Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Locals fight fires and slow government response in Oaxaca

Fires have raged in the state of Oaxaca for much of this year, with the National Forestry Commission (Conafor) reporting 110 fires and over 64,000 hectares affected from Jan. 1 through May 16.

This makes Oaxaca the state with the most land area affected by fires so far this year in Mexico.

Chart showing forest fires by state in Mexico
This chart shows the states with the largest surface areas affected by fires through May 16. Oaxaca is in the lead, with over 64,000 hectares affected. (Conafor)

Since early May, wildfires have threatened communities and reserves in Oaxaca’s Tlacolula Valley, including the protected Area Voluntarily Destined for Conservation (ADVC) “El Fuerte.”

Helicopters have been seen transporting water from reservoirs near Santiago Matatlán to battle the blazes. Some reports indicate 20,000 hectares have burned in the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán biosphere reserve, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in both the states of Oaxaca and Puebla.

The fires are exacerbated by an overwhelming drought in Oaxaca, intensifying the severity of the situation. Barbara Garzon of eco-cultural organization Zapotrek, which has been coordinating donations of water, food, and face masks, told Mexico News Daily that “what little rain we’ve been blessed with is not enough.”

Local communities say government has been slow to respond

On May 18, San Pablo Villa de Mitla authorities announced that the latest fire was controlled. Their statement praised the volunteer efforts: “After thirteen days of intense and brave volunteer work by women and men, the forest fire which occurred in our territory has finally been extinguished.”

Community fire fighting brigade in Oaxaca
Unión Zapata ejido leaders shared this photo, described as “local brigade members and members from other communities looking at the results of their work. Physically exhausted, but morally full of energy. Many thanks to those who supported us and donated to put out the fire in our conservation area.” (Ejido of Unión Zapata/ADVC El Fuerte)

However, locals have reported slow governmental response, leading to three blockades near the communities closest to the fires: Unión Zapata, Rancho de Lago, and San Dionisio Ocotlán.

Locals attempted to suppress the blaze independently, but this carried risks. On Feb. 5, five men died trying to control a fire in nearby San Lucas Quiaviní. The communities called for federal intervention, requesting the Program for Emergency Response to Natural Threats and the DN III-E Plan, which outlines the Mexican Army and Air Force’s disaster relief activities.

Reforma newspaper reported that on May 11, residents of Villa de Mitla detained Víctor Vásquez Castillejos, head of Oaxaca’s Ministry of Culture, to demand more governmental effort in fighting the fires. Protesters intercepted him at a blockade and held him overnight at the municipal palace. He was released the next day.

Leodegario Monterrubio, a protester interviewed by Quadratín Oaxaca, emphasized the need for government support, stating that communal efforts alone were insufficient to fight the rapidly spreading fires. He highlighted the necessity of helicopter assistance, noting the area’s ecological importance, which includes sightings of jaguars and pumas.

Rural area of Oaxaca with helicopter in the sky
Locals have called on the federal government to provide more helicopters to help battle the blazes. (Anna Bruce)

The government eventually responded with twelve brigades from Conafor and National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (Conanp), who fought the fires directly and created fire breaks. Community members from Unión Zapata, San Miguel del Valle, San Miguel Albarradas, Santa Catarina Albarradas, and San Pablo Güilá de Santiago Matatlán also assisted. Two helicopters were deployed to bring water to the active fire fronts, with additional reconnaissance aircraft surveying the area.

Despite these efforts, fires have continued to blaze across Oaxaca and the rest of Mexico. As of Friday, there are 109 active forest fires nationwide, in 24 states.

Deforestation, land clearing and human actions to blame

While climate change contributes to the current water scarcity and drought in Oaxaca, human actions are blamed for the majority of the forest fires according to the Forest Commission (Conafor) and Environment Ministry (Semarnat).

They identify the primary causes as accidental (e.g., power line breaks, car accidents), negligence (e.g., uncontrolled agricultural burning, campfires, burning garbage), and intentional actions (e.g., conflicts, illegal logging). Deforestation and land clearing for urbanization, mining, or agave growing exacerbate the situation, making landscapes vulnerable to erosion and further drought.

However, recent rainfall offers some hope for controlling the fires and preventing further spread. Organizations like Zapotrek are now shifting focus to reforestation efforts in affected areas.The ADVC “El Fuerte” plans reforestation activities starting in July.

How to report a fire

Reporting fires can save not only human lives, but vital forests, which are crucial for regulating water cycles, purifying air, and maintaining a stable climate. Allowing them to disappear through negligence or intentional actions can lead to negative weather cycles and a loss of vital resources.

Conafor’s 24-hour forest fire hotline number is 800 737 00 00 and 911 can also be dialed for assistance.

Anna Bruce is an award-winning British photojournalist based in Oaxaca, Mexico. Just some of the media outlets she has worked with include Vice, The Financial Times, Time Out, Huffington Post, The Times of London, the BBC and Sony TV. Find out more about her work at her website or visit her on social media on Instagram or on Facebook.

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