Opinion
The president and Víctor Manuel Toledo The president and Víctor Manuel Toledo, one of three environment ministers who have left office.

Mexico lost two years on environment but AMLO gets benefit of doubt

There remains hope that the president will change course

For over two years now, I have shared with readers of the newspaper El Universal my reflections on Mexico’s environment.

During the presidential campaign I underscored how authorities at all levels have disregarded their environmental obligations, and how they have failed to appreciate the link and value of natural resources in tackling poverty. I argued that the religious faiths and publicly professed ethical values of all candidates and their political parties should compel them to protect nature.

I emphasized that the principal unresolved issue for the Institutional Revolutionary Party and the National Action Party — the political parties that have ruled our country for almost a century — was enforcement of the rule of law. President Vicente Fox neglected environmental institutions, president Felipe Calderón became obsessed with a costly and failed mammoth reforestation effort, and president Enrique Peña Nieto so politicized our public environmental institutions that he crippled them.

When Andrés Manuel López Obrador (popularly known as AMLO) won, my environmental expectations were raised. Raised because of his long path as a progressive social fighter, because he knows the country as no one else does, and because the environment has been a priority for other Latin American leftist presidents.

In Brazil, Lula da Silva protected the Amazon and supported the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. Bolivia’s Evo Morales fought for Mother Earth’s rights, Chile’s Michelle Bachellet tripled renewable energy production, Uruguay’s José Mugica placed the environment at the center of his public policies, and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa echoed nature’s rights in a new constitution.

Although I must say that protecting nature (or not) has nothing to do with your right or left political leaning; it has more to do with common sense, intergenerational solidarity, and love and respect for life.

Thrilled with AMLO’s election, I asked myself: Would Mexico become an environmentalist country now that, for the first time in 84 years, since Lázaro Cárdenas, we have a leftist president? I studied the environmental part of AMLO´s platform, and his agenda for the nation.

It sounded positive and determined, but it was mostly what the issues were, not how to address them: “We will be at the forefront of freshwater pollution monitoring, our ecosystems will be healthy, we will live in cities with cleaner air, we will be leaders in combating climate change and in ensuring transparency, citizen participation, and environmental justice, and we will be a world example in environmental protection.”

I told myself that the administration was just beginning, that we all needed to be patient. I hoped that those environmentalists in AMLO´s cabinet would succeed in convincing him of the importance of protecting our land, water, oceans, biodiversity, and air.

I was wrong.

Over these last two years I have closely followed the government’s environmental discourse. I condemned the dismantling of environmental institutions such as the biodiversity, forest, and freshwater commissions, particularly the outrageous budget cut that all but annihilated the Natural Protected Areas Commission, an institution responsible for managing 182 protected areas and 91 million hectares that safeguard the rich natural resources and environmental services on which Mexico’s future depends.

CFE plants in Baja California Sur.
CFE plants in Baja California Sur.

I underscored the need to assess, independently and transparently, the environmental and social impacts of the government´s mammoth projects such as the Maya Train. I highlighted that Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries for environmental defenders. And I supported what many experts are saying: the time of fossil fuels has come to an end and renewable energies will bring more affordable electricity, boost jobs, and improve the well-being of all Mexicans.

I wrote AMLO three open letters imploring him to put the well-being of Mexicans first over ideological differences and shortsighted economic benefits. I pointed out the connections between the environment and poverty, public health and food, energy, and water security and that the financial resources needed to protect the environment pale in comparison to what environmental devastation costs us —atmospheric pollution alone is killing 50,000 Mexicans annually.

I underscored that because of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Guerrero, Veracruz and Quintana Roo we are the world’s fourth most biodiverse country and that our mind-boggling natural and cultural richness attracts millions of visitors every year, from throughout the world, which represents nearly 9% of Mexico´s GDP — enough of a reason alone for being a conservation-wise nation!

Today, the government’s relationship with environmentalists has reached an all-time low. Science and scientists are reviled by those in power while the country’s once widely reputed science council, Conacyt, is in disarray and consumes itself in ideological battles. And after three ministers, the environmental ministry (Semarnat) wanders aimlessly, becoming alarmingly isolated from the other ministries.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, Congress (controlled by AMLO´s political party, Morena) recently all but eliminated financing in the federal 2021 budget for mitigation of greenhouse gases and adaptation to climate change.

The only environmental space in which Mexico has achieved some meaningful progress is the international arena, where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs keeps the country engaged in multilateral dialogues on climate adaptation and protecting oceans — efforts that, unfortunately, have little or no connection, nor influence, with national public policies.

Despite the lack of a government environmental agenda, I still grant President López Obrador the benefit of the doubt. As with millions of Mexicans, I keep hoping our president will change course. Not least because our Constitution mandates the right to a healthy environment and puts the responsibility upon the state to guarantee a sustainable future for all.

Omar Vidal, a scientist, was a university professor in Mexico, is a former senior officer at the UN Environment Program, and former director-general of the World Wildlife Fund–Mexico.

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