one of the most serious industrial accidents in Mexico, with leakage of pesticides into the main rivers of the region and more than 1,500 subsequent deaths due to the toxic pollution that followed.

Extreme climactic events always impact the most vulnerable and unprotected sectors. In 1995 hurricane Paulina ravaged the precarious settlements of the hillsides and cliffs of Acapulco, leaving 400 people dead and another 300,000 homeless. Back then, the National Commission for Water developed a study where it announced that a tragedy of that magnitude would not recur in 1,000 years. Yet, it happened again 18 years later: On September 14th, 2013, hurricane Manuel hit Acapulco with tragically similar consequences. Two weeks later, on September 30th, the Secretary of the Environment wrote that «the frequency and intensity of natural disasters […] demands of all nations and of society as a whole a change in action that increases our safety and ability to adapt to the planet’s new conditions.»[i]

The bitter truth, however, is that considerations of environmental risk for the civil society have weighed less on government decision-making than economic interests: In September 2014 a serious spill of copper mining residues into the Bacanuchi River, a tributary of the Sonora River, exposed once again the fragility of many of our urban-industrial developments and the vulnerability of the poorest. The accident triggered an environmental tragedy whose consequences we can barely grasp, occasioned by the absence of a process of strict management of mining residues in high environmental risk conditions, and exacerbated by the intense rainfall brought on by hurricane Odile in the northwest of Mexico. The entire Sonora River basin, a source of life for the whole state, is now irreversibly damaged, and the damage puts the future of the population at risk in a state where conflicts over water are already causing immense social antagonisms.

Despite this tragic evidence, the Federal Government decided to go ahead authorizing the mining project of Los Cardones, in Baja California Sur, that plans to extract gold at the head of the basin that supplies the city of La Paz with water, treating the rock with cyanide: tons of cyanide, enough to kill the entire population of Mexico. The people of La Paz now look with growing anxiety at those mountains, their source of water and life, and ask themselves what will happen in the future when another great hurricane hits the peninsula and unleashes its force over the cyanide polluted dams. The environmental authorities tell us, once again, that the risk in these new authorizations has been analyzed and calculated, and that a tragedy like the one at Buenavista del Cobre in Sonora will never happen again in Mexico. The truth, however, is that the analysis of environmental impact and risk in our legislation is terribly deficient and allows projects to be authorized without minimum conditions of risk control that should be demanded by the inherent danger of certain activities. Communities, towns, and cities live under the threatening sword of Damocles of the discretionary power of environmental authorities and of an opaque, arrogant decision-making system that cannot be held accountable by society.


Government decisions in environmental matters are driven by the blind unproven faith that short-term private profits are a vital driving force of the nation’s wealth, and that some of the country’s natural capital and future viability must be sacrificed in the altar of this hypothetical economic development. On the basis of a weak and confusing environmental law, permits are granted in the name of progress ignoring the concerns and demands of civil society, and impunity reigns when environmental catastrophes happen. Ultimately, it is always the most vulnerable social sectors, and the most fragile and valuable natural resources that end up paying the consequences. That is how we have lost 90% of our original rainforests and the great lakes of our highlands, along with a good part of the mangroves that protect our coasts and the majority of our aquifers. We are not conscious of it, but our migrants to the US are driven, to a great extent, by environmental decline. With an impoverished population, without forests or water, we see violence and predation grow as we ask ourselves what to do.

As a society, as a country, we need reasons to construct a rationality of hope. We need experiences that will open the doors to a viable future. The environmental crisis came about slowly; in some cases, it has been growing among us for centuries. For many years we have ignored it, failing to realize that it is another aspect of social inequality and of impunity in the face of plunder. Reverting this crisis will also take us many years. We must regenerate our social fabric, rethink our educational system, give opportunities to those who do not have them, and give hope to all that feel the same anguish about the future.

Mexico is full of moving experiences, full of communities that have decided to take their destiny in their own hands looking for a better future, socially as well as environmentally. Like the fishermen of Cabo Pulmo, for example, who knew how to reinvent themselves as a conservation community opposing the predatory development of their coast and reefs. Or the members of ejido San Juan Nuevo, in Michoacán, who have learnt to prosper economically while their forests grow with them. Or the inhabitants of Saltillo, Coahuila, who voluntarily pay in their water bill the conservation cost of the Sierra de Zapalinamé and its springs. Or the fishing cooperatives of the Northern Pacific, staunch defenders of their marine resources and their autonomy in the only sector from Alaska to El Cabo where there is still sustainable fishing of lobster and abalone. Or the Coras and the Huicholes who defend the San Pedro River basin, the only river of the Pacific that still runs free to the ocean and feeds the mangroves of Marismas Nacionales, the most important and productive wetland of the Mexican Pacific.

I could keep filling pages with similar experiences, all of them equally deep and moving. What brings a clam fisherman to caress a whale and from then on change the destiny of his community? What force drives the inhabitant of a riverbank to protect it from toxic mining or polluting industries? What profound conscience brings the inhabitants of a city like so many others to protect their mountains, forests, springs?


I think it has to do with the «sense of place,» that feeling of belonging to a region, a social group, a landscape, even a yearned remembrance. It is the capacity that some people have to think of the public good, the future of their community and their society as central elements in choosing a life. It is the capacity to sacrifice immediate personal benefits in favor of a vision of long-term public benefits.

I would like to close with my opening hypothesis: environmental and social problems are two aspects of the same dilemma. There will be no viable future without a healthy environment, but neither will there be one without respect for the rights of the people who look after those waters, those lands, those forests, and live off them. Modernity is not a matter of exacerbated consumption and short-term earnings; it is a profound question about who we are, how we live, to whom we owe our loyalties, and how we imagine our own future.

Our generational challenge is to construct a future of justice and compassion, of respect towards otherness and cultural diversity. But it is also to construct a future that can hold and maintain the immense richness of the natural world, the heterogeneous, rich stream of life from where we come. Protecting our forests, our oceans, our coasts, our rivers, is also part of the construction of hope.


Translation: Julián Segura

[i] Juan José Guerra Abud, “Cambio climático,” in Reforma, September 30th of 2013, seen at <>, página consultada en noviembre de 2014.


EXEQUIEL EZCURRA is the head of the University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States, and professor of ecology at the University of California. He has received important international awards for his work in research, and scientific outreach.


Una respuesta para “The Construction of Hope

Dejar un comentario

Naturaleza posible: seis testimonios. Textos disponibles en inglés.
Dos textos imprescindibles sobre la importancia del cuidado del medio ambiente, ahora disponibles en inglés: The Construction of Hope, Exequiel Ezcurra. The Cessna, Sandy Lanham.
The Cessna
The Cessna wheels over a blowing whale. My passengers, both marine mammal researchers, peer down a wing at her. She blows again. Twisting the airplane’s control, the horizon wobbles in the windshield and then suddenly tilts sharply. The horizon now slashes diagonally across my view. It is a spinning top about to topple. Green-blue sideways, […]
Reforma migratoria de Barack Obama
La reforma migratoria que anunció Barack Obama hace dos semanas fue una decisión fácil, una verdadera no-brainer, como dicen en Washington. Según anunció en su discurso del 20 de noviembre, el gobierno de Obama ya no deportará a los padres de ciudadanos o residentes legales, siempre y cuando tengan al menos cinco años viviendo en […]
Naturaleza posible: seis testimonios
El trato violento que como grupo humano nos damos y al mismo tiempo padecemos en México tiene un justo y triste correlato en nuestra relación con la naturaleza. La urbanización del país nos impide ver el grado de deterioro que ha sufrido el medio ambiente: es un paño de concreto que nos salva del dolor […]
Feliz Navidad
Carta Querido Santo Clos: gracias por permitirme pasar desapercibido. Pero este año quiero desaparecer cuando se me antoje. Mándame por favor una capa que cuando me la ponga me haga invisible. Prometo usarla para espiar a mis padres y contártelo todo, ¿sale? Insuficiencia divina La indiferencia de Dios no es sublime. Es una insuficiencia. Navidad […]
Más leídos
Más comentados
¿Por qué es un problema la lectura? (243.690)
Desarrollar el gusto por la lectura no es cuestión meramente de voluntad individual. El interés por los libros aparece sólo en ciertas circunstancias.

Los grandes problemas actuales de México (208.330)

Jóvenes que no estudian ni trabajan: ¿Cuántos son?, ¿quiénes son?, ¿qué hacer?1 (140.139)

La distribución del ingreso en México (139.114)

La economía mexicana del siglo xx: entre milagros y crisis (85.632)

Presunto culpable: ¿Por qué nuestro sistema de justicia condena inocentes de forma rutinaria?
Bas­tan­te han es­cri­to y di­cho ter­ce­ros so­bre Pre­sun­to cul­pa­ble....

Los grandes problemas actuales de México
Se dice que el país está sobrediagnosticado, pero en plenas campañas y ante...

I7P5N: la fórmula
Homenaje al ipn con motivo de su 75 aniversario, este ensayo es también una...

La sofocracia y la política científica
Con el cambio de Gobierno, se han escuchado voces que proponen la creación...

China – EUA. ¿Nuevo escenario bipolar?
No hace mucho que regresé de viaje del continente asiático, con el propósito...

Foro de Indicadores