Ecological Problems in the Barrancas
In spite of the closeness of the people of the barrancas to the land, some of the natural resources are being depleted through careless abuse. It is the old timers who tend to be frugal with the resources, the young more extravagant.
Disappearing Pine Forests
In the realm of my upper dispensary at El Zopilote, the pine forests are steadily diminishing. Prime pine stands are timbered, or ringed, to plant beans or corn on the steep slopes and the timber is mostly wasted. Trees for beams and hand-sawn planks are cut from more accessible areas. More destructive still is the extensive gathering of ocote, or pitch torches. Many families use ocote rather than kerosene for light at night. Healthy trees are slashed at their base so that the exposed scar “pitches in”. Later the pitchy scar-wood is chopped out for torches, leaving a deeper scar which in turn pitches in and is chopped out. Eventually the trees are so weakened that they blow over in the monsoons. A third of the pines above El Zopilote have already been scarred for ocote, and the process continues. I have managed to prevent it only within sight of the clinic.
The biggest tragedy for the pine forests is that no new growth is replacing the old. The pines are potentially prolific, with thousands of seedling springing up each year, but the campesinos plant by slash and burn, and although they clear modest fire breaks, fire invariably escapes from some fields and sweeps uphill into the pine forests. Large trees are usually unharmed, but all seedlings perish. Except for a few which we protected near the clinic, there are no small pines within miles.
As an ecologist and lover of pines, I am doing all I can to preserve the forests. Fortunately, many campesinos are in accord. Most who live close to the forests now cut their ocote only from fallen trees. All agree it is wrong to let fire escape. The problem is one of enforcement. The local comisario (mayor, more or less) and campesinos I have talked to agree that a penalty should be set up. Rather than exact a monitary fine, which would be difficult for the poor farmer to pay, my suggestion was that an offender replant burned over sections with seedlings. The idea was accepted and, hopefully, next season there will be some improvement. In the meantime, I have undertaken transplanting of pine seedlings, and before the dry season I will clear a fire lane around the pine grove behind El Zopilote.
Indiscriminate and Wasteful Misuse of Wild Animals, Fish, and Beneficial Animals
Another thoughtless abuse of resources is indiscriminate hunting of game. Almost the only meat which the campesino tastes comes from wild animals. His pigs and goats he mostly sells below. Big game is scarce, however, due to lack of seasons and limits. Does, which are shot at anytime, are particularly easy targets when they have fawns. Villagers say they feel guilty shooting a doe, but when their children are hungry . . . . Needless to say, I try to convince them that in the long run they could eat much more venison if they would use a little more constraint and foresight. A similar problem exists for peccary and other game animals.
Fish in the Rio Verde could also be a good source of protein for those who live near its banks. But again, wasteful fishing techniques reduce the potential. The Indians traditionally fish by making a tachecual or simple dam of stone, boughs and earth where the river divides into two channels. The dam shunts the water into one channel, leaving the other dry. The people then rush in to gather the fish and crayfish trapped among the rocks. Although there is no size limit, at least all fish taken are eaten. Afar more destructive method of fishing, however, has become popular since the white man introduced dynamite. Villagers “poison” the river with the juice of certain plants, causing all fish to swim down stream ahead of the poison until they can take refuge in a deep pool bypassed by the main flow. When the fish have thus congregated, a small bomb is dropped into the pool, killing and maiming the fish; whereupon the children dive in to recover as many fish as possible before the current carries the rest away. In this manner an entire sector of river is denuded of fish. Fishing with dynamite is illegal in Mexico, but unless enforced, laws do little good. The people need to realize that in the long run they could eat more fish by using other methods.
Fish in the Rio Verde could also be a good source of protein for those who live near its banks.
Another error on the part of campesinos is wanton slaughter of beneficial animals which are believed destructive. Many species of insect eating birds are shot in cornfields because “they eat the corn.” Even roadrunners, which in the Sierra Madre are found all the way up into the pine zone, and which eat mice, lizards and insects, are shot because they “dig up and eat the freshly planted corn”. Small lizards and even toads are also thought guilty of this, but toads are spared for the belief that the rains will fail if a toad is killed. As in farmland elsewhere, beneficial hawks and owls are lumped with the “chicken hawks”, and shot. Boas and all rat eating snakes, on the other hand, are killed not because they are thought destructive, but because they are feared. I have tried to counter this fear by catching and handling non-poisonous snakes and getting children to handle them.
The Ecological Misfire of the UNESCO Malaria Control Program
The biggest ecological blunder in the upper barrancas, however, has been sponsored by UNESCO by its malaria control program. This is the only government health program which has reached the remote high country of Sinaloa, and ironically, in the high country malaria has never been a problem. The UNESCO malaria control program consists basically of heavily spraying every but with DDT every six months for several years, the theory being that the major vector is the anopheles house mosquito. True, for the first few years the program was tremendously effective in heavy malaria areas of the lowlands. But in the highlands of El Zopilote, where there has never been any malaria, the result of spraying DDT has been disastrous. The campesinos rely on cats for rat control, and it turns out that cats are tremendously susceptible to DDT. The malaria control program exterminated hundreds of cats, with a resultant rat epidemic. In some huts, rats are so thick they devour a large part of the stored corn, a loss which hits hard where the supply is short to begin with. With so many rats, the huts, in turn, become infested by fleas, with the danger of Typhus and other disease. Although the first sprayings of DDT dramatically reduced cockroaches and bedbugs, the survivors bred resistant strains and subsequent sprayings were less effective. Now, after each new spraying, it seems that cockroaches and bedbugs reach new population heights, perhaps because their natural predators, such as spiders and geckos, remain susceptible.
The huts, in turn, become infested by fleas, with the danger of Typhus and other disease
If all this is not misfortune enough, now in what were supposed to be the final stages of the control program, there seems to be a dramatic increase of malaria in the low country, where initially the program seemed so effective. In my first years at the Ajoya clinic—which were also the early years of the control program—we didn’t treat a single case of malaria. Last year we treated four cases, and this summer only, we treated at least fifteen. A possible explanation may be that the house mosquito, like the cockroach and the bedbug, is developing a resistance to DDT.