A changing environment

Progress does not need to come at the expense of our environment

Tania Chen
Foto: Enrique Osorno
La Jornada Maya

Tuesday May 21, 2019

Climate change is a topic that is often not given the importance it warrants. For decades, scientific evidence has been buried by oil companies such as British Petroleum and Shell, who, in order to maximise their profits, spent tens of thousands of dollars lobbying for the rights to drill, deforest, and pollute the planet. To them, and many other people, money outweighed the consequences of destroying the environment.

What is clear is that climate change is real, catastrophe is becoming more and more a certain outcome, and that the majority of people are either unaware, desensitized to it and/or blinded by greed.

Merida has always been blessed – and cursed – with high temperatures; April 2015 saw a record high temperature of 43.6ºC and experts are concerned that 2019 may see this record broken. Certainly, the last few years have seen drastic changes to the temperature of the city, which has been brought on by two factors. The first is global climate change, in which the rising temperatures pave the way for stronger storms, more extreme climates, and mass extinctions. The second is the deforestation of Merida’s surrounding jungle. Little by little the city’s green lungs have been hacked away to make room for concrete buildings that generate heat rather than the trees that mitigate it.

For most Yucatecans, there is a great profit to be made from selling and building, as Merida’s population booms and demand for housing grows. Experts have estimated that each week sees the arrival of 600 people, both Mexicans and expats looking to retire in ‘La Ciudad Blanca’. As Merida’s popularity spreads this is bound to increase.

Rents have begun reaching Mexico City prices, and the gentrification of the centre of Merida has already occurred. But, the city centre has focused for the most part on preserving houses, remodelling, and upgrading them. Although a few houses along Paseo Montejo have been razed to make room for modern structures, there is a general understanding that the centre itself should be preserved. Unfortunately, the rest of Merida is not this fortunate.

With no clear city planning, Merida has turned into a mishmash landscape of tall buildings alongside typical Yucatecan houses with their gardens and pools that help mitigate the heat.

New housing is mostly made up of small town houses built one beside another with few trees and constructed of pure concrete that keep heat and with few windows for ventilation. These are expensive but seen as profitable investments for a majority of Merida’s population: as property prices rise and the economy stalls, people need to rent because mortgages are not affordable. This in turn inflates rent prices as more and more people look into renting, followed by people who want to invest in rental properties hence perpetuating the boom. To make the most profit becomes the objective rather than the preservation of Merida and its ecological richness.

Greed is the driving force behind Merida’s environmental degradation.

In the opinion of many, it is better to make a quick, fast profit now than to invest in what would be a long-term sustainable project that would take longer to produce a profit but which produce a profit for many generations to come. Merida has a lot to offer already, and the building boom is destroying this legacy.

Yucatan’s biodiversity is rich, unique and attracts a healthy amount of eco-tourism. Protecting the jungle would be a step towards creating opportunities for research, tourism and innovation. Merida could become a key centre for environmental research as well as an archaeological goldmine thanks to all the undiscovered Mayan ruins within driving distance from Merida. More importantly, people need to realise that progress has different forms, and bulldozing trees and turning the city into a concrete jungle is a step-backward. Merida should move forward by understanding the particular needs of its citizens, both human and animal, as well as its unique environment.

Additionally, deforestation is not the only issue Merida is facing. As worldwide atmospheric CO2 emissions surpassed 415 parts per million for the first time in human history, Merida is in need of public transport solutions to cope with the influx of immigrants. Ecological, efficient public transport would go a long way to help mitigate the heat generated by cars but also allow people who need to travel within the city to get to places on time. Efficient public transport would encourage less car use and help lessen the traffic. It becomes a cause-effect chain that benefits the city and all of its inhabitans.

Progress does not need to come at the expense of our environment, and it is still not too late to implement reforms that can help to protect the remaining vestiges of the jungle surrounding Merida, the green lungs that still help to regulate the heat and are sorely needed in the face of global climate change.

Perhaps, some of the answers lie in the past. The Mayans once had a fruitful relationship with their environment, and some of those bonds have prevailed throughout the centuries. Their use of the milpa as an agricultural system highlights their millenary wisdom and understanding of nature. A cycle of sustainability and cooperation helped Mayans thrive.

More recently, a Brazilian photographer Sebastião Ribeiro Salgado has rehabilitated 1,502-acre forest in the last 20 years demonstrating that as dire as climate chante is, if humanity acts now, it is not too late. Merida would benefit not only from protecting the current areas of jungle left by halting any non-environmental constructions but also from funneling money into afforestation projects. An influx of trees would help mitigate the heat as well as combat the increasing car pollution from traffic.

Unfortunately, as long as it continues to be profitable to cut down the jungle to cram in a few concrete apartments, there is not much hope in enforcing regulations to protect what is left. However, as environmental activist Greta Thunberg has shown, activism works but it is up to the people of Merida to stand up and protect their legacy.

And to those who see money and only money, a Cree Indian saying wisely says, “when the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten, and the last stream poisoned, you will realize that you cannot eat money”.