Harbour Blues, Salina Cruz

Harbour Blues, Salina Cruz

Rafael Mayoral recalls spending the idylls of his youth in Salina Cruz and the three development projects that ultimately devastated the gritty port city and left fallow farmlands, water shortages, and urban poverty in their wake.

“I remember the city before the refinery,” says Rafael Mayoral, a middle-aged professor and self-described activist in defense of the land. He is tall, broad-chested with a shock of salt-and-pepper hair that blows wildly in the violent Tehuano winds. “It was a different city back then,” he says with some nostalgia. “A marvelous place. I used to help carry the nets to the shrimp boats. When the shrimpers came back to port they’d give us the fish they caught in their nets because they only sold the shrimp. It was my city. It felt like a big swimming pool.”

black and white panoramic image of Salina Cruz
Oil tankers wait moor to the oil pipelines just outside the port of Salina Cruz.

We’re sitting in an empty beachside restaurant with a floor of perfectly combed sand just over the western hills from Salina Cruz as Mayoral chronicles the decades of decay. It’s not a sob story. But on the few occasions when his self-assured, baritone voice succumbs to sentimentality or the idylls of youth you can sense a hint of the stalking sorrow he carries for what has become of his beloved city.

Mayoral raises three fingers to emphasize that Salina Cruz’s decline can be distilled into three acts: “The Presa Benito Juárez (dam), the PEMEX oil refinery and the eolic (wind) parks.” Each was promoted by the government and sold to the public as a once-in-a generation infrastructural development that would help stabilize the economy and elevate the quality of life for everyone on the isthmus. The projects promised to bring progress, prosperity, green energy, global relevance to the city. Naturally, the each stoked intrigue, debate, polemics.

When the Benito Juaréz dam was built in the foothills of the Sierra Madre del Sur in 1962, the rising El Marques reservoir submerged the town of Jalapa Viejo and its 16th century Dominican temple and a new town was reconstructed on its shores. The reservoir was intended to divert water from the Tehuantepec River and feed a warren of canals that had been recently-dug across the savannah-like delta. “It was a big mistake,” says Mayoral. “They thought it would turn the isthmus into Mexico City’s granary. They tried to grow sugarcane, rice, corn–nothing worked.” The dearth of silt flowing downriver depleted the soil of essential nutrients and left the land too infertile for large-scale agriculture. Whether through arrogance or ineptitude, the engineers had preordained their own project to failure.

black and white image of oil refinery rippling in heat
Heat from the oil refinery muddles a clear view of the processing plant.

What remained of the Tehuantepec River delta nearly dried up when the refinery was built, recalls Mayoral. Water that was initially diverted for construction was permanently rerouted for the cooling systems once the refinery was operational. “People from town had to walk upriver to collect water with buckets and haul it home on foot or pack it on donkeys. Communities constructed and installed their own water tanks in the hills above town. You can still see them,” says Mayoral, pointing toward the ridgeline where you can just make out metal cisterns and blue barrels that serve as catchments. “It was the first time I saw community resistance.”

The shortage of water was exacerbated when 3,000 (primarily) rural farmers from towns all across the isthmus flocked to Salina Cruz seeking construction jobs at the oil refinery. The pay was good and the work steady. Many believed they could find another job when the project wrapped up after three years, only to discover that operations would be run by a small team of skilled technicians and engineers employed by PEMEX (Mexico’s national petroleum corporation), while the facility would be maintained by private security guards and a handful of gardeners. There were no jobs for them at the oil refinery and very few to be had in the city.

The wind farms were the nail in the Tehuantepec River’s coffin. Despite exhaustive environmental impact assessments, the foundations for the turbines reached depths that penetrated the shallow water table beneath the isthmus and blocked the flow of groundwater. Precise positioning of turbines is cited as crucial to maximizing wind energy efficiency, which suggests that the region’s paucity water is the result of a necessary, if regrettable, compromise in a larger plan to reduce carbon emissions in accordance with the Kyoto protocols. To Cruzeros like Mayoral, it sounds suspiciously similar to being sold out by your own government. Today, little more than a thin brook of knee-deep water trickles between the 20-foot-deep concrete embankments that once formed its banks.

black and white image of flare fires
A chorus of flare fires dance across the horizon of Salina Cruz.

The enormous potential of wind energy on the isthmus is not in dispute, nor is its capacity to help Mexico wean off its dependence on fossil fuels. The seasonal Tehuano winds that tear southwest from Chivela pass and shriek through the Isthmus of Tehuantepec are strong enough to churn up algae blooms far out in the Pacific. Wind energy here is an easy sell, and Acciona, Iberdrola, Union Fenosa, Preneal and other leading European utilities corporations have succeeded in developing the isthmus into one of the world’s most productive onshore wind parks. It is Brobdingnagian in scope. No less than 3,000 turbines fan out across hundreds of thousands of hectares of scrubby pastureland. When the dust picks up and blankets the slow, lifelessly churning 120-foot-long blades of the turbines in a smoggy orange horizon, the scene looks like a backdrop straight out of Mad Max or Tenet.

Rafael makes it clear that he is neither a zealot nor Luddite. Quite the contrary. “I’m a civil engineer,” he says emphatically. “I’m not against development or technology.” Nor does he consider the wind farms to be the problem per se. The problem is that “investors are only interested in the resources that are important for their investment.” Mayoral, like many others, sees a solution: information needs to be shared transparently and the input of communities who will be directly involved need to be solicited.

“They need to halt the projects and conduct a series of reviews,” he says. “Examine what functions well, why plans failed in the past, and start to think comprehensively about how to make a project that works for everyone. It doesn’t have to start on Wall Street or in Hong Kong. It has to start here. If they don’t fix this, there will be an explosion–social or environmental.”

waste water pipes from the oil refinery
Waste water pipes from the oil refinery empty into the Pacific Ocean near Salina Cruz.

His sentiment was echoed in a scientific paper published this past November in Energy Strategy Reviews: “Mexico needs to improve its legal framework to regulate wind energy development, and establish programs to assure that citizens are involved in the decision-making processes before installing wind farms, and during their entire lifetime.”

Mayoral has a silver tongue and a talent for cutting through the bullshit of seraphic aspirationalism or the transformative power of the Transistmico. He asks rhetorically: “What positive impact does it have on my life if I see goods being transported from Ireland to Hong Kong? They can build 10 factories here, but they’ll have no water.”

Signup for the ArtsEverywhere newsletter

icon-angle icon-bars icon-times