“Along the way you will be witness to what I have witnessed my whole life, some of the worst realities in Mexico,” said one member of National Assembly of People Affected by the Environment (Asamblea Nacional de Afectados Ambientales–ANAA).

This perhaps set the tone for an itinerary that is not likely to be offered by any travel agency. We were introduced to one such harsh reality in El Salto, a small pueblo 20 miles outside of Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco. This is where the International Caravan for Life and Environmental Justice was kicking off the first leg of the journey to Cancun.  The caravan was organized by La Via Campesina, Movimento de Liberacion Nacional, and ANAA and we would be joined by locals at each stop and delegates from various organizations from USA, Canada, France, and Italy.

Gathering last Sunday in El Salto in a small open-air building overlooking fields and a portion of the Rio Santiago, we heard community members speak in particular of the local polluted river and the life that depends on it. The voices here are not professional environmentalists, nor staffers at the big environmental NGOs.  Rather the people here have become “poor man’s environmentalists” by default, as Enrique Enciso of El Salto put it.

El Rio Lerma Santiago is the lifeline of the region, but it is now a degraded and toxic waterway that brings perhaps as much illness as life.  The river looks gorgeous when looking down safely from the mirador in Guadalajara. But close up the smell is atrocious. You can smell the river from over a kilometer away in places.  Rio Santiago has the reputation of being among the most polluted rivers on the planet.  Untreated domestic sewage and industrial wastewater pours into the river daily. It has been shown to have high levels of organic waste, arsenic, sulfuric acid, mercury, and chrome.

Older members of the community spoke of a time when the river wasn’t polluted, when the trees and plants along the banks were abundant and when the food was healthy. The turning point were the 1970s and 1980s, they said. This is the time when the factories came in.  They promised jobs and progress.  The government promoted it and the community by-and-large welcomed them.  Industries who toxic effluent enters the river include leather goods, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, jeans, pulp, paper and beverage companies. Among the transnational corporations are Nestle’ and IBM.

Enrique Encizo, a resident of El Salto, said people started to get sick not long after industries moved in. Little by little there were no fish, no frogs, and no otters.  Just a couple years ago there was a huge die-off of fish.  Then trees started to go.  “Food used to be a banquet. We were poor but we ate good,” he said.

“I had the privilege to live here when nature was beautiful. Little by little I have been witness to these disasters,” said an older resident from the nearby pueblo of Juanacatlan. He spoke of swimming and fishing and drinking from the river and wells, something that is impossible now, or at least not possible without the threat of illness or death. In fact, in 2008 an 8 year old fell into the water.  Though rescued immediately, he soon became ill and died less than three weeks later from septic infection and heavy metal poisoning of the blood. Autopsies revealed that just the arsenic levels in his blood was ten times the lethal dose.

Most people in the region know at least one family member who is sick.  They don’t ask how you are going to die, but which cancer you are going to get. There has been an increase in not only cancers, but neurological and gastrointestinal diseases. Some people have skin sores that appear spontaneously.

Unlike the older members of the community who have lived long enough to see the transformation from a river of life to a river of death, the youth know only this reality. A local high school student spoke passionately about her commitment to struggle and find solutions. “Are we going to be born seeing this and smelling this and die seeing this?” she asked, pointing down the hill to the river. “No! If we don’t fight back, who will?” she asked. “We have to stop being victims. I’ve decided to fight.”

Indeed, many in the community are fighting back in different ways. One way is to bring their message on the international caravan to Cancun for the Alternative Forum for Life and Environmental Justice. They are also conducting their own water samples and documenting health issues. They want the government to ban the dumping of toxins into the river. Others want the industries to leave altogether. They are not sitting back and remaining silent, but coming together to defend their life, health, communities, and land.  They are talking and listening to one another, building bridges, and strengthening their social movements.

Another member of Asamblea Nacional de Afectados Ambientales (ANAA) said, “We are not against progress, we are against progress that is against life.”