Sunday, September 2, 2007


Tenacious cacti crown white gypsum dunes in an area described by biologists as a "showplace of biodiversity" and an "irreplaceable treasure of Mexico." Unfortunately, these natural resources are rapidly disappearing due to intensified irrigation and mining of the dunes.

"We risk losing one of Mexico's most precious ecosystems in Cuatro Cienegas," Said Salvador Contreras Banderas, a biologist with the Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon (UANL).

Towering limestone sierras are capped by conifer forests which overlook the Cuatro Cienegas basin. The valley is home to numerous species of fish, turtles, snails and cacti found nowhere else in the world.

"Cuatro Cienegas is one of the most important areas in North America because of its endemic species," said Julio Carrera, director of the Saltillo, Coahuila based environmental organization Profauna.

The valley is best known for its gypsum dunes, which are unique in Mexico and one of only three such places in North America. "This gypsum is almost 100 percent pure," Contreras said. "All the company has to do is make it into powder, fill up the bags and export it to Monterrey."

The basin has several marshes and lagoons, formed by fresh water springs. As the water evaporates, it leaves behind the dried gypsum, which blows into the dunes. "We still don't understand the processes very well," Contreras said. "In fact, we keep learning abut the biology and the geology of this region. New species are continually discovered in the valley."

Contreras said that the once 50-foot dunes have been reduced to 20 feet above the valley floor, because of excavation performed by the Proyeso, S.A. de C.V. gypsum mining company. Proyeso is part of Grupo Lamosa, a Monterrey-based industrial group, which produces ceramics using the gypsum. "What they are doing to the environment is brutal," Carrera said. "Something must be done or we will lose this area forever."

Earlier this year, the Social Development Secretariat (Sedesol) ordered Proyeso to limit its excavations to specific areas of the dunes, which Proyeso has undertaken, according to union leader Noe Alvizu Torres. But scientists, including Contreras and Carrera said that the government should conduct an environmental impact statement as soon as possible. "We depend on Proyeso for employment," Alvizu said. "They can't just close the plant down."

Local unemployment and underemployment are high, Alvizu said, pointing to recent factory closings in nearby Monclova. However, Alvizu added that the workers would not object if the government declared part of the dunes a biologically protected area. "We are very proud of our desert," he said. "People come from all over the world to see it."

Desert guide and schoolteacher Hector Mendez Campos often leads educational tours into the Cuatro Cienegas basin and believes that a compromise can be reached. "Environmental tourism is one solution," he said. "If we can find a way to make the desert financially attractive, we could keep both the jobs and the species."

So far, however, tourism has floundered in Cuatro Cienegas, because of a lack of publicity and of infrastructure. "We've seen scientists and tourists come here with their own food," Mendez said. "They don't spend any money here, so how can we depend on them to support our economy."

There is also a debate over what type of ecotourism to promote. Mendez pointed out that previous schemes at attracting tourists have not been environmentally friendly. "They want to develop the lagoons for water skiing," he said. "And this would have a terrible impact on the ecosystem."

Residents have misinterpreted the scientists' praise for Cuatro Cienegas, Profauna's Carrera said, mistaking biological richness for economic worth. "The value of the basin is actually low," he said. "And the problem that we're facing now is that property owners are demanding exorbitant amounts of money for their property."

While residents and environmentalists ponder how to make this out-of-the-way community an environmental attraction, ecological destruction continues unabated.

Besides the mining operations, livestock and agriculture have had a tremendous impact on the land. The availability of ground water has lured many campesino farmers to the valley, even though the heavily salinated water is of poor use. "What we've seen is that the water has been over-exploited," Contreras said. "And we've documented several species of fresh water fish extinction, because the lagoons are drying up."

Livestock grazing has also exceeded the carrying capacity of the land, Contreras said. "You need 40 to 50 hectares to support each head of cattle, so farmers are raising horses which can chew that type of grass." As a result, the complex nature of the valley's ecological degradation will only be resolved through an environmental management plan, Carrera said.

"We've sent a letter to Sedesol demanding a more thorough review of the matter," he said. "I have hope that our new governor will pay attention to this issue, because two years ago he spoke out on the need for development which does not destroy our natural resources."

Scientists warn that time is running out for Cuatro Cienegas. The seasonal rhythms of the marshes are being overridden by human development and the dunes are steadily being destroyed. There are no perfect answers, but so far the discussion has been as quiet as the desert itself.

"Academics have talked mainly with themselves," Carrera said. "Now we have to let more people know what's at risk of being lost forever."

No comments: