On Sunday, I came home and washed the volcanic ash out of my hair. My eyes were irritated. I had to wash my clothes and shoes, too. You could see the ash falling in the streets of Puebla, in central Mexico, near the currently erupting Popocatépetl volcano. It looked like snow, but gray. The whole city was coated in light gray, from the roads and trees to the rooftops, benches, and bins. It was all mildly apocalyptic.
Ash from the volcano has been falling heavily for a few weeks now, but Sunday was much worse. Nevertheless, many people still had to work outside all day, despite the hazards. The fish and vegetable street vendors were working, a woman was pacing up and down my street selling flower bouquets, the pizza and taco and corn sellers on other nearby corners were working, too. Inhaling ash can cause breathing problems and damage the lungs, and the abrasive particles can scratch people’s eyes and skin, but these people, my neighbors, had no choice.
The international media coverage of the volcanic events here, however, hasn’t talked about that at all. Outlets reporting on the volcano have focused on the drama of lava, on the airport closures (i.e., how business sectors and people outside of Mexico are impacted), and the “stunning” footage of the eruptions. AP sensationalized the situation with the headline “Threatening 22 million people, Mexico’s Popocatepetl is a very closely watched volcano”; the AP story focused on how the eruptions are affecting, and could further affect, the residents of Mexico City, but there are poorer towns and cities much, much closer to the volcano—many of them are Indigenous towns. Along with being sensationalist, the AP headline is also, in fact, incorrect, because it is these towns and the small city of Atlixco that are within the yellow danger area stretching up to 23 kilometers (14 miles) away from Popocatépetl; it is these areas that are most at risk of lava from the regular eruptions reaching and potentially damaging homes and infrastructure. Mexico City is too far away to face serious danger.
As I write this, the nearby towns are preparing for possible evacuation, should the eruptions get worse and lava flows beyond the volcano’s base. Mexican experts announced on Monday that the volcano’s eruptions are increasing in frequency and intensity. Schools in Puebla state (including Puebla city and Atlixco) have switched back to online classes. We’re wearing masks again. Local governments are setting up temporary shelters. Farmers nearest to the volcano are saying they won’t evacuate this time—last time (in 1994), there was such a high risk of lava that they were forced to evacuate, but they say their animals died because the authorities wouldn’t let them leave the shelters and return home. In Atlixco, farmers are delaying planting their annual corn crop because of the ash fall, and because they don’t know if they will have to evacuate soon.
No English-language mainstream media outlet that I’ve come across has mentioned these deeper issues shaping people’s experiences of and responses to the eruptions, nor have they mentioned the 172 kilometer (106 mile) gas pipeline that European companies want to build in the high-risk zone of the now-quite-famous, lava-spewing volcano. The pipeline is part of The Morelos Integral Project (Projecto Integral Morelos), or PIM, which includes a thermal power station and an aqueduct and is being developed by the Mexican state in conjunction with Spanish companies Abengoa, Elecnor, and Enagás. The goal of the PIM is to generate energy for big industry, open-pit mines, and property developers.
Indigenous people, small farmers, and other activists and academics have been resisting the PIM for over a decade now, concerned about the environmental impact (particularly from burning shale gas extracted through fracking), water consumption, the corporate goals of the project, and the fact that the pipeline would pass through 10 designated evacuation routes. If pyroclastic material or lava from the volcano reached the gas pipeline, it could cause an explosion, and 74 kilometers of the proposed pipeline route would be susceptible to avalanches.
English-language mainstream media outlets overlook these kinds of details because, frankly, their world news drastically under-represents the Global South. They deign to cover those regions when a visually interesting and emotion-inducing natural disaster strikes. But they won’t provide more than the bare minimum of context, nor will they examine the short- and long-term consequences for the human beings living there, for the local ecosystems, etc. They create galleries and videos displaying the carnage of the Turkiye-Syria earthquake, but refuse to talk about the Syrian war in any depth or with any consistency. They momentarily plaster front pages and social media feeds with jaw-dropping images of the floods in Pakistan while depriving readers, viewers, and listeners of much-needed reporting on the country’s struggles with the IMF after those floods, and on the horrific economic situation affecting the poorest classes there. When Mexico was hit by tragic earthquakes in 2017, the media showed footage of buildings collapsing over and over, then the cameras left. Now, similarly, English-speaking audiences are seeing galleries of images of Mexican food and the volcano, but they will never, ever hear serious discussion about the horrific implications of the forced “free” trade agreements between the US, Canada, and Mexico, which set the latter up as a dumping ground for the worst transnational polluters and their poverty-inducing exploitation.
Time and again, in this fashion, the English-language mainstream media broadcasts the message to the rest of the world that the Global South is irrelevant. It reduces its misfortune to natural disasters and natural events, and in doing so erases the man-made nature of poverty and inequality, particularly the role of the wealthier countries in those economic dynamics. Or, the media makes out that our problems arise from local evil strongmen leaders, corruption, and violence. By not examining the origins of that phenomenon, and by using quite a different discourse when covering the corrupt dealings between politicians and businesses in the West, the media constructs an image of superiority. Western corruption is apparently civilized and individual, while Global South corruption is endemic to Black and Brown culture.
When hurricanes hit Central America and the Caribbean and people lose their homes, the media doesn’t ask why so many have to flee to the US instead of just claiming insurance. Because in Latin America, we don’t have insurance—most people, that is. Rich people have it.
They don’t delve into why, when clouds of ash are falling on the city and the air is harsh and getting in our throats, people here keep working outside. How there’s no unemployment benefits or social back up system in Mexico. They don’t join the dots between Mexico’s six-day working week, its majority informal sector, and trade agreements and economic imperialism.
They stay at the surface, where the clickable images are.
Because they want to sell the Global South as a pity party, rather than a deliberately designated cheap labor and resource pillage zone.
And so they are selective about the tragedies they cover, typically boycotting or decontextualizing the economic and social tragedies. Where is the deeper coverage of the 109,000 disappeared people in Mexico, and the impact that an effectively closed US-Mexico border has on people fleeing such violence? What about the economic disaster of 32 million people in Mexico working informally, with no worker rights or social security?
Of course, the occasional decent article makes it into the mainstream outlets. But there is a shared consensus about, and a taken-for-granted approach to, reporting on poorer countries that ultimately fetishizes natural disasters in the Global South. It is an approach that simplifies complex regions, boils them and their populations down to stereotypes and still images of non-white people hurting, and it is dehumanizing. It reduces the Global South to its nature, animals, tourist destinations, and to bad luck. By obscuring the agency of people in the region, social forces, and global systems of exploitation, the media effectively objectifies whole countries and contributes to the perpetuation of inequality and racism.