Aug 162014

Tourism associated with rivers and lakes

So far as tourism is concerned, Lake Chapala is far more important than the other bodies of water within the basin. Only limited recreational activities are practiced in the various man-made reservoirs and in lakes Yuriria and Cuitzeo. Tourism is locally important in Zirahuén the most pristine of the basins lakes, but its small area restricts development prospects. Tourism, including ecotourism, is also locally important in Lake Pátzcuaro, with pronounced seasonal peaks corresponding to school vacations and the annual Night of the Dead. Surprisingly, there are no specialized ecotourism services at Lake Chapala.

Lerma-Chapala Basin

Lerma-Chapala Basin. Cartography: Tony Burton/Geo-Mexico; all rights reserved

The map shows areas of soil degradation in the Lerma-Chapala basin, as well as the locations where agriculture is a major source of water contamination. The environmental impacts of tourism in the basin are concentrated in the major cities such as Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende and León, as well as in the smaller communities where tourism is of particular importance, such as Chapala and Pátzcuaro.

The lakes in the basin, especially Chapala, have always had more significance than the rivers for recreation and tourism activities. In the nineteenth century, sail canoes plied the waters of Lake Chapala. Fluctuating lake levels since the 1950s have prevented any concerted effort to establish modern water sports (yachting, water-skiing, windsurfing) on the lake, though casual users can be seen sporadically, mainly at weekends and during school holidays. Recreational fishing is virtually non-existent in the basin. Boatmen and fishermen often have conflicting demands.

Potential for ecotourism

Environmental degradation throughout the basin has reduced the number of potential ecotourism locations. The few remaining natural habitats are in urgent need of effective conservation. None of the few small areas of the basin currently protected at a federal level is associated directly with the River Lerma or Lake Chapala. Several tourism hot spots are under extreme pressure, operating at close to carrying capacity (defined as the maximum number of visitors they can handle without adverse environmental impacts). They include the Monarch butterfly reserves, Lake Camécuaro National Park, and the island of Janitzio in Lake Pátzcuaro. Well managed tourism could help finance habitat restoration and protection. Successful planning will require considerable local participation.

Lovers of flora and fauna want to see native and endemic species, rather than imported exotics. Bird-watching is one of the fastest growing recreational activities in the U.S., a huge niche tourism market in a wildlife watching industry worth 10 billion dollars in North America (Stap, 2002). In the basin, bird-watchers have the opportunity to see several endemics, as well as spectacular flocks of the White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos), which can be better viewed on the relatively undeveloped southern shore of Lake Chapala than in its breeding grounds far to the north.

The development of horse-back riding, hiking and walking trails holds considerable potential for the future. Niche markets, such as cultural, shopping and eco-tours could all be further developed. Most tourists prefer a mix of experiences; the basin offers numerous, varied tourism possibilities.

Historically, hunting was an important activity in certain areas, particularly in the marshes at the eastern end of Lake Chapala (the ciénega). One ecological issue here, aside from any need to manage wildlife numbers, is the gradual decomposition of the lead-rich cartridges used a century ago. While this needs further study, this is gradually leaching lead into the environment, but is not the only source of the elevated levels of lead that have been reported in fish and lirio samples (Jay & Ford in Hansen & Van Afferden, 127). Careful monitoring is needed to ensure that no health risk is posed to humans.

Tourism exacerbates existing demands for limited supplies of water. This needs to be recognized in tourist-oriented cities such as San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato and Pátzcuaro. Some recreational and tourism developments are more water demanding than others. Large expanses of grass cause high losses of water through evapo-transpiration especially during the dry season when watering is needed if grass is to be kept green. However, in the rainy season, grass promotes higher infiltration rates, enhancing groundwater recharge. Pressure from public and private gardens for water could be significantly reduced by xeriscaping.

Management is also needed to ensure that chemicals used in gardens, hotel grounds, and hotels do not cause pollution. The misuse of fertilizers and pesticides can have serious deleterious environmental effects. Overfertilization, for example, can increase nitrogen and phosphorus loads on watercourses, promoting eutrophication.

Golf can be one of the least environmentally sound of all recreational activities (Elkington & Hailes 1992). Constructing a golf course may involve habitat destruction and loss of wildlife; its maintenance may require copious quantities of water and agro-chemicals. A single course may use 330,000 cubic meters of water a year, as much as 4,500 people (Walsh, 2004) Aside from the ethical issue of whether water should be allocated to the playgrounds of the rich while the poor go without, golf courses can greatly reduce water consumption with careful design and management. Of Mexico’s 200+ golf courses, at least 23 are located in the basin. Several were built in the past twenty years. Several others are still in the planning stages. More golf courses may attract more retirees and tourists, but decision makers need to consider the possible social and environmental effects of constructing more courses.


  • Hansen, Anne M. & van Afferden, Manfred (ed). The Lerma-Lake Chapala Watershed: Evaluation and Management. New York: Kluwer Academic / Plenum Publishers. 2001.
  • Elkington, John & Julia Hailes. Holidays that don’t cost the earth. The guide to greener holidays. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd. 1992.
  • Stap, Don. “Great Florida Birding Trail” in Audubon Magazine September, 2002.
  • Walsh, J. “War over water”. Golf Course News, October 2004. G.I.Media. 2004


This post is based on my contribution (on tourism) to the Atlas de la cuenca Lerma-Chapala, construyendo una visión conjunta, published by Semarnat-UNAM-IE, Mexico, in 2006. (The link is to a low-resolution pdf of the entire atlas).

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Update on Mexico and the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)

 Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Update on Mexico and the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)
Dec 302013

More than 190 countries signed up to the 2015 UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), agreed in 2000. There are 8 major goals:

  1. eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. achieve universal primary education
  3. promote gender equality and empower women
  4. reduce child mortality
  5. improve maternal health
  6. combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
  7. ensure environmental sustainability
  8. develop a global partnership for development

millenium-development-goalsMexico is well on its way to meeting most of the eight goals, according to the technical committee established to monitor the country’s progress. The technical committee includes representatives from various government departments, as well as INEGI (the National Geography and Statistics Institute) and CONAPO (the National Population Council).

The committee reports that Mexico has already met the targets for 38 (74.5%) of the 51 quantitative indicators used to assess progress towards the 8 goals, and is continuing work towards meeting the remaining targets by 2015 (the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals).

Satisfactory or good progress is being made on 5 of the remaining 13 indicators; all five are expected to be met sometime in 2015.  Progress on the other 8 indicators has been slower than needed, and it now seems highly unlikely that goal 7 (environmental sustainability) can possibly be met.

Specific targets that Mexico has not yet reached and where progress has either stagnated, or deterioration has occurred, include:

  • Decrease in mortality rate per 100,000 inhabitants due to HIV/AIDS  (part of goal 6)
  • Total carbon dioxide emissions (part of goal 7)
  • Proportion of total water resources already in use (part of goal 7)
  • Percentage of inhabitants with private dwellings using charcoal or wood for cooking (part of goal 7)

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Decision about GM corn in Mexico postponed until 2013

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Dec 012012

Mexico’s new president Enrique Peña Nieto took office earlier today. His single, six-year term will end in 2018. The change of government means that a final decision about the commercial planting of genetically modified (GM) corn in Mexico has been postponed until sometime early next year.

As we have seen in several previous posts, GM corn is a hotly disputed topic in Mexico.

Corn poster

“Without corn there is no nation” (Conference poster, Autonomous University of Chihuahua)

Proponents argue that GM corn will lead to higher yields and reduce losses from pests and diseases. In their view, the commercial planting of GM corn in Mexico is inevitable and will help Mexico “catch up” with Brazil and Argentina, where GM crops are already being grown.  Opponents argue that GM corn will inevitably reduce the genetic diversity of corn, meaning that corn will have less resilience in future to unexpected (and unpredicted) changes (climate, pests, soil conditions, etc). They also argue that GM corn will make corn growers even more dependent on commercial seed producers.

US farmers have found that GM corn lives up to its advertised higher yields and disease resistance. Farmers organizations in northern Mexico have come out in public support of this view, though many farmers in the center and south of the country remain vehemently opposed to GM corn on the basis that cross-contamination would deplete the plants’ gene pool, and possibly lead to the eventual extinction of traditional corn varieties.

Mexico was the world’s 6th largest grain producer in 2010, but fell to 8th spot in 2011. In just 20 years, Mexico has gone from a nation that needed to import less than 400,000 metric tons of corn a year in order to satisfy its domestic market to one where, in the 2012-12 season, it will need to import about 11,000,000 tons. Mexico’s corn imports, mainly of yellow corn for animal feed, are expected to rise to 15,000,000 tons by 2020. Corn prices are also likely to rise since an increasing portion of the annual US corn crop is  destined for biofuel production rather than human consumption.

Mexico currently produces about 22 million metric tons of corn (mainly white corn for human consumption) from 7.2 million hectares nationwide. According to press reports, there are five applications for planting GM corn on a commercial scale. The total area involved is 2.5 million hectares (6.2 million acres).

  • The transnational seed firm Monsanto has two proposals, each for 700,000 hectares, in Sinaloa, Mexico’s leading corn-producing state
  • Pioneer Hi-Bred International (currently owned by DuPont) has submitted three applications, each for around 350,000 hectares, in Tamaulipas
  • Dow Agrosciences (a unit of Dow Chemical) has applied to grow GM corn on 40,000 hectares, also in Tamaulipas.

It is widely believed that the new government will approve the large-scale trials of GM corn that the companies are requesting. It is likely, however, that GM corn will be confined to certain areas of Mexico only, with other areas designated “centers of origin” for corn where cultivation of GM seeds would not be permitted.

Among the most vocal opponents to the plans for GM corn is the ETC (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration) group. They set out their views in a multi-page news release. Verónica Villa, of ETC’s Mexico Office, says that,

“If Mexico’s government allows this crime of historic significance to happen, GMOs will soon be in the food of the entire Mexican population, and genetic contamination of Mexican peasant varieties will be inevitable. We are talking about damaging more than 7,000 years of indigenous and peasant work that created maize – one of the world’s three most widely eaten crops.”

Geo-Mexico will continue to report on this issue as it develops in coming months.

Want to learn more? This short open letter from the Unión de Científicos Comprometidos con la Sociedad (Union of Socially-Committed Scientists)  ~ Call to action vs the planting of GMO corn in open field situations in Mexico ~ has an extensive bibliography.

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Aug 222011

The proposed implementation of a United Nations-supported carbon storage program (REDD) in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas is provoking plenty of controversy. The debate is hotting up because a follow-up program called REDD+ is due to start in 2012. A good summary of the situation is provided by REDD rag to indigenous forest dwellers.

What is REDD?

  • REDD stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation
  • It is a carbon storage program, started in 2008 by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) and the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP).
  • It aims to conserve biodiversity and boost carbon storage by preventing deforestation and by replanting forests
  • It is focused on developing countries, and provides them wih funds and technical support

At first glance, it would seem like a good fit for Chiapas, one of Mexico’s poorest states, where a high proportion of the population are reliant on subsistence farming. The Chiapas state government backs REDD, considering it as one way of helping mitigate the likely consequences of climate change in the state. Chiapas’ total emissions of carbon dioxide amount to 32 million metric tons/year, about 4.5% of the national figure. The Chiapas contribution comes mainly from deforestation and farming.

NGOs working in Chiapas warn that REDD poses a serious threat to indigenous people. About 20% of the 4.8 million people living in Chiapas belong to one or other of the state’s numerous indigenous groups. Land tenure in many parts of Chiapas is hotly disputed; this was one of the reasons for the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) uprising in 1994.

Protests in support of indigenous rights, Cancún climate summit

Protests in support of indigenous rights, Cancún climate summit, 2010

Miguel García, a spokesperson for an NGO founded in 1991 which supports indigenous groups and protects the environment, has been quoted as saying that REDD “will alter indigenous culture, will commodify it, giving commercial value to common assets like oxygen, water and biodiversity.” He is especially concerned that “resentment of and confrontation with the Zapatista grassroots supporters are being accentuated.”

As with so many geographic issues, there is no easy “right answer” here. The rights of indigenous groups need to be respected and their views taken into account, before any decision is made about the value of their forest home to global efforts to mitigate climate change.

This is one controversy we plan to follow as it plays out in coming months.

Want to read more?

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The disposal of solid wastes in Mexico

 Excerpts from Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on The disposal of solid wastes in Mexico
Oct 252010

The disposal of solid wastes has become a serious problem almost everywhere in the world. In general the more affluent a society, the more solid waste it generates. Technologically-advanced civilizations tend to produce many wastes that are not biodegradable, further complicating the disposal problem. With each succeeding decade, Mexico faces greater and more complex challenges in managing its solid waste.

Garbage recycling at Oaxaca City dump

Garbage recycling at Oaxaca City dump. Photo: Conrad Fox, World Vision Report

In terms of weight, the vast majority of solid waste is produced by the agricultural sector. Fortunately most of this waste in readily biodegradable and is produced in areas of relatively low population density. However, agricultural wastes in the form of fertilizers and pesticides which are carried into steams and rivers have significant impacts on water quality. Animal wastes from concentrated feed lot operations are another major concern particularly because they are often located relatively close to densely populated areas.

Municipal solid waste includes waste from most commercial establishments and many small industrial operations. Mexico’s urban waste exceeds 36 million tons a year, three times the equivalent figure for Canada. Many municipalities in Mexico have initiated recycling programs, primarily focused on aluminum, glass, certain plastics and paper. However, in 2008 only 3.3% of Mexico’s total urban waste was recycled. Waste from larger towns and cities, about half of the total, is deposited in properly operated sanitary landfills. Waste from smaller communities often ends up in dumps, two thirds of which are uncontrolled.

The management (treatment or recycling) of hazardous wastes has improved greatly in recent years, particularly in the states of Nuevo León, Tamaulipas, Mexico, Tabasco and the Federal District. About half of all hazardous waste originates either in the state of Chihuahua (31% of the total) or in Mexico City (17%).

See also:

This is an excerpt from chapter 30 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Buy your copy today, and learn more about Mexico’s fascinating geography.

The introduction of sheep caused widespread environmental damage in Mexico

 Books and resources, Excerpts from Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on The introduction of sheep caused widespread environmental damage in Mexico
Jul 032010

After the conquest, Spanish settlers introduced numerous Old World species into the New World. The most pernicious introductions were human-borne diseases, which led to the rapid and tragic decimation of the indigenous population. However, most of the introductions were deliberate, made with the intention of increasing the diversity of available food and resources. Among the non-native (exotic) plants and animals introduced were sheep, pigs, chickens, goats, cattle, wheat, barley, figs, grapevines, olives, peaches, quinces, pomegranates, cabbages, lettuces and radishes, as well as many flowers.

The environmental impact of all these introductions was enormous. The introduction of sheep to Mexico is a case in point.

In the Old World, wool had been a major item of trade in Spain for several centuries before the New World was settled. The first conquistadors were quick to recognize the potential that the new territories held for large-scale sheep farming.

Cover of A Plague of SheepThe development of sheep farming and its consequences in one area of central Mexico (the Valle de Mezquital in Hidalgo) was analyzed  by Elinor Melville in A Plague of Sheep. Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico.

Melville divides the development of sheep farming in the Valle of Mezquital into several distinct phases. Sheep farming took off during Phase I (Expansion; 1530-1565). During this phase, the growth in numbers of sheep in the region was so rapid that it caused the enlightened Viceroy, Luis de Velasco, to became concerned that sheep might threaten Indian land rights and food production. Among the regulations introduced to control sheep farming was a ban on grazing animals within close proximity of any Indian village. At first the Indians did not own any grazing animals, and consequently did not fence their fields, which inadvertently encouraged the Spaniards to treat the landscape as common land.

During Phase II (Consolidation of Pastoralism; 1565-1580), the area used for sheep grazing remained fairly stable, but the numbers of sheep (and therefore grazing density) continued to increase. By the mid-1570s, sheep dominated the regional landscape and the Indians also had flocks. One of the consequences of this was environmental deterioration to the point where by the late 1570s, some farmers did not have adequate year-round access to pastures and introduced the practice of seasonal grazing in which they moved their flocks (often numbering tens of thousands of sheep) from their home farm in central Mexico to seasonal pastures near Lake Chapala.

This practice of grazing on harvested fields or temporary pastures was known as agostadero. This term originally applied to summer (agosto=August) grazing in Spain but was adopted in New Spain for “dry season” grazing, between December and March. So important was this annual movement of sheep that provision was made in 1574 for the opening of special sheep lanes or cañadas along the route, notwithstanding the considerable environmental damage done by the large migrating flocks. As flock sizes peaked, more than 200,000 sheep made the annual migration by 1579.

In the words of historian Francois Chevalier:

By 1579, and doubtless before, more than 200,000 sheep from the Querétaro region covered every September the 300 or 400 kilometers to the green meadows of Lake Chapala and the western part of Michoacán; the following May, they would return to their estancias.

The prime dry season pastures were those bordering the flat, marshy swampland at the eastern end of Lake Chapala. The Jiquilpan district alone supported more than 80,000 sheep each year, as the Geographic Account of Xiquilpan and District (1579) makes clear:

More than eighty thousand sheep come from other parts to pasture seasonally on the edge of this village each year; it is very good land for them and they put on weight very well, since there are some saltpeter deposits around the marsh.

By the end of Phase III (The Final Takeover; 1580-1600), most land had been incorporated into the Spanish land tenure system, the Indian population had declined (mainly due to disease) and the sheep population had also dropped dramatically. Contemporary Spanish accounts reveal that this collapse was attributed to a combination of the killing of too many animals for just their hides by Spaniards, an excessive consumption by Indians of lamb and mutton, and by the depletion of sheep flocks by thieves and wild dogs. Melville’s research, however, suggests that the main reason for the decline was actually environmental degradation, brought on by the excessive numbers of sheep at an earlier time.

The entire process is, in Melville’s view, an excellent example of an “ungulate irruption, compounded by human activity.” The introduction of sheep had placed great pressure on the land. Their numbers had risen rapidly, but then crashed as the carrying capacity of the land was exceeded. The carrying capacity had been reduced as (over)grazing permanently changed the local environmental conditions.

By the 1620s, the serious collapse in sheep numbers in the Valle de Mezquital was over; sheep farming never fully recovered. The landscape had been changed for ever.

Sources / Further reading:

  • Acuña, R. (ed) Relaciones geográficas del siglo XVI: Michoacán. Edición de René Acuña. Volume 9 of Relaciones geográficas del siglo XVI. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. 1987
  • Chevalier, F. Land and Society in Colonial Mexico. University of California Press. 1963.
  • Melville, Elinor G. K. A plague of Sheep. Environmental consequences of the conquest of Mexico. Cambridge University Press. 1994.

Click here for the original article on MexConnect.

Mexico’s ecosystems and biodiversity are discussed in chapter 5 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. The concept of carrying capacity is analyzed in chapter 19. Buy your copy today, as a useful reference book!