Case study: Eco-Journalism & Cleaning up Sumidero’s Canyon


In early August 2005, Maria Teresa del Riego, a reporter from a Mexican mainstream newspaper, who at the time was working as a correspondent in the state of Chiapas, and Susana Solis, a reporter from major TV network, Televisa, jointly decided to expose the environmental disaster in the ecological park of the Sumidero Canyon.

They did not, however, find the story by themselves.

Sumidero Canyon is a 12 million year old set of cliffs and one of the most important tourist sites in Mexico. During holiday seasons, it attracts over a thousand visitors a day. The canyon is located approximately 30 minutes from Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas’ capital city. The riverbed of the Grijalba, one of the largest rivers in the country, crosses the canyon.

The area, which is considered to be a national heritage site, holds a considerable diversity of flora and fauna. However, a range of factors related to the tourism of the region had contributed to the environmental decline of the area--notably the total disregard of visitors for the ecological diversity and fragility of the area and the inefficient removal of trash by local public service workers.

Even though the deteriorating condition of the river was evident to local authorities--they had been already removing 12 tons of garbage and other residuals a day--further action was required to keep up with the mess. There were no emergency plans in place to deal with the mounting problems, according to the National Commission of Protected Natural Areas.

Before August 2005, some locals, who mainly included boatmen and tour guides, had already tried to expose the situation by uploading a series of images and videos to the Internet, but few paid any attention.

Maria Teresa del Riego was the first professional journalist to see the news in the situation. She was approached by locals while she was working on other stories in the area. The citizens convinced her to go and evaluate the environmental degredation for herself. At the time she visited the Canyon, a 1 km-wide barricade of garbage was blocking the flow of the river. Del Riego was shocked. She interviewed some of the locals and collected some of their photographs and took the story to the headquarters of a locally-based newspaper called Reforma.

Reforma has a circulation of 1.2 million copies a day, most sold in the big cities of the state of Chiapas. Usually the paper publishes national and international stories on its front page--making it unlikely that a local environmental story would be of interest to the editors. However, the photographs of the mounds of garbage were so impressive and so distressing that the editors seized on the story.

On August, 12, 2005, the story broke on Reforma’s front page. The article included the claims and comments of those locals who approached the journalist.

Said Laura Diaz, a former tourist guide in the area, “It is a shame for us to show this to the visitors. When the Ecotouristic Park was opened, they told us there was going to be an agreement with the federal government to do the cleansing of the canyon…but nothing has been done.”


The story immediately caught fire and the authorities and other mainstream news organizations began to look into the case.. For almost a month, from August 12 to September 5, Reforma published a daily article on the Canyon. Images of the pollution began appearing in other newspapers and TV networks aired videos taken by the tourist guides. (Many of those videos are still available on YouTube and other web sites.)

The media began to hold several public institutions accountable for not taking care of the situation. Even the federal government felt the need to act right away. On August 26, 2005, exactly two weeks after the first story was published, the local authorities in the state of Chiapas, in cooperation with “600 members of the Mexican army and police department" started a cleanup program in the area.

On August, 21, 2005, Susana Solis reported for Televisa:

“Only when the disaster went public, did the authorities go to work…. The canyon remained closed to the public for three days, and 200 tons of garbage was extracted from the waters, which represented 90% of the total trash.”