Dying Lagoons Reveal Mexico’s Environmental Racism

Dying Lagoons Reveal Mexico’s Environmental Racism
Photo by Meztli Yoalli Rodríguez

Sun sets on the lagoon in Zapotalito

In the heart of a traditionally Black and Indigenous use area in Southwest Mexico, decades of environmental destruction now threatens the existence of these communities.

On an early morning in September 2017, in a little fishing village in the Pacific coast of Oaxaca, called Zapotalito, thousands of dead fish floated on the surface of the Chacahua-Pastoría lagoons. A 7.1-magnitude earthquake, which rattled Mexico City on September 19, was felt as far down as Zapotalito, and the very next morning, its Black, Indigenous and poor Mestizo residents, who depend on the area's handful of lagoons for food and commerce, woke up to an awful smell and that terrible scene of floating fish.

Many locals insisted that the earthquake released toxic gases that were in the subsoil of the lagoons and caused the massive fish die-off. While no official cause was determined, it was no surprise residents suspected a connection between the earthquake and toxins—this had not been the first or last time they would wake up to fish floating in the water. For them, an ecocide, or systematic destruction of an environment, has been taking place here.

In a country where the Afro-descendant population was officially recognized in the federal constitution only in 2019—despite being present and playing an important part of Mexico's history since the 1500s—residents of the lagoon area see this ecocide case as another example of structural and environmental racism in Mexico.

"We have asked the government for support but they say that since there was no damage to houses or structures we are not a priority in the state of Oaxaca," a local Afro-Mexican fisherwoman and cook named Brígida told Mexican news site Animal Politico a year later. "But we are also victims of the earthquake."

The riverbank of the Chacahua-Pastoría lagoons.Photo by Meztli Yoalli Rodríguez

Lagoons have long shaped the Black experience in this southern area of Mexico on the Pacific called Costa Chica. There are between 1 and 2 million Afro-Mexicans, most of whom live in the country's southern states, where Costa Chica's lagoons are found. Lagoons—and the rivers that feed into them—have provided water for important oil-producing crops such as cotton, coconut and cacao in the Costa Chica since Spaniards first forced people of African descent to the coast. Five major lagoons line the Pacific Ocean from Acapulco, Guerrero, to Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, and, while they stand between the coastal communities and the ocean, these freshwater lagoons offer essential sources of food and water for drinking and irrigation.

The link between oil crops and the African diaspora

Along these waterways, hundreds of years of oil plantations have influenced racial, labor, and environmental history of the Costa Chica. But in order to understand just how important crops and waterways are to Afro-Mexican communities (and African diaspora on the whole), a short history lesson on oil crops is in order.

In the twentieth century, oil crops became increasingly important in the global vegetable oil and soap markets. After World War II, manufacturers used oil crops to make countless industrial chemicals, foods, and other products. Like communities of the African diaspora around the tropics, many Afro-Mexicans grew the oilseeds necessary for these global vegetable oil industries. In Mexico, the Costa Chica was the nation's largest producer of cotton, sesame seeds and coconuts at three different points in the twentieth century. As coastal Guerrero became the largest producer of coconuts in the Western Hemisphere in the 1950s, and coconut plantations stretched across the Costa Chica for hundreds of miles into Oaxaca, more oilseed mills and factories moved into the region.

There is much awareness regarding the dangers of petroleum oil spills in Mexico's Gulf coast, but today oil crops have also helped contaminate many Pacific coast lagoons. As oil crop-based chemicals became integral components to manufacturing modern life—in the form of innumerable edible and industrial goods such as soaps and plastics—Afro-Mexican communities did not benefit from the production. Profits went into the hands of local powerbrokers and multinational companies, while communities were often left with environmental damage. This was also true of Afro-descendent communities harvesting palms in Colombia, Jamaica, Honduras, and Venezuela.

In the case of the Chacahua lagoons, on the Oaxacan side of Costa Chica, each cycle of oilseed-related industrialization — first in the 1970s, again in 1990s, and even today — resulted in further pollution of the lagoons, as the industrial process relied on more water-control systems, oil-processing mills, and agrochemical use. While irrigation drained the lagoons of fresh water, waste from the mills and runoff from the plantations filled the lagoon with harmful chemicals.

Women from Zapotalito catch fish on the lagoonPhoto courtesy Meztli Yoalli Rodríguez

A dying Black geography

Since the early 2000s, Afro-descendent and Indigenous inhabitants in the Costa Chica area have solicited government support to save their dying 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. But after decades of activism and government inaction, their lagoons are still dying.

Today residents are not only protesting for support, but they also want the government to acknowledge its environmental racism and how it adversely impacted one of Mexico's most important Black geographies—the Chacahua-Pastoría lagoons.

At first glance, the government has seemed to care about the region over the years. Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas first designated these lagoons as national park in 1937, but this distinction as a protected territory did not save surrounding communities—Zapotalito, El Corral, Chacahua, El Azufre—from environmental contamination. Government efforts to control water for tourism, fishing, and agriculture in the region actually help explain how the lagoons became toxic and stagnant, as does government and private capital projects built in the region, and the impact of toxic pesticides and fertilizers used in oilseed industries.

Surrounding communities have now finally been cut off from the lagoon itself. Floating dead fish have become an everyday scene.

Dead fish wash up on the shores of the Chacahua lagoon in ZapotalitoPhoto by Meztli Yoalli Rodríguez

'If we don't do anything…Zapotalito will be a ghost town'

Dying fish are one thing, but the destruction of the lagoons is killing people, too. For the Black and Indigenous locals, the lagoons are the primary source of livelihood. The communities there are struggling to survive without fish or proper drinking water, to say nothing of losses in ecotourism.

"There are days where we don't even earn enough money for food," Cristina, a Black fisherwoman, said in an interview with us in 2018. "We come out of the lagoon with nothing, not even with something to eat."

The dying lagoon is sick, polluted, and likely malarial. Even without consuming chemicals from the lagoon's fish or water, its death is an affront to all sensibilities. Touching the water has led to skin problems for others. The ammoniac and rancid smell of the sitting water is the source of many headaches and much dizziness and nausea. Larger health concerns abound, too. In another 2018 interview, local fisherman Fernando, described an increase in stomach cancer cases in the communities around the lagoon, although there is still no scientific research on the subject.

Black and Indigenous people on Mexico's Pacific coast continue to experience racial and colonial impacts through the dispossession and destruction of their land and natural resources. People of Afro-descent have lived in the region for centuries. They learned life on the lagoon and how to sustain it, but even their way of life on the margins is at risk now.

Yolanda, an Afro-Mixtec woman, put a point on it, in the summer of 2018, while sitting in front of the water: "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," she said. "Zapotalito will be a ghost town."

Jayson Maurice Porter is a PhD candidate of History at Northwestern University and recent Fulbright-Garcia Robles Scholar (2019-2020) who studies agrochemicals and environmental justice in Mexico.

Meztli Yoalli Rodríguez Aguilera is a PhD candidate in Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin who studies gendered environmental racism in Mexico.