Cleaning up Mexico's environmental act

Mexico’s environmental policy is fragmented, contradictory and lacking regulatory compliance. Raul Pacheco-Vega on how to fix it.
By: /
October 21, 2014

This piece is part of a series looking at the importance of regional policy cooperation in light of this month’s North American Competitiveness and Innovation Conference — NACIC 2014 — held Oct. 30-31 in Toronto. Earlier this month, Duncan Wood explored the opening of Mexico’s energy sector.

On Sept. 6, Greenpeace Mexico published a damning critique of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s environmental policy results. In their critique, the organization mentioned four environmental disasters that occurred in Mexico within the month previous to the publication of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s second yearly report. These disasters included two oil spills (in Cadereyta, Nuevo Leon, and Huimanguillo, Tabasco), as well as a cyanide spill in the municipality El Oro (in the state of Durango) as well as a 40,000 cubic metres toxic spill on to the rivers Sonora and Bacanuchi. The latter acid mine drainage spill (mostly copper sulfate solution) has been considered the worst environmental disaster on record caused by Mexico’s mining industry.

Peña Nieto has been in power for a little over two years now, and for all his environmentally focused rhetoric, his on-the-field record leaves much to be desired.

Mexico’s environmental policy appears fragmented, contradictory within itself and much talk with very little action. There are areas where Mexico is doing great strides and providing leadership both within North America and worldwide (climate policy evaluation being one of them). But there are other areas where Mexican environmental policy is seriously lacking.  Especially when it comes to policy around water, pollution control, and climate/energy, the Peña Nieto government needs to improve, fast.

Peña Nieto’s poor environmental record is all the more frustrating when we consider that all three North American heads of state’s environmental policies have been found wanting, at a time when leadership in North American environmental policy is imperative. Despite having a specific North American environmentally focused agreement and intergovernmental secretariat since that is almost 20 years old, Mexican, Canadian and U.S. environmental policies remain flawed, and there is no clear environmental leadership within the region, even if Mexican climate policy seems to be starting to provide some.

Mexican water policy continues to be fragmented, following outdated governance models where little attention is paid to sanitation and wastewater governance. Mexican water bureaucrats and politicians continue to pursue an “integrated water resources management” (IWRM) model of water governance without any serious analysis of how and where it is appropriate to implement IWRM techniques.

Even more worrisome, Mexican water policy folks also appear to follow international advice with very little self-reflection and in-depth analysis. Following a policy experts’ consultation in December of 2012 (in which I participated), the OECD published a report encouraging Mexico to (among other things) continue pursuing water governance by river basin councils. “Making Water Reform Happen in Mexico” is an interesting and important report, but it is disheartening to see that the OECD continues to encourage Mexican water bureaucrats to force implementation of an outdated and non-functional governance model. River basin councils are multi-stakeholder roundtables intended to set and implement policies to encourage sustainable resource governance within a particular river basin. Predicated as democratic spaces of discussion, my research has demonstrated that river basin councils fail to engage some of the most important water policy issues because they lack regulatory power and implementation authority.

Moreover, the need for adaptation to rapid climatic change posits even tougher challenges for water authorities. Thus, it is imperative that environmental policy specialists work harder on creating new, more flexible and adaptive models of water governance.

Mexican pollution control policy is extraordinarily regulatory. In fact, most Mexican policies are regulatory. Mexico is a country that has historically created laws, but whose rule of law is extraordinarily weak. This leads to issues of non-compliance with Mexican environmental laws, especially those focused on regulating pollutant emissions. Lack of enforcement of Mexican pollution control laws, while understudied, has been an issue for decades. In my own research, I found that the alleged regulatory punishment of the Mexican leather industry around the early 2000s was in fact pretty much non-existent. Fines for offending and polluting tanneries maxed at about $500 Mexican pesos (less than CAN$50), and the number of tannery inspections by Mexican regulatory authorities declined up to a point where they reached zero.

Lack of human capital to execute inspections across the entire national territory is also a big problem. Moreover, World Bank economist Susmita Dasgupta has found that one of the biggest problems for polluting industries in Mexico is lack of technical assistance and environmental training. This is a challenge that President Peña Nieto’s environmental minister should face head on, therefore working towards improving compliance with Mexican pollution control laws.

Finally, we have a Mexican presidency whose energy policy is focused on increasing fossil fuels’ production, thereby showing no respect for ecosystems and right to water. Shale-gas and fracking are being touted as some of the most important opportunities for the Mexican oil industry. President Peña Nieto’s energy reforms have opened the door not only to private participation in oil and gas extraction but even more so, to a weakening of environmental regulatory standards.

Strangely enough, while Mexico’s energy policy is strongly focused on greenhouse-producing fossil fuels, its climate policy is making strides by leaps in bounds, in particular in the area of climate policy evaluation. Much work is being done to ensure that Mexican climate policies’ evaluation framework is robust and can set a precedent for other countries’ to follow, and I have witnessed this work first hand.

Overall, I find current Mexican environmental policy to be contradictory within itself, fragmented and lacking regulatory compliance. There are some encouraging signs, particularly in the climate policy field, but much work remains to be done. In particular, Mexican environmental policy-makers at the federal level would do well in seeking advice and working on how to integrate policies across sectors.

There is also an opportunity open to strengthen regulatory compliance through technical assistance and environmental training not only for industries but also for government officials. Recruitment of additional inspectors within the ranks of the office of the federal attorney for environmental protection (PROFEPA) as well as intergovernmental coordination across all three levels of government would also prove effective in increasing regulatory compliance.

Environmental rhetoric needs to be followed by strong actions towards ecosystem protection. This is the only way in which we will be seeing a more robust environmental policy sector. A robust environmental regulatory and enforcement system would be imperative and necessary for the development of a sound and cohesive North American environmental regime.