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Organic Consumers Association

Fears That a Lush Land May Lose a Foul Fertilizer

MIXQUIAHUALA, Mexico - Night and day, Marcelo Mera Bárcenas slops the fetid water that has coursed 60 miles downhill from the sewers of Mexico City and spreads it over the corn and alfalfa fields of this once arid land.

From the roads here in the Mezquital Valley, fields stretch to the hills in a panoply of green, graced by willow trees. But up close, where Mr. Mera is paid for every acre of field he irrigates, the smell and look of the water that feeds this lushness chokes the senses.

With only rubber boots for protection, he does not buy into the general belief here that the water does no harm, that a scrub with detergent each night will cure whatever ills it brings. Itchy boils break out on his hands, he said. He is often sick with colds and the flu.

"Of course it affects us because the water is so dirty," said Mr. Mera, a laborer who has worked in the muck of these fields for 38 years, since he was 15. "But there's nothing else to do."

For 100 years, Mexico City has flushed its wastewater north to irrigate the farmland of Hidalgo State. This foul cascade, which the farmers call "the black waters," flows through a latticework of canals and then trickles over the fields.

So when word got out that the government was finally going to build a giant wastewater treatment plant, one might have expected the farmers around here to be excited. Instead, they were suspicious.

"Without that water, there is no life, " said Gregorio Cruz Alamilla, 60, who has worked his family's 12-acre farm since he was a boy.

Mr. Cruz knows the water is loaded with toxic substances, including chemicals dumped by factories, and he tires of clearing his field of plastic bottles and wrappings every time he irrigates.

But like many others here, he worries that treating the water, though it may remove harmful contaminants, will also strip away some of the natural fertilizers that even the authorities here say have helped make this valley so productive. And despite the government's assurances, the farmers here suspect the worst: that once the water is treated, it will be pumped back to Mexico City, leaving the farms dry. 

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