Grassroots Planning in El Salto, Mexico

“Un Salto de Vida”, Alternative Grassroots Planning

By Jorge Losoya


Santiago River Pollution, Mexico. Photo credit: Eugenio Polgovsky, 2016


In Jalisco, Mexico, a severe environmental injustice is affecting communities located along the Santiago River. The Santiago receives waste discharge from about 280 industries and municipalities and is one of the most polluted rivers in Mexico (González, 2010). The concentration of industries began in the 1970’s, when local and state governments sought investments to develop industrial capacity (McCulligh, Tetreault, & Martínez, 2012). These industries include electronic firms, automotive factories, industrial parks, and waste from farms and chemical plants (González, 2010). Lack of enforcement of environmental regulations has contributed to contamination from arsenic, sulfuric acid and mercury (González, 2010). Many parts of the river are inadequate for human consumption, aquatic life, and recreation. Fumes and foam are released at waterfalls along the river, spreading the contamination beyond the water. Communities along the river have blamed various illnesses and deaths, including cancer, on the toxicity of the river.

Because of the severe threats faced by industrial contamination, in 2006 Un Salto de Vida (USV) was founded by Enrique Enciso Rivera in the town of El Salto, which is located along the Santiago river. This grassroots organization began to bring attention to the environmental injustices facing their communities through a wide range of tactics. They hold meetings in public plazas, go door – to – door to inform community members, organize marches, launch petitions, and meet with state and federal authorities. Additionally, USV has utilized the internet to create an online presence and form networks with local, national, and international organizations.

Community members bring awareness to the deaths caused by contamination. Photo credit: Francisco Rodriguez, Sol de Mexico News 2018.

USV’s events highlight their emotional and bodily responses to the Santiago River’s contamination. Drawing on Sweet and Escalante’s conceptualization of visceral geography (2015), USV actions can be interpreted as highlighting the relationship between space and the violence wrought by the contamination of the river. This is especially apparent in USV’s kidney health workshop where residents discuss their health problems and the ties between the river, their body, and the ‘violence’ they face. USV’s public meetings in the city squares provide a space for community members to share the visceral geography of their feelings and emotions related to bodily concerns and their experiences (Sweet and Escalante, 2015).

Moreover, USV’s activities can be understood as fostering insurgent planning for environmental and social justice. Miraftab defines insurgent planning as radical practices that are counter- hegemonic and imaginative (2009). Residents’ limited inclusion in state planning is countered y USV’s protests, numerous outreach methods, and use of the internet. This illustrates USV’s movement between the government’s invited spaces of consultation and their own invented spaces of community participation on their own terms (Miraftab, 2009). However, the place attachment of their members also serves as an important, motivating factor for their insurgent planning.

The toxic foam along the Santiago river creates a hazard for children. Photo credit: Arturo Campos Cedillo, 2016



USV’s activism asks us to look beyond the technical and quantitative rationalities of contemporary planning by interpreting social movements and emotional ties to places as alternative planning practices. Dominant planning rationalities that planners rely on calculations, scientific studies, and models (Fält, 2016), but in international contexts, planners must go beyond their assumptions and rationalities to avoid imposing planning practices that conflict with local rationalities. In doing so, alternative assumptions and rationalities can be included in the planning process to create a more critical planning practice.

In regards to environmental justice, considering the role of place attachment unveils the emotional source of the environmental priorities of individuals, and by implication, the role environmentalism may play for insurgent planning. By considering people’s emotional ties to their places and landscapes, we may counter the technicalization and quantification of environmentalism stemming from the environmental sciences. The community’s emotional attachment to the river and bodily experiences provides a qualitative counterpoint to the state and alternative reasons for environmental protection. In sum, considering place attachment and bodily impacts unveils the emotional ties prevalent in insurgent and environmental activities. Making these attachments visible and including them in planning allows us to better recognize and support the actions of grassroots movements as they form their own structures of engagement (Miraftab, 2009).


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