El Colectivo Chilpancingo Pro Justicia Ambiental

The border between the U.S. and Mexico is an important area for a variety of reasons—contention over immigration and illegal crossings, narcotics smuggling, and the subject of our analysis here: the somewhat recent phenomenon of maquiladoras. In 1965, Mexico’s central government began to institute incentive programs for international corporations to build and center their early phase manufacturing plants in Tijuana, nearly adjacent to the U.S.–Mexico border. These plants have become known as maquiladoras (“assembly plant”), a unique version of the typical maquila (“factory”) that almost exclusively refers to the border’s import-export facilities. [1]

Hilary Abell calls the general regions that house import-export plants “export processing zones” or EPZs. In her analysis of maquiladoras located in Mexico’s EPZs, Abell explains that Mexico has drawn hundreds of corporations due to substantial tax breaks, lax environmental regulation, a virtually unending stream of cheap labor, and active repression of union organizing. [2]

The documentary Maquilapolis tells the story of several women workers (obreras) of the maquiladoras and the different struggles they face. Women workers make up more than 80 percent of the maquiladora workforce. [3] Women are preferred for this factory work because they have the “required dexterity and patience for detailed manual work,” and the factory owners also assume that they have weaker organizing capacity and “will tolerate abusive working conditions.” [2] The 800 maquiladoras in Tijuana range from technology production from companies like Panasonic, Sanyo, and Sony to the other commodity production like batteries, IV tubes, and clothes. These factories supply a relatively constant stream of industrial jobs that usually pay better than the inconstant and cheaper positions in rural Mexican states, which leads to an influx of women from various parts of Mexico to Tijuana and other border cities. [3]

Sex-Based Discrimination and Workplace Conditions

Carmen Durán, one of the obreras featured in Maquilapolis, explains that she arrived to Tijuana when she was 13, encouraged by her parents to move away from her home state of Sinaloa and pursue a factory job. Now, she is in her late twenties, is a single mother to three children, and has worked in nine different maquiladoras. After only two years of working in a Sanyo factory, Durán was shocked at the abysmal health conditions and workplace discrimination that she soon learned to be commonplace in the maquiladoras. First, she was constantly exposed to toxic chemicals and odors—she reported that the adhesive she and other workers used to assemble the “flybacks” for television sets smelled like burnt plastic and made her lungs ache. The incessant mix of chemicals in the factory caused her nose to bleed after leaving her shift daily. Durán also began to develop problems with her kidney functioning because the factory managers did not permit the obreras to drink water or use the bathroom, even during the workers’ menstrual cycles. [3]

Durán’s story is not uncommon. Nearly all women workers face the same or similar workplace conditions, regardless of the owner of the maquiladora. Women have reported sexual discrimination, violence, and human rights violation in the workplace, from “refusal to hire applicants who are pregnant, mistreatment and forced ‘resignation’ of workers who become pregnant” to “requiring women to present used sanitary towels each month [or] punching them in the abdomen to prevent viable pregnancies.” [2]

After speaking with each other and discovering their shared plight that is undoubtedly gendered, the obreras decided to join together and become promotoras, self-defined as a “grassroots activist, [who] challeng[es] the usual illegal tactics of the powerful transnationals that are poisoning their workers and the barrios they inhabit.” [3]

Promotoras fight against not only their own working conditions and health/safety hazards, but the threats to their family and children that arise from workplace-to-home toxic contact and, most importantly, the unregulated and high-volume pollution of waterways that flow into the barrios. Lourdes Luján, another obrera featured in Maquilapolis, details her everyday struggle against environmental contamination in her neighborhood of Chilpancingo. Chilpancingo is home to El Río Alamar, a creek into which over 200 upstream plants deposit their hazardous wastes, which then flow down into the town.

Chilpancingo and El Río Alamar

In the 1980s and 1990s, one factory in particular caused most of Río Alamar’s pollution: a battery recycling plant and lead smelter called Metales y Derivados, located one mile away from the United States border. Called “Metales” by the workers and residents of Chilpancingo, the factory was abandoned in 1994 by its American owner, Jose Kahn, when the factory was ordered to be shut down by PROFEPA, Mexico’s equivalent to the EPA. Kahn fled back to the United States, evading Mexico’s arrest warrant and his responsibility to pay the multi-million dollar environmental damage that his abandoned factory was still causing. [4]

Andrea Pedro Aguilar, another resident of Chilpancingo, called the behemoth factory “her monster,” citing the lead dust that she finds daily on her kids’ toys and the toxic chemicals—arsenic, cadmium, and antimony—that seep into her family’s drinking water and the soil where her kids play. [4]

When Metales was still running in 1990, a Mexican university’s survey of the soil in Chilpancingo found lead levels to be over 3,000 times higher than USEPA standards. Even samples taken after almost a decade of the plant’s closure find the lead levels to be almost 100 times higher than USEPA standards. Aguilar’s four-year-old daughter, Lupita, shows clear signs of health risks from toxic exposure. Her hair falls out “by the brush full every day,” and her nose and throat begin to bleed spontaneously. [4] Luján’s son plays in the Río Alamar and has developed spots and sores all over his body. Both women have seen birth and reproductive defects throughout the town, seeing children born without fingernails and with enlarged heads. [3]

Lourdes Luján grew up in Chilpancingo and remembers how clear and clean the water was before the majority of the plants were constructed upstream, and long before Metales y Derivados shut down. Faced with the intolerable levels of toxics that come from Metales and travel down the Río Alamar directly to their homes, Luján, Aguilar and other women in the town decided to form an organization dedicated to grassroots activism, community education, and the ultimate goal of holding the United States and Mexican governments responsible for cleaning up the Metales sites. They named this organization El Colectivo Chilpancingo Pro Justicia Ambiental, or the Chilpancingo Collective for Environmental Justice.

El Colectivo Chilpancingo Pro Justicia Ambiental

One major goal of El Colectivo Chilpancingo is community education. Working with American scholars and scientists from the San Diego Environmental Health Coalition, the women have learned a great deal about the medical terms for the health risks and reproductive defects caused by the Metales pollution. Luján describes learning about putting names to the every day birth defects she saw—anonychia for children born without fingernails, hydrocephalus for children born with enlarged heads, a condition that is actually caused when the infant’s body is unable to drain spinal fluid from the brain cavity. [3] This education gave women like Luján and Aguilar credibility in the face of the government officials to whom they were petitioning—instead of positioning themselves as hypochondriac mothers who were concerned about rare and occasional birth defects, they supported their complaints with hard data on the levels of lead and other toxins in their blood and used medical terminology to categorize the phenomena they were witnessing. As mostly single mothers who are the primary caretakers of the family, they had a right to demand redress and remediation of the site.

Women of the Colectivo Chilpancingo fought for ten years, petitioning cross-border and intergovernmental organizations to listen to their story and commit to cleaning up the site. The women knew they were facing some of the largest and most impenetrable forces—the Mexican government, the United States government, and the interests of multinational corporations—yet continued to push. The women must have also known that, if they were successful, the decision of both governments to take environmental action would set a precedent for ending or curtailing Mexico’s promise of lax environmental regulations for multinational corporations, possibly serving as a deterrent for those corporations to site their factories at the border.

On June 24, 2004, after almost a decade of protests and petitioning, “Mexican federal, state, and municipal government agencies signed a coordination agreement defining their authority and commitment to work together to clean up and eliminate risks associated with the Metales site.” [5] Mexico’s environmental protection agency, PROFEPA, coordinated their actions with the United States government. An EPA report published a little more than a year later detailed a full list of the environmental hazards posed by the Metales plant, as well as a step-by-step plan for remediation and reduction of land contamination that involved cooperation between the EPA, Mexico’s Secretary for the Environment and Natural Resources, and a Mexican waste management company called Tetra Tech. In total, the cost of removal of all toxic waste from the Metales site was estimated to be between $1.5 and $3.3 million. [5]

A year following the EPA report, the women of the Colectivo Chilpancingo were still not finished. Still unsatisfied with the slow progress of the cleanup, the Colectivo wanted to keep organizing. They applied for and received a $4500 grant from the Global Greengrants Fund, an organization that has awarded over $10 million to grassroots environmental organizers across the world since 1993. The Global Greengrants Fund’s mission statement perfectly encapsulates the motivations of the Colectivo Chilpancingo: “The people whose health, cultures and livelihoods are most affected by problems of pollution and environmental degradation are the same people who must play a major role in solving the problems.” [6]

Ecofeminist Analysis

The problem of women’s work in maquiladoras is a double-edged sword. Globalization and the growing trend of factories and assembly plants in developing countries promises stronger and better-paying jobs that these women rely on to support themselves and their families. Their struggle for improved working conditions and less exposure to toxics and chemicals in the workplace poses a problem for the managers of the maquiladoras and the owners of the international corporations. To them, the promotoras are a pesky headache, one that can be easily solved by firing these women and replacing them with cheap, new labor—or even relocating their factories to one of the myriad other developing countries that also offers cheap labor, fiscal incentives, and lax environmental regulation.

However, the same “problems” would likely occur no matter the location of these factories, as long as the factories are located in countries that occupy the “Global South.” Echoing the sentiments of Hilary Abell [2], Sara Grineski and Timothy Collins connect the exploitation of women and natural resources by corporations that charter these maquiladoras to the larger pattern of environmental injustice that occurs in the global Southern hemisphere, making industrial pollution an ecofeminist issue. Because countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia are marginalized within the worldwide economic and political order and typically have lax regulatory schemes, they seem to be perfect targets for the short-term capitalist gains that corporations pursue. Grineski and Collins acknowledge the post-2001 recession exodus of a few corporations to Asian countries such as Indonesia, and hypothesize that women workers will continue to organize and protest abysmal working conditions as long as they negatively affect the workers’ children and families. [8]

The struggles and eventual victory of El Colectivo Chilpancingo shows how grassroots organizing can be successful even in the face of international powers—governments and corporations—that can seem daunting and undefeatable.

As we discuss in our post on pesticide use in Brazil, women, as caretakers and matriarchs of the family, have the right and responsibility to safeguard the health of their children. Environmental issues that differentially affect a woman’s reproductive capacity automatically take on an ecofeminist flavor. The women of the Colectivo Chilpancingo use undoubtedly ecofeminist language when petitioning to international governments and organizations, invoking their authority as mothers concerned with the excessive health risks from pollution.

The maquiladoras are situated in Tijuana for capitalist gains, attracted by the low taxes, cheap labor, and lax environmental regulation. Clearly, women and the natural world that must exist within this industrial complex are unduly burdened and harmed by the capitalist model that places profits—maximized by minimizing costs of properly paying women and dealing with hazardous waste—above all.

The women of El Colectivo Chilpancingo still work daily to defend the land and water that is constantly threatened by international, corporate interests. They worked tirelessly to block a recent proposal to re-channel the Río Alamar to construct a highway through Chilpancingo, a project that would have increased the flow of truck traffic through the town and caused a substantial increase in air pollution. In June 2015, their efforts again proved successful. The government of Baja California announced that it will not cement three kilometers of the river and will instead channel the river with stones to filter the water and maintain the existing aquifers that feed into a wooded area nearby, according to a report from the Vida Latina, a Spanish-language daily newspaper circulated in San Diego and Tijuana. [9]

The women of the San Diego Environmental Health Coalition still work with the women of el Colectivo Chilpancingo to maintain a strong community presence and teach them other vital skills, such as “empowerment, leadership, and resource management training.” Even in 2016, the women are still planning on building urban forests and clean soccer fields for their children to play in and explore, constantly concerned with mitigating the constant conflict between their own and their children’s health and the capitalist interests of multinational corporations. [9]


[1] Cravey, Altha J. Women and Work in Mexico’s Maquiladoras. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.

[2] Abell, Hilary. “Endangering Women’s Health for Profit: Health and safety in Mexico’s maquiladoras.” Development in Practice 9, vol. 5 (1999): 595-600.

[3] Maquilapolis. Directed by Vicky Funari and Sergio De La Torre. San Francisco: California Newsreel, 2006. Transcript in: Aguirre, María Lourdes Luján, Olga Rendón, Carmen Durán, Magdalena Cerda, and Jaime Cota. “Maquilapolis: City of Factories.” In Mexican History: A Primary Source Reader. Edited by Nora E. Jaffary, Edward W. Osowski, and Susie S. Porter. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2009.

[4] Sullivan, Kevin. “A Toxic Legacy on the Mexican Border; Abandoned U.S.-Owned Smelter in Tijuana Blamed for Birth Defects, Health Ailments.” The Washington Post, February 16, 2003.

[5] United States. Environmental Protection Agency. Office of Land and Emergency Management. Summary Report for the Removal Action at the Metales Y Derivados Site, Tijuana, Mexico: RCRA Enforcement, Permitting, and Assistance Contract Region 9. By Emily Pimentel and Tetra Tech. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2004.

[6] Global Greengrants Fund. “Annual Grant Report.” News release, December 05, 2005. Global Greengrants Fund.

[7] Peterman, Amber, Shu Wen Ng, Tia Palermo, and I-Heng Emma Lee. “Managing the Double Burden: Pregnancy and Labor-Intensive Time Use in Rural China, Mexico, and Tanzania.” Studies in Family Planning 44 (2013): 411-430.

[8] Grineski, Sara E. and Timothy W. Collins. “Exploring patterns of environmental injustice in the Global South: Maquiladoras in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.” Population and Environment 29 (2008): 247-270.

[9] Cortes, Norma. “Organización Binacional Trabaja Por La Justicia Ambiental En Tijuana.” Vida Latina, August 29, 2015.
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