Emilio Gonzalez is a 34-year old architect and homebuilder who was trained in agronomy and appropriate technologies. In 1984, he founded "Tierra Madre", an environmental non-profit organization which in 1988 initiated a model project called "San Miguel de Allende 2000" (SMA 2000).
The New Idea
There are many cities in Mexico -- often ones of great historical value -- which are in danger of serious ecological degradation. San Miguel de Allende, which is more than 450 years old and which currently has a population of 120,000, is one such city. As leader of the "San Miguel de Allende 2000" project, Emilio Gonzalez is launching a citizen-led, broad-based effort to effectively confront the city's most serious environmental problems: shortage of safe drinking water, improper sewage disposal which contaminates the dwindling water supply, deforestation and desertification (directly related to the water problem), garbage disposal and recycling, and public awareness of environmental issues.The urban and environmental problems of Mexico City are virtually overwhelming. Emilio Gonzalez's work represents a farsighted, pre-emptive, and grassroots approach to urban ecological degradation that can serve as a model for Mexico's smaller cities.Emilio Gonzalez's SMA 2000 is unique for its broad involvement of "factions" normally thought to be at odds over environmental issues. The various "commissions" of SMA 2000 dealing with reforestation, drainage, garbage and recycling, include local business and government leaders. Area journalists and the national press have also taken an interest, and fundraising has succeeded locally. San Miguel de Allende's large population of foreigners (especially North American and European artists) participates in the project, as do the city's schools.
Since the 1985 earthquake, many small towns in Mexico like San Miguel de Allende have witnessed an unprecedented influx of migrants as well as increased demographic growth. Mexico's economic crisis, moreover, has meant that few resources are available for services in these towns. Once idyllic tourist towns like San Miguel are confronting garbage disposal problems, water scarcity, shanty housing on the edge of town, deforestation, and soil erosion.
San Miguel de Allende is located on the high central plateau of Mexico in the state of Guanajuato, 180 miles north of Mexico City. It consists of 500 square miles of rolling, open, semi-arid countryside, punctuated by several small mountain chains, partially wooded with a mixed conifer-oak forest. The countryside is sparsely populated by peasants living on small ranches.
The area is impoverished and struggling in the face of a continuing, national economic crisis of stunning magnitude. A population, already poor in 1980, has since lost over 50% of its buying power. Malnutrition, deficient health care, and sicknesses resulting from minimal sanitation plague these communities. Rural communities suffer the most.
The city of San Miguel de Allende presents a dynamic mix of cultures and a bewildering array of social and environmental problems. For 450 years San Miguel sat in rural seclusion, distant from any population center. It was a small, moderately well off, cultured community justly proud of its colonial architecture and rich history. A plentiful stream, the reason for its location, was an unfailing source of ample, good water. In the 1940s, the colonial beauty of the town and its near ideal climate began to attract a community of artists from the United States, Canada, Europe, and from other parts of Mexico. This international community has continued to grow and now numbers some 1,500 residents. During this same period, San Miguel has been beset by the explosive growth typical of the developing world. This continues unabated.
Confronted with this population explosion, the city's water, sewage, and refuse infrastructure is beginning to collapse.
Recently, a concerned group of residents from the Mexican and international communities recognized that the environmental problems engendered by too rapid growth must be dealt with at once. To assist in the rescue of the endangered community, they founded San Miguel de Allende 2000, devoted to the betterment of the environment of the municipality of San Miguel de Allende.
SMA 2000 is a working project of Tierra Madre, a non-profit, educational organization chartered in 1984. Emilio Gonzalez was a founder of Tierra Madre and is a leader of SMA 2000.
Given the daunting scope of environmental degradation in the municipality of San Miguel, it has been determined that initial efforts will be directed in three specific areas: water, sewage, and refuse. Encompassing all areas of concentration is the general need for education. This is being pursued at all levels of the community.
At present, a badly deteriorated city sewage system leaks into the daily municipal water supply before being disgorged untreated onto a plain at the city's edge. All effluents from this plain drain into a large reservoir used for irrigation, fishing, and recreation. Engineers from the National Autonomous University in Mexico City are consulting with SMA 2000 about appropriate technologies to deal with this situation in a manner congruent with community capabilities.
The city is barely successful at collecting and disposing of refuse at a nearby, open dump site. This effort will be enhanced by a program of recycling. The families who now live beside and subsist on the refuse do not use the large amounts of glass, plastic and cardboard. Organic matter is left to rot. SMA 2000 is developing plans for projects that will offer local employment while recycling and composting these materials.
Intricately connected with the disposal of trash and sewage is the preservation and improvement of the water supply. Currently, there are severe water shortages that are growing markedly worse each dry season. Potable water is inadequate for daily sanitary needs due to deteriorated municipal supply systems. Existing water supplies are insufficient due to the problem of overpopulation that is exacerbated by living in a semi-arid region undergoing desertification.
SMA 2000 is establishing an advisory network of environmental scientists in Mexico, Europe, and the United States in order to chart the scope and consequences of this problem. Municipal officials are assisting with data on the antiquated city infrastructure and will be supplied with all information obtained through the efforts of SMA 2000.
The looming crisis behind the problem of daily water shortages in the communities of Central Mexico is the threat of desertification. This once forested area is now deforested, with the exception of scattered mountains that retain vestiges of the original tree cover. Even these remote areas are now under immediate threat from fire and firewood cutting by surrounding villages. Downpours in the summer rainy season result in rapid erosion due to increased run-off on the denuded land. The water table is apparently falling as less and less rainwater is returned to the local aquifers.
SMA 2000 has set a long-term goal to reforest the greenbelt area around the city in the hopes that the example and techniques developed there can be used to promote reforestation efforts of a much larger region.
Only massive efforts can stem the rapid climatic changes in the region. The economic realities of present day Mexico necessitate that these efforts come from the local level. SMA 2000 is committed to an intensive program of crisis intervention, development of community awareness, and public education. The alternative is to surrender to the processes of environmental degradation.
SMA 2000 educates children and the general public on the environment through radio campaigns, distribution of literature, informational meetings, and demonstration projects. Environmental conferences have been organized at San Miguel de Allende and they have received journalistic attention and attracted environmentalists from all over Mexico. Ashoka Fellow Manuel Guerra, a chemical engineer who is one of Mexico's foremost environmentalists, recently participated in an "Environment Day" sponsored by SMA 2000.
A generation educated in the fundamentals of environmental protection will be better able to protect and develop its community in a planned and responsible manner. SMA 2000 is devoted to assisting the local schools in this vital effort. A pilot project is now underway at one secondary school where the entire student body and all of the teachers are involved in a reforestation project. A curriculum is being developed for use in other schools, including primary schools.
Lessons learned and successes achieved during this local project will be organized for dissemination to other towns and villages. Emilio Gonzalez is quite familiar with national level environmental efforts through which he can share the experiences of SMA 2000. Emilio was elected an Ashoka Fellow in 1989.