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Report On The Juarez Maquilas: The Environment


After spending a period of weeks investigating labor and environmental conditions on the US-Mexico border, I have concluded that the production system used to inundate us with commodities – “globalization” – lacks a human brain, but has an excellent calculator. Although the managers of the multi-national factories and the developers of the giant industrial parks on the border cities on the Mexican side have advanced university degrees and speak coherently about bottom lines, I find no evidence of a sensible intelligence.

These high IQ human specimens with MBAs from prestigious universities represent a production, distribution and sales system that accumulates wealth, raw and human materials, and acronyms: NAFTA, GATT, WTO, free trade, neo-liberalism, globalization and of course the free market.

This “system” runs on a rational basis, meaning it possesses measures to evaluate efficiency, but lacks human reason. For example, the global system needs adequate resources, good water, air and land to continue to make the products it pushes relentlessly on all prospective buyers. Yet, in order to make these commodities “competitively” it systematically ruins the earth’s water, air and soil and destroys prematurely the essence of the very people who must work in its factories. In short, it defies the wisdom of the old Arab saying: “don’t shit in the plate you eat from.”

Ciudad Juarez in the state of Chihuahua provides an immediate illustration. In late June I stood on the south bank of a twenty-foot wide canal with sewer water (aguas negras) running through it. Our video camera pointed at Osvaldo Aguinaba, an elderly farmer, on the other side. I tried not to let the stench rising from the rapidly moving stream interfere with my own stream of thought.

“So,” I shout across fetid tributary, “has this stinky water always run through here.”

“Yes, but it used to pure sewage, you know from human beings.” Osvaldo, dressed in white work clothes, nodded his head and pointed at the putrid watercourse. “But now it’s mixed with the chemical wastes from the factories. Yes, those factories make most of this crap. It’s ruining the country side.”

Another elderly farmer in blue jeans, a red shirt and a baseball hat joined the one in white. He shook his head sadly. “The government is allowing agriculture to die,” he said, pointing at the aguas negras.

From the farmers’ side of the canal, standing on a ladder, you can see Texas, about half a mile away. On the Mexico side of the border, some 25 miles southeast of Juarez, alfalfa, sorghum and other cattle feed grow alongside cotton. “They don’t let us use the water to irrigate the fruit trees anymore,” he told me.

(“Thank God,” I muttered to myself. But I wondered how much enforcement exists in rural Chihuahua.)

Osvaldo claimed that he still grew some wheat. I shuddered. “Yes, the agues negras drain into the fields. What can we do? There’s been a long draught here. We have to eat. The animals have to eat. We have to grow our crops and sell them with whatever water we can find.”

People presumably eat the wheat and the meat and milk from the cows after they eat grains irrigated with this toxic river. A few miles further south a plant converts the solid waste into sludge bars which they sell to farmers who then throw it onto their fields for fertilizer. I’m no scientist, but my nose tells me to move far away from the agues negras, to no eat anything that has had contact with them.

“The worst contaminators are the dangerous metals used in metal processing,” says Federico de la Vega, who studied Chemical Engineering at MIT and went home to Juarez to run a beer and soda pop distribution business and lease industrial parks to foreign maquilas. “Cleaning metals for locks and other industrial products involves the use of chlorine, bromine and other truly toxic elements and I know that some of the maquila managers don’t dispose of these poisonous resides properly. I worry especially about the health of pregnant women who come into contact with these dangerous compounds”

Even Jaime Bermudez, the father and foremost promoter of Juarez’ industrial parks admitted that environmental problems are serious. “But these are problems we can solve. The maquilas bring jobs and without jobs we have nothing.”

It reminded me of the mantra of some US labor unions some decades ago when their members demanded they confront chemical, nuclear and other workplace hazards. “What’s more important, a little crap in the air and water or a chance to ear a good living for your family? Be a tough working man. Environment is for sissies.”

In border cities like Juarez, pollution hits you in the eyes, ears nose, throat and lungs. Take a deep breath, even if you’re not standing next to one of the putrid streams. “First, we have the ancient busses,” says Felix Perez, a local environmental activist. “These very used vehicles are the city’s basic means of transportation. Not only are they extremely uncomfortable, they emit immense amounts of noxious exhaust.” Perez points to the old US school busses which load workers going to and from the colonias where they live and the factories where they work.

Some busses have little or no shock absorbers or spring as they bounce along with rutted, unpaved streets, lined with ramshackle huts – the housing for some of those who produce home furnishings, parts for fancy trailers and new auto and computer accessories. An average ride from colonia to factory takes almost an hour.

“The fact is,” Perez says, “that we have no environmentally good transportation system. Add to that the contamination produced by the post 9/11 security measures taken by the US border agencies and you have truly non-breathable air.”

Perez refers to the extra time now required to cross the three bridges that link Juarez to El Paso, Texas. The delay has at least doubled the waiting time, so that Juarez and El Paso residents suck double the emissions from the idling autos and trucks as they wait their turn to get cleared for entry by US Customs. Needless to say, the Mexican vehicles have not passed emission control inspection.

“Then, there’s the scarce water issue,” Perez continues. The once mighty Rio Grande has been reduced to a trickle in parts of Juarez and what is left defies human contact. “Juarez has five years of water remaining,” he proclaims. In the future, the city officials have found a water source in the desert some miles form here, but it’s located in a nuclear graveyard, where they buried among other things radioactive cobalt. So it may well have leaked into the water.”

No one knew for sure whether the water would be safe to drink. But industrial planning in third world countries doesn’t take into account the human health factor. The rich will of course buy bottled water and the supply of cheap labor in places like Mexico will be abundant for decades to come. Indeed, companies shun older workers in favor of teenagers, most of whose health and energy will prove sufficient for production needs over the next five years. In their forties the cancers, lung diseases and the syndromes associated with repetitive motion emerge.

Just as we left Juarez Scientific-Atlanta, the second-largest U.S. maker of television set-top boxes, announced that it had eliminated 1,300 jobs in Mexico because of declining demand at. In October, Scientific-Atlanta had moved its manufacturing operations from Atlanta to Juarez. A company spokesman ,Paul Sims, warned that more job cuts lie ahead. Scientific-Atlanta’s problems come from reduced demand after peaking in 2000.

So the new residents of Juarez who came there to make a living after the countryside economy dried up now face unemployment without any safety net and a physical environment that appears unsustainable. Why, I ask rhetorically, couldn’t the brilliant people who developed the idea of maquilas as an economic base have thought about some worst case scenarios? Or is it the very nature of the new world order, a global corporatism that dictates short run boom and long term disaster?

Saul Landau is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and Directs the Digital Media Program for the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences at the California State University, Pomona.

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