San Diego Silverio De La Mora Ceballos is hard to spot among the ten-foot-high reeds of this pristine section of the Tijuana River.
"Pristine" isn't a word you think of when you talk about the Tijuana River, but here at the head of its valley, in the Sub-delegación La Presa area just below the Rodriguez dam, it gurgles clear and gently over the rocks and sand and among the reeds. A few soda cans, car parts, and cardboard boxes are strewn around, but looking east, words that come to mind are "rustic," "pastoral," "bucolic."
Now look west, and see the future. The river has been completely covered in concrete, a continuation of the concrete that downtown tourists cross by footbridge on the way to Revolución Avenue.
De La Mora, a Tijuana electrical contractor, has joined the fight to roll this progress back. He not only wants the concrete torn away and replaced with more eco-friendly rock berms and greenery, but he's campaigning to surround these upper reaches with a thousand-acre urban forest. A set of "lungs" for air-polluted, tree-starved Tijuana.
He says he's paid a price for joining a public campaign against the plans of the state government. He says all his electrical contracts with the state government have dried up. Despite being a one-time friend of the substitute governor, Alejandro González Alcocer, De La Mora says he is now unemployed, frozen out by the people who were once his steady customers.
Yet all he's doing, he says, is fighting for what Mexico's president has already decreed as federal policy.
"Fifteen years ago, under President Miguel de la Madrid, an urban forest and nature preserve was precisely the federal government's promise," he says. "But then PAN [the business-oriented National Action Party, or Partido Acción Nacional] came to power, and now money dictates everything."
The floods of 1980, 1983, and 1993 also dictated the state government's action. At the height of those floods, when waters from the dangerously full Rodriguez dam had to be released, they caused multiple drownings downstream, and many houses were destroyed. The concrete canalization is at least partly the state and municipal government's response to those concerns.
But De La Mora believes the state government is more interested in profit: in maximizing land-use in this central part of the Tijuana valley. According to a state government spokesperson, its aim is to sell off what was once federal government land to private buyers, to build shopping malls and residential housing instead of creating a forest.
"And ordinary people will not be able to afford the houses," he says. In the end, he believes the area might result in more maquiladora factories.
We're down in the river. Bull rushes, an occasional flight of birds with bell-clear warbles surround us. One strange bird lets out a mocking call like an Australian kookaburra.
"I don't know the names of these plants or birds," De La Mora admits as we splash through the last surviving patch of reed forest, "but I feel close to them in my heart. These plants are the same as you have in the Imperial Beach Tijuana River estuary. It's the same region, the same ecology. But except for right here, [the state government] has killed all this natural life with their concrete canalization project. It wasn't necessary, but they want to squeeze the river. Minimum space for the river, maximum for land-developers."
De La Mora and fellow campaigner Felipe Daniel Ruanova Zárate lead the way across a mini-dam of loose rocks held together by wire mesh. The water chuckles underneath.
"Civil engineers call this a 'gaviones' structure," says Ruanova. " 'Gaviones' is a collection of rocks held in place by wire mesh without use of concrete. It slows down the velocity of the water in flood time. If [the state government] had been thinking in a good way, they could [use this system] and preserve the river as a green area without any hazard to the environment."
Ironically, Ruanova is the engineer who originally oversaw the development of the entire Río area of Tijuana. He was sent from Mexico City by the federal government. "I was the general director of the PRODUTSA [Promotora del Desarrollo Urbano de Tijuana, or Urban Development Promotion of Tijuana]. We had to pave these roads, put trees in, sewage in, throw bridges across the river -- five for cars, five for pedestrians, to develop this."
One thousand acres of the 3000 acres that make up the Río area, he says, had always been laid aside for the "urban forest," a permanent green area in the tercera etapa -- the third developmental area in the upper reaches of the river valley. He knew the idea was safe because President de la Madrid, along with state and municipal authorities, had issued a decree assigning the land "in perpetuity" as a territorial reserve exclusively for ecological purposes.
But since the PANistas' accession to power in Baja California, in state and city governments, claims Ruanova, this highly valuable area has become a pawn in the bargaining between the nationally dominant PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) government and locally strong PAN leaders.
Ruanova decided to fight back after outgoing president Salinas de Gortari "donated" about 120 acres of the urban forest land for the state to develop commercially in 1994. Ruanova could see it was the beginning of the end for the preserve, that money and greed would chip away at the 1000-acre wilderness. After all, it did sit in the middle of the country's most wildly expanding city.
On June 10, 1995, on Radio Z13, a Tijuana talk-radio station, Ruanova announced that he was forming the "Front for the Defense of the Woods of the Tijuana River" (Frente de Defensa del Bosque del Río Tijuana).
"After the radio broadcast, Silverio and others joined," says Ruanova. "And we did a huge campaign. In the first stage we had 10,000 letters sent to the state governor, Terán Terán. He never gave us an interview. Then in our second campaign we got more than 100,000 signatures asking [Mexican] President Zedillo not to give this land away for commercial purposes."