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— He is still waiting for a response on that petition.

"I had left the government in 1984. The only reason was because the people from the PAN didn't like me. This business of making a forest in the middle of our city is not business-oriented. Nobody makes money out of it."

But why is it so important? Ruanova and De La Mora climb back uphill toward Monte de los Olivos cemetery. "This is what we're fighting for," De La Mora says, turning to look down the valley. Under the high "mares' tail" clouds, a thin, mustardy-yellow haze sits vaporous and still over the valley. "That," he says, "is L.A. pollution. From L.A.! And it's usually worse."

Engineer Ruanova explains. "Of course, we have our own pollution too, from cars, maquiladoras, and other industry. Tijuana has been named the fourth or fifth dirtiest city in Mexico. But so much comes from Los Angeles and Long Beach! They produce toxins from refineries and factories and hundreds of thousands of vehicles. We are importing -- tax-free! -- lots of toxins in the air from the States."

He says winds bring the pollutants down, to bounce off Point Loma, usually sparing San Diego, and then get sucked up the Tijuana River valley. "Tijuana sits between two lines of hills. They create a funnel effect. The predominant winds come from the northwest. The toxins are heavier than air, so they tend to come down in the lower parts of the valley. Where the river is. There is always a dark cloud there.

"This is why we're fighting to plant trees in the tercera etapa, because we need to mitigate that pollution, to have the trees metabolize those contaminants."

"We Tijuanans didn't have the education to put in trees around our houses, in the places where we live," says De La Mora. "So now we have shameful statistics to live with."

Ruanova quotes them. "The United Nations recommends that there should be between 7 and 13 square meters of trees and green area per inhabitant," he says. "We in Tijuana have far less than one square meter of green area per inhabitant. Actually 0.26 of a square meter per citizen. In San Diego you have almost a hundred times that! You have between 18 and 22 square meters per inhabitant."

"I think it is more," says De La Mora. "Between 35 and 40. Whatever, it is much, much more."

He says San Diego escapes much of the L.A. effect by luck and design.

"San Diego has the privilege of the protection of Point Loma, and also San Diegans have made [their own] microclimate, because they have planted so many trees and green areas. You fought back. We didn't. That's what we insist: this needs to be a treed area of woods. Your Balboa Park is a good example."

"And there's one other thing," says Ruanova. He points up to the narrow canyon that leads to the Rodriguez dam, just out of sight.

"The curtain [wall] of this dam is built precisely above a tectonic fault, named La Nación-San Ysidro. Sometimes when it is full, the dam holds 137 million cubic meters of water. It was built around 70 years ago. If you are intending to build 10,000 houses for residential-commercial purposes in the flood-plain below, you're talking about the potential for a huge disaster. But if you put trees in instead and the dam bursts, they slow the water. They can be washed away, but you can always replant."

Ten minutes later, Ruanova guns his '89 Ford down a sloping ramp. Suddenly we're sweeping along the concrete Tijuana riverbed at about 30 mph, probably the speed of floodwaters. Today, only the center channel has water in it. We dust past abandoned armchairs, tires, and trash, then climb back up the other side near a sign.

"Tercera Etapa Río Tijuana: Un Lugar Para Ti. The Third Stage of the Tijuana River [development]. A place for you." It's a pro-development sign put up by the organization Ruanova used to run, PRODUTSA. Except PRODUTSA is now run by the state government.

* * *

"We who live here in Tijuana know that [this area] is the only place the city has to grow," says PRODUTSA's spokesperson, Licenciada Rosa Elena Moreno Garcia. "We have no choice. We have the United States on the north, Rosarito and Ensenada to the south. And the federal government gave the area to the state because they want [them to act] to protect the area from flooding."

Moreno says the state government is selling the land to private buyers, not to make a profit but so the Japanese-funded flood-control project is self-financing.

No industry will be built in the area, she says, and residential sites will be sold at prices within reach of the ordinary person.

She adds that a wooded area, "Parque Morelos," is already operational, and has just had its size increased from 60 to 90 hectares, about 222 acres -- just under a quarter of the area Ruanova's group wants.

As for earthquakes, she feels the risk is small to people living in the new district. "The San Andreas [fault] is not exactly on the site of the city. It is 50 to 60 kilometers out. Tijuana doesn't suffer many earthquakes."

She says that, with a city growing by 85,000 each year, space for people is as important as mitigating air quality. "We have to take it from both sides, the human, and nature. We have to protect both." The concrete canal, she says, is, above all, to protect people.

Back at the Tijuana River, De La Mora and Ruanova are pinning their hopes on a vote coming up in two weeks in the state congress in Mexicali on stopping the state's commercial development of the tercera etapa.

Ruanova is confident. "We will win," Ruanova says. "Then perhaps we can plant a forest and breathe easier."

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