The dawn in Mérida breaks with the sharp crack of a four-cylinder engine. It’s the sound of traffic outside my window and it follows me through my day—on the bus, to VENUSA, into every store, and into the apartment. There are other sounds here, too, like birds singing and the breeze coming through the window, but a car racing up the street or a car horn frequently pierces the calm. Honking—that’s another inescapable sound. Drivers here honk, I gather, for three main reasons: because they’re tired of the traffic line, to warn other drivers that they’re racing through an intersection, or because either of those two haven’t happened recently. So, there’s so much random loud horn blowing and engine revving that there’s serious problem with noise pollution in Mérida. Yes, noise can be a kind of pollution. And it’s getting to the point where I need to hear some silence to stay sane.
Now, I’ve tried other things. For example, I bought a small wind chime (“mobile”) made of pieces of “white onyx” (glass?) carved in the shape of birds that plays softly when the window is open. I was inspired both because of the positive sounds the chime makes and because the wind chime is a symbol of home for me. My family had wind chimes when I was growing up but most recently I saw chimes used in the film “El Norte,” in which a Guatemalan refugee hears the sound of a wind chime whenever she is connected with or thinks about her home in the mountains. I honestly don’t have that kind of personal connection with wind chimes but I do think chimes carry the significance of home wherever they are.
Noise pollution is annoying but air pollution and water pollution I consider serious issues in Mérida. I’m not sure how bad they are and I don’t know if conditions are improving or deteriorating. But I do know that every morning when I walk up the hill from the TROLE stop to VENUSA I choke on the clouds of black smoke from the buses. I know that I can’t drink the tap water or I could get violently sick. There are holes in the sidewalk filled with trash. To me these are things that would be unthinkable in a sizeable US city. But here they are normal.
I read a 2008 report by CorpoAndes, the regional development agency, about Libertador Municipality, that explicitly explained that these are problems. Further on, under principal causes of doctors’ visits, the report lists an incredible number of respiratory infections, headache (cafalea), and diarrhea. To me, clearly missing from the report is data on incidence of specific diseases and mortality. The newspaper released a two-page front-cover story about the issue two weeks ago but I have since forgotten what alarming news it relates.
The lack of data alarms me because of the stories I have heard about incidences of birth defects from mercury pollution and agrochemicals. According to my botany teacher, agrochemicals are over applied in the páramo region north of Mérida and there are cases of birth defects. My communications teacher explained about birth defects in people living along Lake Maracaibo, which is a site of intense contamination from oil drilling on the lake and, allegedly, mercury from miners in the mountains of nearby Colombia. In Venezuela, many people ask me what I think of the country and the scenery. Well, yes, the vegetation is lush, but I suspect the Venezuelan environment yet unseen is more compelling.
A project I started but have not finished is trying to purchase measurement equipment to test the air and water to see for myself and compare with US data and Venezuelan data when I find it. Of course, even if I had the equipment I don’t know if there are labs that could process it. And what if the border patrol stopped me? Arrested for possession of national air resources?
An other side of the story is regulation of pollution. Having studied US environmental policy I think about the success of regulation to manage certain kinds of pollution. Why does the US have a relatively advanced system of anti-pollution enforcement and Venezuela not? (Or is that an inaccurate assumption?)
I hypothesized that maybe it’s the law. Maybe there are no environmental laws here. Well, there’s actually a 43-page mini-book on the subject: La Ley Orgánica del Ambiente. It’s sold on street corners and in bookstores everywhere. Only the constitution is more prolific. The companion, for the avid reader, is the 28-page Ley Penal del Ambiente. I have a 2007 and a 1992 version, respectively, which is surprising because when the constitution was changed by referendum in 1999, I figured all the books were at least updated with the name “Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela” and new editions printed but maybe not.
In any case, the Ley Orgánica specifically requires prevention of air and water pollution of the kind I mentioned. It also requires environmental impact statements, economic feasibility statements, and a national pollution database, among other exciting projects. I haven’t read the Ley Penal to see what the punishment is supposed to be for bus fumes so I’ll have to get back to you on that next week. The National Guard may have to be called in, as some constitutional rights might have been violated. So if regulations exist then the issue is likely lack of enforcement and implementation. As I hinted, the law provides that the army can be used for enforcement. And there is are environmental and health ministries that deal with these issues. But there is also another law mini-book you can buy that details the rights and structure of Consejos Comunales (Community Councils). Consejos Comunales are groups of citizens that have the legitimate right to submit proposals for community development projects and solicit funds from the federal government to complete them. It’s basically the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG) on steroids. It’s a way for people to get things done (i.e. water treatment) if the local government isn’t responsive enough. Read the rest of this entry ?