On Dying Land: the Afterlife of Toxicity in an Afromexican Community 

*This post is part of our series on Black Ecologies edited by Justin Hosbey, Leah Kaplan, & J.T. Roane. A Spanish version of this essay is available here.

(Photo by Meztli Yoalli Rodriguez Aguilera)

On an early morning of September 2017 in a little fishing village on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca, Mexico, called Zapotalito, thousands of dead fish cobbled the water surface of the Chacahua-Pastoría lagoons. The Black and Indigenous community has called for environmental justice but believes their racialization has influenced government inaction and that legacies of environmental racism are killing their lagoon.

Environmental discourse and governance in the Americas tends to associate Indigenous groups with fights for land, but the Black and Afro-Indigenous communities of the Costa Chica fight similar struggles. Latin American multicultural governments understand land as criteria to define Indigeneity, which can erase Afrodescendientes’ historical connection to land and reproduce exclusions to collective land rights. Mestizos of the Costa Grande are often considered the epicenter of the region’s environmental activism, but this essay underscores how Afrodescendientes in the Costa Chica have shaped a Black ecology and burgeoning Black environmentalism in southern Mexico.

A Black Pacific Ecology

Colonial ideas about race and the environment first cast the Costa Chica as a zone of extraction, but Afrodescendientes soon reshaped the region into a zone of refuge. After bringing diseases, which decimated and displaced indigenous populations, the Spanish brought thousands of enslaved Africans to the Costa Chica in the 16th and 17th century to primarily work on plantations or in militias. As soon as Afrodescendientes reached the region, however, they sought freedom and tested the limits of Spanish control in the region by forming cimarrones, or communities of runaways.1

By the 18th century, the Costa Chica was dominated by numerous Black and Indigenous pueblos. After Mexico gained independence, Afrodescendiente leaders Juan Álvarez and Vicente Guerrero, the first Black president in the Americas (1829), came to embody the idea of coastal Guerrero as a Black place beyond state control. In the wake of colonialism, Mexico’s early republic continued to marginalize Black politics and that region with differential development.

Even without racism, the dry tropical climate of the Costa Chica is unkind. Rain stops for months, only to fall with destructive forces in a span of hours. The Pacific has preponderant hold on the climate, but annual droughts and monsoons shape people and plant life on the coast. For local Black, Amuzgo, Chatino, or Mixtec populations, lagoons became central to life and sustenance in these otherwise dry scrub lands. More savanna than tropical forest, the Costa Chica’s drought stress encourages plant life to develop oils, toxins, or thorns to protect its precious water supply from insects and animals. This adaptation or resistance helps oil-producing plants thrive in these environments, but as the expansion of oil plant cultivation contaminated local water sources, local populations also had to adapt to maintain their ecologies, home, and way of life.

Five major freshwater lagoons line the Pacific Ocean from Acapulco, Guerrero to Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, offering essential sources of food and water for drinking and irrigation. Lagoons and the rivers that feed them also have been sites of generations of oilseed plantations of cacao, cotton, and coconuts. As these oil crops modernized the world, they relied on and influenced local Afromexican experiences.

Like communities of the African diaspora around the tropics, many Afromexicans grew the oilseeds necessary for these global vegetable oil industries. Increasing national and global demand for oil-producing crops to make vegetable oils, plastics, and soaps after World War II applied more economic and ecological pressures on the Costa Chica, which became the nation’s largest producer of cotton, sesame seeds, and coconuts at three different points in the twentieth century. As the region became the largest producer of coconuts in the Western Hemisphere in the 1950s—and Acapulco emerged as the globe’s hottest tourist attraction—did development in Costa Chica improve the lives of its inhabitants?

Oil crops contaminate Pacific coast lagoons like petroleum has damaged Gulf coast lagoons. Rather than benefit from the expansion of historic and contemporary companies in the Costa Chica, such as Anderson Clayton, Afromexican communities have suffered from inequitable development and environmental damage. Along the Oaxaca’s Chacahua-Pastoría lagoons in particular, historical cycles of oil-related and tourist development came at the expense of environmental health and justice in the region. Local environmentalists have waited decades for government help. Today, the Mexican government has begun to recognize the locals’ Blackness, but will they acknowledge their environmentalism?

Ecocide of the Chacahua-Pastoría lagoons

President Lázaro Cárdenas designated Chacahua-Pastoría lagoons as a national park in 1937, but being a protected territory did not save surrounding communities from environmental degradation. Subsequent state efforts to control the lagoons socio-economic development also tended to prioritize the economy over local communities: Zapotalito, Cerro Hermoso, Chacahua, and El Azufre.

State officials began building the waterworks that undermined the integrity of the lagoons in the 1970s. First, a breakwater that officials intended to stabilize the lagoon brought neither fish nor fisherman. Next in 1992, the damming of the Río Verde for irrigation only diminished the locals’ access to fresh lagoon water. The following decade, tourist developers added two more breakwaters across the inlet to create a bay to attract visitors, which disconnected the water flow by producing sand dunes in between the lagoon and the ocean. The new bay was never realized and the community of Cerro Hermoso cannot ignore their decreased tourism due to a failed state project.

This infrastructural rive of coastal waterways was compounded by an influx of toxic chemicals from the local oil-crop industries. Without tourism, those industries increasingly produced papaya, lime and coconut in the region, which has accelerated deforestation, erosion, and agrochemical runoff in the area. Moreover, a multinational lime-oil factory some miles away from Zapotalito has been discarding chemical waste directly into the lagoons since the early 2000s. In addition to access, water contamination is now a public health hazard and water sovereignty issue.

Cristina, a Black fisherwoman, said in an interview, “There are days where we don’t even earn enough money for food, we come out of the lagoon with nothing, not even with something to eat.” The ecocide of Chacahua-Pastoría Lagoons resulting from failed state projects directly undermines locals’ principal source of livelihood. With dying lagoons, these communities struggle without fish, proper drinking water, and profits from ecotourism.

Even without consuming chemicals from the lagoon’s fish or water, the decaying body of water is an affront to other sensibilities. Touching the water can lead to skin problems, and the smell of rancid and inert water has produced headaches, dizziness, and nausea. Claims of heightened cancer rates also demand further investigation. In a 2018 interview, for example, local fisherman Fernando described an increase in stomach cancer cases in several lagoon communities.

Since the early 2000s, residents of the Chacahua-Pastoría lagoons have solicited government support to save their lagoons. Locals have sent letters to Mexico City and protested outside of state capitol buildings in Oaxaca de Juárez. They have even successfully reported human rights violations at national and international levels. On the ground, locals act to survive and protect life in their territories. Among other things, they cooperate in mutual aid programs, such as collective cooking for their families, exchanges of food, childcare during fishing trips, and collective community work (tequio). In addition to protesting for state support, locals also want the government to acknowledge and address its environmental racism in Costa Chica in general and in the Chacahua-Pastoría lagoons in particular. Demands for land rights have mounted since the national government began to officially recognize and integrate its Afrodescendientes citizens into the federal constitution in 2019, but, like tourists, environmental justice has yet to arrive to the Costa Chica.

Sitting along the lagoon one summer day in 2018, an Afro-Mixtec woman named Yolanda insisted that, “If we don’t do anything right now about this lagoon, when the children of our community grow up, there is not going to be anything, Zapotalito will be a ghost town.” Unfortunately, Mexico is not a safe place for environmentalists. Since 2012 alone, over 80 Mexican activists have been murdered protesting infrastructure projects or resource extraction. Many lagoon communities want the right to defend their lands, but they also realize they face a brand of state racialization, which ignores their solutions and disregards threats to their lives.

Amid this ecocide, another Black woman from Zapotalito, Dalia, supports her family by producing batches of coconut oil to use and to sell in the community. She collects and then dries the coconut for days. Pressing the dried coconut into coconut oil takes her 8 to 14 hours depending on the quantity. However, due to her experience, the result is always of the highest quality. To keep up with global demand for coconut oil, the state and developers have invested in modern dry technologies rather than skilled women like Dalia. A better future for these communities demands an environmental justice that highlights more than the presence of these communities, but rather their contribution to Mexico and the contemporary world.

  1. Cimarrones have many names across Latin America. In Jamaica they are Maroons; in Brazil they are quilombos; in Colombia and Ecuador, they are palenques.
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Jayson Maurice Porter & Meztli Yoalli Rodríguez

Jayson Maurice Porter is a PhD candidate of History at Northwestern University and recent Fulbright-García Robles Fellow (2019-2020) studying agrochemicals, environmental justice, and insecurity in Mexico. Meztli Yoalli Rodríguez is a PhD candidate in Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, who studies gendered environmental racism and politics of mestizaje in Mexico.