May 27, 1998
Hundreds of wildfires burning in Mexico and Central America have left the region blanketed in smoke, affecting millions of people. Phil Ponce and guests discuss the environmental impact of the fires and ways to prevent future catastrophes.
PHIL PONCE: Today firefighters in Mexico continued their efforts to control fires that have killed more than 50 people and destroyed more than 1 million acres of grasslands and forest. These fires have struck parts of Mexico for the last five months from the southern region of Chiapas to the northern states of Nuevo Leon and Chihuahua. Environmentalists say they were caused by farmers burning their fields to prepare for spring planting. But the flames spread because of Mexico's worst drought in 70 years--a drought blamed on El Niño. The fires have produced a haze of smoke that has made its way over much of Mexico, into Texas and--according to reports--as far north as Denver and Chicago. In Mexico City, the smoke has made things worse in a city already known for poor air quality.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
May 22, 1998
Lee Hochberg reports on the fires in Mexico.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the environmental issues.
The Texas Department of Health's precautions for dealing with the state's smoky conditions.
View maps of the affected areas in Mexico from the USDA Forest Service.
The environmental impact.The smoke has pushed pollution levels to the danger zone, prompting authorities to order automobile traffic cut in half, close 40 percent of factories, and stop outdoor activities for schoolchildren. Physicians in Mexico have reported an increase in patients with respiratory problems. With fires also burning in some parts of Central America, smoke has shut down airports not just in Mexico, but in Guatemala and Honduras. The United States has sent a team of firefighting experts to help an estimated 36,000 Mexican firefighters. But agriculture and environmental experts say the only remedy is consistent heavy rain, and, so far, that is not in the forecast.
PHIL PONCE: For the latest we turn to an environmentalist in Mexico and to U.S. and Mexican officials. We hope to be joined shortly by Mario Aguilar, who is the Minister for Environmental Affairs at Mexico's embassy in Washington. Joining us now is Brian Atwood, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. He's coordinating the U.S. response; and Guillermo Castilleja, who's a forest ecologist and directs Mexico's office of the World Wildlife Fund. Gentlemen, welcome. Mr. Castilleja, what is the latest on the extent of the fires?
Over a million acres burned.
GUILLERMO CASTILLEJA, World Wildlife Fund: Well, the latest report says that we are now almost about 1 million acres of area affected. Of this total area about a third is in forested areas and the rest are scrubland and grasslands.
PHIL PONCE: In what parts of the country is it the worst?
GUILLERMO CASTILLEJA: Basically the whole country is burning or has been burning, rather, for the last few months. There's only one little piece in the Baja Peninsula that hasn't been affected by fire, but overall, the entire country has been affected. I should say that the fires in Southern Mexico right now are the most worrisome.
PHIL PONCE: And as far as the extent to ecologically sensitive areas, what has that been like?
GUILLERMO CASTILLEJA: We also have seen some of that across the country. We have reports from areas close to Monterey in Northern Mexico that are very sensitive ecologically because of the number of endemic species that inhabit the area and endemic species in an area-a species that is limited to a specific area and cannot be found anywhere else. So if the area burns and that habitat is destroyed, then the species most likely will go as well. And we have a number of birds, in particular, that might be in that category. But the same is happening in Chiapas, in the southern part of Mexico, which is by all accounts, I would say, the jewel of the crown from the point of view of Mexico's natural heritage. That forest is burning right now, and with it, unfortunately, very precious habitat for a number of species that can only be found in that area.
PHIL PONCE: And that area you just described, is that the part of Mexico that contains the northernmost rain forest in North America?
GUILLERMO CASTILLEJA: Very much so, yes.
PHIL PONCE: Are you talking about short-term environmental or long-term environmental damage?
GUILLERMO CASTILLEJA: We're talking about both. I mean, this is a-(signal outage)--
PHIL PONCE: We're evidently having-we got him back. Yes, sir, continue.
The dangers of slash and burn farming methods.
GUILLERMO CASTILLEJA: Yes. There is a lot of attention this year to the fires in Mexico, but this is not exclusive of this year. We have seen the situation actually getting worse and worse over the years. Mexico is losing its forest cover at a rate of about 1 million acres a year. That basically means that we-Mexico will be losing about most of its forest cover within the next 50 years or so. And it is estimated that about 30 percent of this forest loss is attributed directly to fires. So we are seeing sort of a recurring long-term degradation of forests in Mexico, which, of course, in years like this year are particularly severe and may have even stronger consequences.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Atwood, how do you assess the immediate impact on the United States?
BRIAN ATWOOD, Agency for International Development: Well, I think most people are now seeing smoke and haze in many parts of the United States they didn't expect to see from fires in Mexico, but that's the minimal impact. What we're talking about here is our common future. We're talking about the fact that there are about 1500 endangered plants in these biological areas, in these forests down in Mexico. Of the 150 most used, prescribed drugs in this country, 130 are based on these kinds of plants. And these are major areas for bio prospecting for future medicines. In addition, as the gentleman mentioned here, 80 percent of the migratory birds in our country come from this region. So we're seeing something in the long range that could be very, very serious, in addition to all of the negative impacts on global climate change. Obviously, forests reabsorb the CO2 from the atmosphere, which, of course, is building up and creating this greenhouse gas effect, which is warming the U.S. climate, which is possibly creating this very intense El Niño effect. We don't have evidence of that yet, but this is a serious matter. And Americans should sit up and take notice of more than just the smoke and haze, which is a serious matter, which is being monitored by our Environmental Protection Agency, and so far, we're within the health standards, but we're watching this very closely. And, of course, that depends on whether the winds blow in the wrong direction.
PHIL PONCE: So are you saying that right now the smoke and haze is not posing a serious health hazard? For example, in Texas today the health alert was extended through the-
BRIAN ATWOOD: That's right.
PHIL PONCE: --through the end of the week.
BRIAN ATWOOD: It's being extended to the end of the week and particularly in the Gulf Coast states and in the western part of Texas. It's still serious, but it isn't that serious. We're asking people who have respiratory problems to stay in-doors. But it's being monitored very carefully in Texas, in particular, and we'll be giving other warnings if necessary.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Castilleja, how do you assess the response on the part of the Mexican government?
GUILLERMO CASTILLEJA: Well, I would say it's been an unprecedented response. We have seen the government responding very swiftly, very quickly in some of the most ecologically sensitive areas, and we very much applaud those measures. Unfortunately, we're talking, as I said, about a situation that recurs year after year, and the solution in the short term may help certain areas, but over the long term, the solutions really need to be taken at different levels, not just fire fighting. We're talking about major policies that need to be changed-major agricultural practices that need to be phased out if we really want to see this threat that affects that is recurrent be done away.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Castilleja, what kind of practices and policies are you talking about?
"A recurring long-term degradation of forests in Mexico...."
GUILLERMO CASTILLEJA: We believe that most of the fires that we are experiencing in Mexico are the result of preparatory annual practices, say in terms of cattle ranching, in terms of sugar cane production, in terms of a slash and burn. All of these practices, as I said, rely heavily on fire. And many of these areas are in the proximity of natural areas, some of them very precious areas, of course, vulnerable to the fires produced in agricultural fields. In a year as dry as this year, of course, these areas are even more vulnerable. And that's what we're seeing right now, so we need to ask seriously: What are these practices, and what are the policies that are fomenting these practices? We believe that agriculture in Mexico could be made more intensive, more effective, and rely less heavily, as I said, on fire.
PHIL PONCE: Joining us now is Mr. Mario Aguilar, who is the administrator for Environmental Affairs at Mexico's embassy in Washington. Welcome, Mr. Aguilar. Mr. Aguilar, one of the points that observers have made is that government's policy of subsidizing the production of maize and beans is encouraging farmers to do the slash and burn. What is the Mexican government's response?
MARIO AGUILAR, Embassy of Mexico: Well, this practice of using fires for agricultural purposes, it has an historical background. Certainly, in the case of the fires right now, it has aggravated the situation. We usually have some of these fires that take place in Mexico but they are usually pretty much under control. We have an average of 7,000 fires per year, average; however, in this first four months of the year we have had a record of 11,000 fires, which have made the situation much more difficult to control. There is already a trend to try to revise this method of agriculture by using fire by other new methods. Some new technologies should be taken into account and used, however, and this is probably what really explains the situation-we have had this year the El Niño phenomenon. And that had put things on records, on historic records. The drought has no match, has no comparison-probably is the worst one in the last 70 years-probably even a century. There are few rains. And the rains that we usually have in the first months of this year have not taken place, and that has put the situation on a much more worse say case. So given that situation and considering all the historical records that we're facing in these four months, those practices which are not probably the best ones in all cases-
PHIL PONCE: The slash and burn practices?
MARIO AGUILAR: Yes, such as that one. They have a much more dramatic effect.
PHIL PONCE: Does the Mexican government have the resources to adequately respond to this?
The Mexican government's response.
MARIO AGUILAR: Okay, thanks for that question. We have been very much asked about that. We have several resources. The USAID has provided us with additional support; however, under this extreme and unusual situation no resources are enough. We have several land crews, which are crucial. We probably don't have and probably we don't need all of the aircraft that we've been offered, but you have to remember that for combating fires you definitely need the support of land crews. Actually, airplanes support and retard the fire. We need the land crews to put them out, and those areas we are I think so far getting what we are needing. There's always going to be a need for more, but the basic structure is already there.
PHIL PONCE: What makes these fires so hard to fight?
MARIO AGUILAR: Well, in Mexico, as in difference to other countries, you have to see that the land where they take place is surrounded by mountains. It's not like you can send a plane and just throw water there. They are by the cliffs, by the mountains. The distance between them is also very far. You have-you will see that in many states of Mexico you're having all those fires-we have them in the North-we have them in the South. We have them in the Chimalapas, probably one of the worst ones is right there. And that's where the support of the U.S. is being focused right now.
PHIL PONCE: Chimalapas being the area that Mr. Castilleja was talking about earlier as being environmentally sensitive.
MARIO AGUILAR: Yes. Very much.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Aguilar, what do you say to people along the border who might be angry with Mexico for the smoke that's coming to the United States?
MARIO AGUILAR: Thanks for the question, in particular for that one. First of all, in the case of Mexico, because we're the first ones that got a major interest in this-we're doing as much as we can. And I think we are, more or less, overcoming the situation, as much as possible. However, this is also due to a phenomena that has been having dramatic effects worldwide, and that is El Niño. So that is why we're-probably few countries were prepared to deal with this problem in the gravity that we're facing right now.
PHIL PONCE: Gentlemen, I'm afraid we're out of time. That's where we'll have to leave it. I thank you all very much.