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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Mexican Fires

Air Date: Week of June 5, 1998

An area the size the state of Rhode Island is currently being ravaged by fire in southern Mexico and other parts of Central America over the past few weeks. And valuable biological diversity is burning up in it. Authorities say an El Niño related drought, and slash and burn agriculture are to blame for the fires. Winds have also blown a cloud of smoke and haze north, affecting the health of Mexican people and their nation's economy. Guillermo (gui-yer-mo) Castillaja (cas-ti-yeh-ha) runs the World Wildlife Fund's program in Mexico. He's been monitoring the spread of the fires from his base in Mexico City. He spoke with Steve Curwood and explained how a rainforest can go up in smoke.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Imagine an area the size of the state of Rhode Island, ravaged by fire. And imagine losing some of your most diverse wildlife and most valuable forests in the blaze. That's been the reality in southern Mexico and other parts of Central America for the past few weeks. Authorities say an El Nino- related drought and slash and burn agriculture are to blame for the fires. To make matters worse, winds have blown a cloud of smoke and haze north, hurting the health of the Mexican people and the nation's economy. Guillermo Castillaja runs the World Wildlife Fund's program in Mexico. He's been monitoring the spread of fires from his base in Mexico City. He explained to us how a rainforest can go up in smoke.

CASTILLAJA: Of course, it is counter-intuitive, because one thinks of the rainforest as being so wet that fire wouldn't simply go through it. The fact again is that we are going through a very severe drought, and there is a lot of material in the forest that can burn easily, and the fires can sweep very, very large areas. Now, I must say that in the case of the tropical rainforest, the fires don't destroy the entire forest. It means that the trees in the rainforest don't seem to be burning completely. What seems to be happening is that the fire spreads in the understory, that means below the canopy, of the forest. And what it destroyed is all the understory vegetation, which includes small trees and shrubs and all kinds of herbaceous species and plants, and of course lots of animals living in the forest.

CURWOOD: What's happening in the area of Oaxaca, that has an especially diverse, biologically diverse area at Chimalapas?

CASTILLAJA: This area is by far, we would say, one of the richest pockets of biodiversity in Mesoamerica, and that includes Mexico and Central America. A lot of the species that have been reported as inhabiting the area are what we call endemics. That means that these species oftentimes are restricted to a given area, in this case, for example, an area like the Chimalapas, that cannot be found anywhere else. And so, once these species are affected by fire or loss of habitat or some other threat like this and they disappear, they basically disappear from the planet.

CURWOOD: What's causing these fires?

CASTILLAJA: Well, there are many reasons behind the different fires, but I would say that 9 out of 10 fires that we are seeing in Mexico are started up by a match. So there is someone lighting an open match. In most cases I would say that this is in connection to agricultural practices.

CURWOOD: Further south in Guatemala and the rest of Central America, there's quite a bit of burning going on as well, right? What do you hear about the damage there?

CASTILLAJA: We have reports of fires basically in all of Central America, especially the northern part of it. Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and the north of Nicaragua. In these cases as well, the cause seems to be fires that are started by slash and burn practices or other agricultural practices.

CURWOOD: This year there were just devastating fires in the Amazon. It happens to be the same year that Brazil has adopted a stricter law about slash and burn settlement in the Amazon. This year there were devastating fires in Indonesia and the fires were still going, are still going I guess, in some areas. And it is a factor I think that perhaps contributed to the downfall of the Suharto government there. What will be the political repercussions, do you think, in Mexico of these fires?

CASTILLAJA: Well, they can be quite severe. I mean, not in Mexico, but we have heard in the case of Honduras, for example, that the person in the government who was in charge of trying to curb down the slash and burn this year was murdered by we still don't know who. But was murdered apparently in connection to his efforts to try to curb slash and burn agriculture. And so this is, I guess, an extreme example of the kind of reaction that government agencies are expected, if they, you know, want to interfere in these cultural practices.

CURWOOD: What's the mood there in Mexico about these fires? Are people really upset and scared, or is it just well, you know, these things happen?

CASTILLAJA: The mood right now is one of outrage. I think that people now realize that something is happening that someone is not taking care of the natural resources of the country, and as a consequence very precious ecosystems and species might be going up in smoke.

CURWOOD: Guillermo Castillaja runs the World Wildlife Funds program in Mexico. He joined us on the line from Mexico City. Thank you, sir.

CASTILLAJA: Thank you.

 

 

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