“Sewer of Progress, or why is the industrial pollution of the Santiago River between Ocotlán and El Salto, Mexico, not controlled?”
Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Gerardo Bernache Pérez (CIESAS Occidente)
Between the communities of El Salto and Juanacatlán, in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, about thirty kilometers south of Guadalajara, a waterfall on the Santiago River was a tourist attraction known as the ‘Mexican Niagara’. Serious pollution of the river began in the early 1970s and by 2012, the waterfall found itself in a new niche tourism market as a stop on a “Toxic Tour”, part of a Greenpeace Mexico campaign. In the area between the birth of the river in Ocotlán and the waterfall in El Salto, this investigation seeks to probe why, after more than a decade of citizen pressure for river clean up, the river continues to be polluted by industrial effluent.
With a starting point in the case of the industrial pollution of the Santiago River, the investigation examines power relations in the formulation and application of environmental standards and policies in Mexico, from a political ecology and environmental justice framework. In the case of the Santiago River, as with many other water bodies in the country, severe pollution problems persist despite the demands of affected communities and the emergence of socio-environmental conflicts. In Mexico, environmental legislation and bureaucracy have been strengthened in the neoliberal era; however, the degradation of the countries’ waters, including the Santiago River, has continued. While companies in the industrial corridor along the Santiago adopt sustainability discourses and the Mexican government sets itself the goal of inclusive green growth, this project explores how the mechanisms governing the formulation and application of environmental regulations ensure the predominance of private interests. It argues that the non-application of this regulation constitutes a form of institutionalized corruption, which is not due solely to a lack of resources but to prevailing power relations.
This investigation focuses on three main aspects. First, on the analysis of government regulation of industrial activity in the research area. Second, on examining a group of companies, from the chemical, auto parts, electronics, metalworking, and food and beverages sectors, located in this area. Finally, the visions and strategies of key organizations from El Salto and Juanacatlán, the main site of the socio-environmental conflict over the river pollution, are considered.