If you haven’t figured it out by now, it’s not the Mexicans.
When Americans visit Mexico’s Riviera Nayarit 200-mile coastline, they’re enamored with a tropical scenery of white sandy beaches and palm trees. But for those traveling to paradise, the reality doesn’t live up to appearances.
“We can only surf when the water is moving [out] and taking the waste from the river out to the sea,” Australian Surfer Mitch Carr told Justine Kelly of Earth Island Journal. Carr, like many other tourists, is suffering from respiratory issues and general malaise. He attributed his symptoms to an e-coli-related illness.
Yet considering his time near the river, that’s likely not the case.
Water pollution along Mexico’s coastal tourist areas is a reality brushed over by the 150,000 American tourists who visit the country each year, unaware of the impacts of industrial waste from American companies, including Levi’s and IBM, has on the nation’s rivers.
But for those living permanently in the coastal areas, it’s real — and it keeps them from fishing in their own water and enjoying the rivers flowing through their communities.
According to Kelly, locals know that exposure to the water comes with a list of symptoms, including respiratory, bronchial and digestive issues. They know that consuming the fish is out of the question.
They’re also aware of the cause: industrial waste contaminating the Santiago River, which flows onto the coastline of the Riviera Nayarit.
“The problem of water pollution in the region is like a big elephant sitting on the beach — the Mexicans see it but the foreigners don’t,” she writes.
In March, SEMARNAT, Mexico’s governmental branch responsible for environmental regulations, claimed all beaches on the Pacific coast safe. Last July, its website indicated dangers to locals, claiming the bacteria count was double the acceptable U.S. limit.
As Kelly notes, that website is not a regularly viewed site among tourists.
Where does it come from?
The Mexican Institute of Water Technology found that between 2009 and 2001, the Rio Santiago River had a total of 1,090 chemicals swimming around in it, including hormone disruptors and neurotoxins. Flame retardants used in clothing manufacturing operations were also detected.
The river’s pathways flow through the heart of Mexico’s industrial zones, home to multinational corporations, including U.S.-based manufacturers.
According to a Vida Institute study, there are three main locations where industries discharge wastewater into the Santiago: the city of Ocotlan, the Guadalajara Industrial Park and Guadalajara Urban Area.
According to the Discharge Inventory for the State of Jalisco, published by the Regional Office of the National Water Commission, 280 discharges exist — 266 flow into the Santiago River, the Vida study states.
Nearly 37 percent of the discharge is from the chemical/pharmaceutical industry. Fifteen percent is from the food and beverage industry, and another 12 percent is derived from the textile industry. The tequila industry also plays a role, according to Vida.
Greenpeace highlights widespread industry pollution
In 2012, GreenPeace hosted a protest at Levi’s supplier, Lavamax, located in Aguascalientes, Mexico. Seventeen protesters unveiled a massive banner pointing to a waste water treatment plant for the company. According to Greenpeace, the Levi’s supplying facility operates with little regulations, creating a free-for-all system that leaves the impact of chemicals leaking into nearby rivers without scrutiny.
A Greenpeace study revealed nonylphenol, a hormone disruptor, in Lavamax discharge pipes.
The scenario highlighted in that study isn’t an isolated one in Mexico, where regulations are often lax and government oversight is minimal.
“The authorities prefer to save information on industrial pollution of Santiago River to protect and license polluters, rather than recognize and report serious risks to which populations are exposed every day and take immediate action to resolve this conflict socio-environmental,” Mexican Institute for Community Development director, Maria Gonzalez Valencia, told Earth Island.
In 2012, Greenpeace released a report indicating IBM’s site in Guadalajara, Mexico was discharging waste water containing hormone disruptors.
“The tragic and undocumented persistent contamination of people and the environment by the global electronics industry, which hides behind the anonymity of its supplier chain, must end,” Greenpeace International Toxics Campaigner Zeina Alhajj said in a press release. “
In March 2012, Greenpeace activists wearing biotech clothing attempted to kayak down the Santiago River to protest the pollution, in the hopes of raising awareness that would lead to pressure on the Mexican government to take action.
Those tuned in to the global environmental scene are familiar with the issues — and causes — of Mexico’s riverss. Yet for those planning week-long retreats to the tropical paradise, water problems are often just thought of as a problem impacting “third world countries,” where it’s not as “sanitary.” The real truth, however, lies in the industries operating there — and perhaps the Levi’s jeans worn by those very people traveling south of the border.