Cuatro Ciengas, the Ecological Crime of the Fox Presidency?

Those who live in desert regions know that taking care of an oasis is fundamental for their survival, but in Cuatro Cienegas (Four Swamps), an oasis in the Chihuahua Desert interlaced by a network of water sources and a wonder of the natural world, some local state and federal authorities, plus commercial interests and unaware citizens, are determined to dry it up and kill it, in what seems to be the ecological crime Fox’s six year term of office.

In Cuatro Cienagas there are corral-like rocks called stromatolites, formed by coats of algae with mud in their interior. According to researchers from NASA, the study of stromatolites and the organisms they house – colonies of primitive bacteria which show life forms that existed on the planet more than a hundred million years ago – can help in understanding conditions necessary for life on other planets.

Within the 200 square kilometers of the valley of Cuatro Cienegas, which was declared a Protected Area for Flora and Fauna in 1994, are to be found a greater number of endemic species than anywhere else in North America. That is, species of animals and plants that exist nowhere else on Earth. Cuatro Cienegas is comparable to the Galapagos Islands as a unique ecosystem in the world. Its biological diversity is strictly linked to more than 200 springs. These form wells, lakes, streams and marshes interconnected into one hydrological complex. It is a refuge for threatened species such as the Bisagra Turtle, the Black Bear , the Royal Eagle, the PeregrineFalcon, the Miniature Macaw, the Plains Owl and the Royal Mexican Snake, in addition to more than 400 species of cacti, bats and migratory birds. Imagining fish in the desert is to get an idea of how extraordinary this site is.

This biological wealth of more than one thousand species is threatened by the introduction of exotic species, industrial development, population increase and chaotic tourism; but above all by the overexploitation of water.

The National Commission for Water (Conagua) is the prime responsible (or irresponsible) party for the crime against Cuatro Cienegas, because they have handed out permits to exploit the wells for agricultural production. The increase in the number of wells and the rate of extraction in the Cuatro Cienegas Valley and the two adjoining valleys, Ocampo-Calveras and El Hundido, in order to grow alfalfa for milk production for the two groups, LALA and Soriana, most closely linked to the region of La Laguna translates into a death sentence for this natural treasure. On its web site, LALA boasts of “its advances in food production for prime cattle”, omitting to mention that in order to irrigate these alfalfa fields it is milking great amounts of water from the springs through canals. Since the opening of 50 new wells, added to the 32 operating in the Hundido Valley, 70% of the wetlands of Cuatro Cienegas have dried up. One example is the virtual extinction of Lake Churince, whose disappearance Conagua attributes to solar evaporation.

For years there has been an unregulated garbage dump in Cuatro Cienegas, over the aquifer between the township and the wells. There are wells that have been shown to be polluted with nitrogen coming from this garbage dump, and also nutrients from human activity in an ecosystem whose principal characteristic has been the extreme paucity of nutrients. In 2004 the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund raised five million pesos (roughly half a million dollars) to move the dump, but nobody can account for this money and the dump not only continues to exist, only it claims to have become a sanitary landfill. The gypsum dunes, essential for six endemic species, are another target of the plunderers; the Director of the protected area of Cuatro Cienegas and her partners are seeking to open a gypsum mine in the valley.

In a perversion of eco-tourism a multitudinous stampede has been permitted, even including races for all-terrain vehicles which destroy the vegetation and the delicate layer of cyanobacteria, in addition to the rapid construction of low rent tourist installations, proliferation of garbage and the looting of cactuses and other species.

It is hard to believe that Cristobal Jaime Jaquez, Director-General of Conagua; Gabriel Villareal, Mayor of Cuatro Cienagas; Susana Moncada, Director of the Protected Area (whose stewardship falls under the responsibility of the National Commission for Protected Areas), and the LALA, Soriana groups, are insistent on turning this fragile oasis into a wasteland.

Doctor Valeria Souza, a specialist in bacterial evolution and a great expert devoted to defending Cuatro Cienegas, maintains that less than five years will be needed for the deadly process in the wells and their stromatolites to become irreversible throughout the aquifer. She urges the importance of protecting the water through a moratorium until it is determined how much water there is, taking into account the ecosystem and its needs, without regard to well concessions or bans based on water replenishment, which in the desert is almost zero. The second phase is to raise the protection level of Cuatro Cienagas to that of a Biosphere Reserve, with the regulations and activities permitted clearly delineated.

It is lamentable that what is being studied by NASA is turned into a wasteland and garbage dump by the Mexican government. The depredation of one of the most emblematic places on the planet speaks ill of Conagua and the Soriana, LALA groups. Que mala leche (what a nasty business).

The survival of Cuatro Cienegas is in the hands of the Governor of Coahuila, Humberto Moreira Valdes, and the government of Vicente Fox, who has the opportunity here to leave an important legacy. Or will he wish to be the man who permitted the ecological crime of his six year term, and allowed the last chance to understand the evolution of our planet to be lost?