No bunny relief for disaster victims

Mexico Tropical Weath_Nost
The publishing house that produces Mexico’s edition of Playboy magazine contends the government has rejected two truckloads of disaster relief needed by victims of two hurricanes that lashed the nation’s coasts simultaneously last week.

Grupo Gin Media Business said its employees had rounded up a “modest” contribution for disaster relief.

“We know that this is only a small contribution to all that is needed, however, we think it is worth and will make a difference for at least a small number of families,” it said in a statement.

“Sadly, because this publishing house counts among its titles various magazines such as Open, El Gourmet, Forward, Soy Grupero and Playboy, our help has been rejected because a few deem one of our titles not worthy of cooperating, Playboy magazine,” it added.

Grupo Gin said it would not be discouraged. It said one of its playmates, Brazilian Leia Freitas, would preside over a drive this afternoon to gather more relief supplies and the company would work around the government, delivering the goods on its own.

That's an AP photo above, by the way, of the tremendous damage in La Pintada, the Guerrero state town that was smacked by mud slides and flooding, causing a bulk of the 140 or fatalities from the storm.


Mexico's changing map of pollution

What are the four cities with the greatest air pollution in Mexico? If you guessed Mexico City as one of them, you’d be wrong.

I just got back from a news conference by the Mexican Institute of Competitiveness, a think tank, and their scholars have taken public data and extrapolated costs related to air pollution.

By far, the city with the worst air pollution in Mexico is Mexicali, an industrial city across from Calexico, California. According to the think tank, 30 people die prematurely a year in the city from effects of air pollution, and 74 out of 100,000 people are hospitalized a year because of its effects. Here's a link to their Spanish-language presentation.

Following Mexicali are (surprisingly!) Cuernavaca, then Monterrey and Tijuana. Cuernavaca is often called the “garden city” for its delightful climate. It’s a resort located over a small mountain range from the capital. Monterrey is a big industrial hub, with steel, glass, cement and autoparts industries, so no surprise that they’d have problems. Tijuana also has a lot of industry.

Mexico City comes in fifth place but its level of suspended particulates smaller than 10 microns was less than a third of Mexicali. I’ve written about Mexico City’s improving air quality. It’s no longer jokingly referred to as Mexsicko City.

The study only measured particulates, not ozone of sulphur. So it has some drawbacks. But if you want to avoid the yuck factor, you might stay away from Mexicali.


Reptiles on the loose

The flooding from Tropical Storm Manuel that hit Acapulco over the weekend brought some rather scary creatures onto the streets. News articles describe them as crocodiles but looks more like an alligator in the video to me. This article says 50 came out from the Laguna Negra (Black Lagoon) near Puerto Marques to roam the streets. Boas, iguanas and turtles were also displaced by the flood waters, another article says.


Mexico's 'smog-eating' building

A modern Mexico City hospital with a decorative facade not only looks pretty but cleans the air. Believe it or not, the space-age materials used in the facade neutralize the smog equivalent of 1,000 vehicles. Here's a CNN report about the building, the Manuel Gea González Hospital. Designed by a Berlin firm, Elegant Embellishments, the molded modules on the exterior are made of a special pigment that when hit by ambient ultraviolet light break down air pollutants into carbon dioxide, water and other less noxious compounds. According to this Bloomberg report, this is the Berlin company's first project but it hopes other buildings and garages will use the technology, either in air-purifying paints or special modules, to reduce smog.  

The firm's depolluting facades aren't the only smog munching walls in Mexico City. Check out these photos of vertical gardens that have gone up around the city. The gardens absorb noise, take heavy metals and pollutants out of the air and add green to the urban landscape. At least three are up in Mexico City, maybe five. Personally I can't figure out how the plants get cared for 30 and 40 feet up in the air. As one who does not have a green thumb (I can even kill cactus), my hat is off to the group behind these gardens, VERDMX.

Item: I'm taking off on vacation tomorrow so this is likely the last blog posting until after my return Aug. 11. Hasta luego!


Rumbling, big ash emission from Popo

The Popocatepetl Volcano emitted a strong plume of ash high into the clear sky this afternoon. This is a speeded up 30-second video of the plume as it occurred around 1:30 p.m. Webcams caught the action. Read a lot more about it here. Just imagine if that baby actually blows big time some day. 


A lack of diversity on the coffee farms

I toured several coffee-growing cooperatives in Guatemala today, and one of the surprises I encountered was the prevalence of a certain species of tree used for shade-grown coffee.

It used to be in decades past that shade-grown coffee was considered better for the environment. Farmers used numerous kinds of trees to cast shade, providing some diversity. But everywhere I went today, there was just one kind of tree, a silky oak, an import from Australia. It’s been in Guatemala for decades. It's not a real oak, by the way, but more like a eucalyptus.

You can see it in the background in the photo above, taken at the San Pedrano Cooperative near Esquintla.

The silky oak can be shaped with pruning, and is highly frost resistant, two qualities that coffee farmers like. Other trees, like the endemic Inga, can die in a hard frost. So the silky oak has taken over at some coffee farms.

One of the benefits of shade-grown coffee disappears if the trees providing the shade are a monoculture. Juan Carlos Toledo, an agent with the Federation of Coffee-growing Agricultural Cooperatives of Guatemala, said some U.S.-based specialty coffee buyers were pressuring Guatemalan growers to diversify their trees to replicate natural forest. 

I’ll sip to that.

I've just come across what looks like a Guatemalan coffee industry website that indicates the silky oak, also known as by its Latin name as Gravilea Robusta, is used on only 22 percent of coffee farms in the nation. If still up to date, that would be good news. 


A sign of shortages to come

Scattered around our apartment our buckets and pails of water. We’ve learned the hard way about the intermittent water shortages afflicting some areas of Mexico City in the past three weeks.

We awoke this morning to find water gone. I went to the gym anyway. Water was still out when I got back. So I spent the next four hours in my sweaty clothes thanking my lucky stars I had no business outside to attend to.

We got water but only because we had to buy it. That is big business in Mexico City. It is common to see water tanker trucks backed up to buildings, selling tankfuls of water. We had to pay 300 pesos, which is $25. Who knows how long it will last.

I don’t know how widespread this outage is -- perhaps just a few blocks around our building. But it could be bigger.

Over Holy Week, 13 entire districts of the city (think millions of people) had water cut off for 55 hours for some sort of maintenance. My Swedish friend had his sister’s family visiting. They arrived from the beach to discover they were crowded in his apartment without water. One day. Two days. It gets unpleasant fast. Think about not being able to flush toilets.

Who knows how regularly this inconvenience will occur. But it’s hard not to see the outages as a sign of things to come. After all, Mexico City faces huge shortages of water in the future as the aquifer is depleted.

Click here for a Public Radio International piece on how some families are turning to “rain-water harvesting” to cope with shortages. Earlier this year, city water officials announced a newfound aquifer about a mile deep that may stave off a crisis, at least in part of the city. Overuse of the existing aquifer is casing Mexico City to sink. Here’s a story I once wrote about buildings that settle and list because of the sinking.


The need for a new 'green revolution'

Some half a century ago in the arid hills 30 miles north of Mexico City, an American agronomist and humanitarian, Normal Borlaug, developed the hybrid seeds and new ideas that became known as the “green revolution.”

Borlaug and other scientists would pass on to nations in South Asia the high-yielding varieties of grains that averted starvation among one billion people.

Today, the world needs a new “green revolution.” I heard about it at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center where Borlaug did decades of work before winning the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. That's a new bioscience facility at the center above.

I was there on a different matter but fell into conversation with Kevin V. Pixley, an American who is the director of the genetic resources program.

Here’s the key takeaway: The world population now is 6.8 billion people. By 2050, estimates say it will hit 9.2 billion. But by 2050, the developing world will need 60 percent more wheat and twice as much corn. Yes, double. Demand will soar.

“Not only is population growing but, thankfully, poverty is declining,” Pixley explained. “So what happens in India when people start to have a little more expendable income? Well, first of all they want to eat a little more dairy products. They want to eat more chicken, in the case of India. If you go up to China, they want to eat more pork and more beef.

“Those foods – the dairy products and the meat products – require several times more grain than a human (does). If I feed myself on maize and soybeans, I can eat a few kilos a week. But if I’m eating beef and chicken, those beef cattle use many kilos to produce one kilo of beef. So you need a lot more food to maintain a higher standard of diet, which of course is desirable. We want this to happen. But it does imply a lot more food than if you’re eating a basic diet of basic grains.”

But guess what? It’s harder than ever to produce more food. Water tables are falling, extreme weather is increasing, climate change is coming, and new pestilent diseases have emerged.

“We have a new epidemic in Kenya, maize lethal necrosis. We have a new disease of wheat in Brazil called wheat blast, which is completely new,” said Thomas Lumpkin, the director of the maize and wheat center.

Lumpkin laid out what may happen if scientists can’t bring about a new green revolution: “Failing to meet it will be disastrous for millions of people. … We have all the ingredients for a new global food crisis, even a political crisis.”

“We’ve already seen how high wheat prices fueled the revolutions in the Arab world – in Libya, in Egypt. I’m sure you can remember the 2007 tortilla crisis here in Mexico. The world must grow more food with less inputs, with less land, with less water, with less labor, with less fertilizer.”

Lumpkin cited the “enormous challenge” of meeting greater demand for grains. If a new green revolution comes about, it is likely to sprout from the high-tech laboratories and 200 scientists at this agricultural center in Texcoco, in the arid plains north of Mexico City.

Saving Mexico's national symbol

Aguila real1
The aguila real, or golden eagle, is such a powerful national symbol in Mexico that it is the centerpiece of the national flag, perched on a cactus with a snake clutched in its beak and talon.
But the avian predator is endangered. The Environmental and Natural Resources Secretariat sent out a release a few hours ago noting that there are only 81 known pairs of golden eagles in Mexico, with habitats in 13 of the nation's 31 states.
Ornithologists have identified 145 eagle nests spread in the states of Aguascalientes, Baja California, Baja California Sur, Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Jalisco, Durango, Queretaro, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi and Sonora. 
So what's endangering the golden eagle? In a nutshell, powerlines. According to this Nature Conservancy website, the eagles are suffering electrocutions and collisions with power lines at an alarming rate. Along one small stretch alone near the El Uno Nature Reserve, as many as three golden eagles die a year. What can be done? Some measures are simple, such as replacing metal crossbars on power poles with wooden ones. The eagles like to nest and perch on the power poles to survey prairies in areas like Chihuahua.


El Condor Pasa -- or not?

When countries get wealthier, do they necessarily become more environmentally conscious? To what extent is environmentalism a rich man’s luxury?

Mexico City is an anomaly within Mexico, a relatively prosperous haven with practices that differ from the rest of the country. Example: A headline this week announced that animal cruelty can now lead to jail terms of up to four years. Elsewhere in Mexico, like in Ciudad Juarez, it's a different story.

Animal rights activists are also in fine fettle these days in the capital. They believe they will soon convince city fathers to ban bull fighting.

But sometimes prosperity lets people afford to do things they wouldn’t have done previously. That is very clear from the video above, which I was enchanted to see partly because it was done by my friend Jonathan Watts of The Guardian.

The video shows images of the Yawar festivals in the Peruvian Andes. Even though I lived in Peru for years, I never saw one of these festivals, in which people sew the talons of a powerful Andean condor to the back of a bull. In what Jon calls a “gory glory" in his article, the condor flaps its wings madly while the bull tries to buck the bird off.

Peru is no doubt getting more and more prosperous, and it turns out that Andean villagers are capturing more condors and holding more Yawar festivals, up to 55 such festivals a year, according to Jon’s count. After each Yawar festival, the bull is dispatched and the condor set free. But some die. And Peru can hardly afford to lose any of the 300-500 condors left in the wild.



This blog is written by Tim Johnson, the Mexico bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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