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Global Exchange’s Medea Benjamin, Shannon Biggs and Carleen Pickard are joining fellow climate justice campaigners, environmentalists and social justice advocates from around the world for COP16 in Cancun. Today, Global Exchange volunteer writer Ryan Van Lenning reports:

“Along the way you will be witness to what I have witnessed my whole life, some of the worst realities in Mexico,” said one member of National Assembly of People Affected by the Environment (Asamblea Nacional de Afectados Ambientales–ANAA). This perhaps set the tone for an itinerary that is not likely to be on the radar of any travel agency.

We were introduced to one such harsh reality in El Salto (in the state of Jalisco), where the International Caravan for Life and Environmental Justice was kicking off the first leg of the journey to Cancun.

We met last Sunday in El Salto, gathering in a small open-air building overlooking fields and a portion of the Rio Santiago. Community members spoke in particular of the local polluted river and the life that depends on it. The voices here are not professional environmentalists, nor staffers at the big environmental NGOs, they repeated.  Rather they have become “poor man’s environmentalists” by default, as Enrique Enciso of El Salto put it.

Rio Santiago is the lifeline of the region, but it is now a degraded and toxic waterway that brings perhaps as much illness as life.  The river looks gorgeous when looking down safely from the mirador in Guadalajara. But close up the smell is atrocious. You can smell the river from over a kilometer away in places.  Rio Santiago has the reputation of being among the most polluted rivers on the planet.  Untreated domestic sewage and industrial wastewater pours into the river daily. It has been shown to have high levels of organic waste, arsenic, sulfuric acid, mercury, and chrome.

Older members of the community spoke of a time when the river wasn’t polluted, when the trees and plants along the banks were abundant and when the food was healthy.

“I had the privilege to live here when nature was beautiful. Little by little I have been witness to these disasters,” said an older resident from the nearby pueblo of Juanacatlan.

He talked of swimming and fishing and drinking from the river and wells, something that is impossible now, or at least not possible without the threat of illness or death.  In fact, most people in the region know at least one family member who is sick.  “Not ‘how are you going to die, but which cancer are you going to get?’

The turning point were the 1970’s, they said. This is the time when the factories came in.  They promised jobs and progress.  The government promoted it and the community by-and-large welcomed them.  Now industries range from leather goods, petrochemicals, and jeans to pulp, paper and beverages.

Enrique Encizo, another resident of El Salto, said people started to get sick. Little by little there were no fish, no frogs, no otters, then trees started to go.  “Food used to be a banquet. We were poor but we ate good,” he said.

In fact, there has been a documented increase in cancers, neurological disease, and gastrointestinal diseases. Some people have skin sores that appear spontaneously.

Unlike the older members of the community who have lived long enough to see the transformation from a river of life to a river of death, the youth know only this reality. A local high school student spoke passionately about her commitment to struggle and find solutions. “Are we going to be born seeing this and smelling this and die seeing this?” she asked, pointing down the hill to the river. “No! If we don’t fight back, who will?” she asked. “We have to stop being victims. I’ve decided to fight.”

A polluted river is not the only water-related environmental disaster. The small pueblo of Temacapalin (Temaca) is threatened by the proposed El Zapotillo Dam. In addition to collecting polluted Rio Santiago water, Temaca would be flooded by hundreds of feet of water if the dam is built.  Though the government insured it will be treated, residents of the town are speaking out against the danger to their community.

Indeed, many in the community are fighting back in different ways. One way is to bring their message on the international caravan to Cancun for the Alternative Forum for Life and Environmental Justice. They want the government to ban the dumping of toxins into the river. Others want the industries to leave altogether. They are not sitting back and remaining silent, but coming together to defend their life, health, communities, and land.  They are talking and listening to one another, building bridges, and strengthening their social movements.

Another member of Asamblea Nacional de Afectados Ambientales (ANAA) said, “We are not against progress, we are against progress that is against life.”

A local woman drove home the point, “You can’t pay back mother earth in dinero.” (No se puede pagar a madre tierra en dinero.”

Check back here on our Climate Justice blog for updates from Cancun and COP16. If you’re on Twitter, follow @globalexchange for related COP16 updates from Global Exchange, and use hashtag #COP16 for general COP16 tweets.

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