Mexico’s colonial-era city of Oaxaca choked by trash piles

MEXICO CITY (AP) — The mayor of Mexico’s most iconic and beloved colonial-era city, Oaxaca, has made a desperate public plea for federal authorities to declare a public health emergency over the mounds of uncollected garbage piling up in the city’s cobblestone streets.

Normally awash with tourists and known for its green-tinged stone buildings and vast culinary offerings, Oaxaca was left hamstrung after a neighboring town closed down a garbage dump that had taken the city’s refuse for decades.

With no place to take the trash, authorities in Oaxaca have desperately tried to find alternatives, including trucking vast amounts of garbage to a landfill in the neighboring state of Puebla. It is the biggest crisis the tourism-dependent city has faced since a coalition of radical groups took over the city for months in 2006.

“Clearly, we are experiencing a state of emergency, and that has lead us today to take the decision of asking for this to be declared a health emergency,” Mayor Francisco Martinez said Thursday.

The trash war heated up Friday, when the governor of the neighboring state of Puebla, Miguel Barbosa, said he wouldn’t accept any garbage from Oaxaca.

“If this is true, we are going to prevent it,” Barbosa said of the reported trash shipments. “We are going to investigate this.”

The problem began in October, when Zaachila, a neighboring town that has received Oaxaca’s garbage for decades, got tired of it and got authorities to close down the landfill there.

Since then, city authorities have been in a desperate race to find a new site to dump the tons of accumulating trash that is piled along roadsides, traffic medians and parks, even in the city’s iconic, restaurant-ringed main plaza, the Zocalo.

This week, state authorities opened a former factory site on the city’s outskirts to receive the trash, but neighbors nearby quickly organized to protest, blocking streets leading to the site, saying they didn’t want the garbage there.

City authorities were forced to pick up the trash they had dumped, and remove it.

“What we had to do as a responsible city government was to go pick it up,” said Martinez.

Alessandro Giorgi, 25, a Swiss-born teacher and blogger, visited Oaxaca last week around the end of the Day of the Dead holiday. He was shocked by the piles of garbage he found in the city’s picturesque, restaurant-ringed main plaza.

“I literally got to the corner (of the main square) and I find about 50 kilos of garbage,” said Giorgi, who has previously visited the city.

“The problem is that a tourist, or someone from outside Oaxaca, doesn’t know there is such a serious garbage problem,” Giorgi said.

It is not quite clear what effect declaring a health emergency might have; it probably won’t solve the garbage problem.

Federal authorities have been saying for years that the Zaachila dump the city used to use was a source of pollution and had been inadequately operated.

It appears that liquefying garbage was allowed to seep into soil, despite requirements that there should be waterproof layers laid under landfills to contain such seepage. Federal tests found arsenic and other contaminants in the soil near the site several years ago.

Oaxaca depends largely on tourism that features the centuries-old city center, and surrounding villages with handicraft production and pre-Hispanic ruin sites.

But recent events in cities like Rome and Naples show that historical cities around the world are not immune to trash problems, frustrating tourists and local residents alike.

“You expect to find traditions like Day of the Dead, very special Mexican things in Oaxaca,” Giorgi said, “and what you find is kilos of garbage, and that seems very wrong to me.”

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