There was much bluster about US job losses under NAFTA in the 2016 election, but walking along the banks of the Río Santiago in the pueblo of Juanacatlán, Mexico, the larger impact of the agreement immediately becomes a searing reality. One’s eyes and skin burn after only a few minutes’ exposure to the toxic spray and sulfurous stench as foaming waves of chemical pollution cascade over a once pristine falls known only a few decades ago as the Niagara of Mexico.
The pollution, which includes large concentrations of arsenic, cadmium, zinc and other heavy metals used in electronics fabrication, is partly driven by unregulated NAFTA and domestic manufacturing, and also by toxic runoff from export-oriented agribusiness that, unlike traditional campesino farming, relies heavily on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Fusion magazine dubbed the Santiago the “river of death.” Vice magazine describes it as a “toxic hell” that caused 72 deaths in 2015 alone.
Compliance with barely existent environmental regulations in Mexico is voluntary under NAFTA, something that is rarely mentioned in the US. NAFTA’s Chapter 11 even allows foreign corporations to sue the Mexican government for imposing regulations they consider to be unfair or burdensome.
On November 20, 2016, Mexico’s Revolution Day, I was invited by my friend Miyuki Takahashi, a native Mexican-Japanese doctor who runs the educational Jardín de Vida project (Garden of Life) in Juanacatlán, to accompany her and nearly 400 residents from towns and villages located near the river as an independent journalistic observer during a protest against its poisoning. The protest action was organized in part by Un Salto de Vida (USV), or A Leap of Life, a civic organization formed by local farmers near the town of Salto, which is across the river from Juanacatlán.