Graft's Toll on Mexico

Environmental Destruction

Mexican President Vicente Fox (R) delivers a speech on the National Accord for Transparency and the Combat of Corruption on Feb. 26, 2001 in Mexico City. The sign says "No more payoffs, already." (Photo: AFP)

The nation’s public property invaded and used for private interests; beach areas and ecological reserves illegally exploited by former and current public servants as well as businessmen and foreigners; environmental impact certificates and forest, fishing, and hunting permits granted on a discretionary basis; preferential treatment given to companies responsible for polluting; distribution of water for political purposes; punitive actions not carried out—these are some examples from an inventory of anomalies discovered so far by the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat) [under the new administration of President Vicente Fox].

After six months on the job, Environment Secretary Víctor Lichtinger, Undersecretary for Natural Resources Raúl Arriaga Becerra, and José Ignacio Campillo García, the head of Mexico’s Environmental Protection Agency (Profepa) are each evaluating the magnitude of the irregularities they’ve inherited. Lichtinger emphasizes that legal actions will soon be taken against former and current public officials in the two government offices. “We’ve found omissions and acts of corruption, especially in the state-level offices,” Lichtinger explains.

Interviewed at the Nikko Hotel on July 2, Lichtinger maintains that the system was previously characterized by “agreements” and privileges. “There were semi-official companies and political leaders who could not be touched, who were beyond the reach of the law.” Furthermore, he explains, some of the public policies implemented during former administrations—especially those related to agricultural activities and land ownership—have not achieved what they were designed for and, to the contrary, have negatively affected the country’s limited natural resources.

Campillo García illustrated the above with concrete cases: The national commission created 30 years ago by then-President Luis Echeverría to regulate the clearing of trees has provoked nothing short of ecocide, and as a result of the Procampo program created during the Carlos Salinas de Gortari administration, the agricultural frontier has advanced—to the detriment of forests. He continues: “We found incongruities, such as a reduction in the number of forest rangers from 3,000 to 300 and the allocation of more budget money to reforestation programs than to inspection and surveillance programs. All of this makes me think that in former administrations there was a lack of interest and even a deliberate intention to do away with natural resources.”

From his office located on Mexico City’s Periférico freeway, Campillo also refers to the chaotic situation around licenses granted to private individuals for use of beach areas. Of the 36,000 licensed recreational sites, only 3 percent have their papers in order and are current on their payments. This means that local, state, and federal authorities do not receive at least 800 million pesos (US$88 million) a year. An official Profepa document reports how a handful of individuals have taken over a significant proportion of the country’s 18,600 miles of coastline.

Quintana Roo, one of the most important states in terms of tourism, is considered a critical area. In 538 miles of coastline, Profepa authorities found a series of irregularities: illegal occupation of land by both Mexicans and foreigners who have established restaurants, services, and residences in Punta Sam, Puerto Juárez, Isla Mujeres, Cancún, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Punta Allen, and Chetumal.

Also documented are cases of foreigners’ owning federal and ejidal (collectively owned) properties; overdue tax payments; and homes and tourist developments located within protected natural areas on the western coast of Isla Mujeres, Punta Cancún, Punta Nizuc, Isla Contoy, Sian-Ka, Uaymil, and the National Marine Park and Reefs of Cozumel. Campillo explains that in Quintana Roo alone, more than 100 administrative proceedings have been initiated against owners of residences located in the Cancún-Tulum and Tulum-Chetumal

He predicts that residential areas, hotels, businesses, and recreational centers illegally occupying federal properties and beaches will be demolished, because “it’s not right that swimming pools [and] gardens…are established at the nation’s expense.” Asked if this would include five-star hotels, he says he hopes this type of case will not be found, but if it is, he warns that actions will be taken to the final consequences. And given that only 3 percent of the 36,000 license owners for beach areas are problem-free, he suggests that the rest “should be starting to worry.”

Irregularities have also been identified in major tourist developments in Nayarit, Acapulco, and Zihuatanejo—in Zihuatanejo, the son of the current mayor is involved. In Nayarit, not a single investor bothered to request authorization from federal authorities to build on or occupy beach areas.

Campillo explains that ejidatarios (collective landowners), municipal mayors, governors, federal government officials, and service providers have all been equally involved in creating this mess. Initially, he said, the problem was unfamiliarity with the law, but then personal interests and corruption came into play. One government official suspected of wrongdoing is former Quintana Roo Governor Mario Villanueva Madrid, who is currently behind bars at Mexico’s La Palma maximum security prison on drug-trafficking charges.

Profepa has documented licenses for forest exploitation granted under the former administration that are hard to believe. One example is the case of an individual who was given permission to cut 800,000 cubic meters of wood over a two-year span—this amount is equivalent to the total production in the states of Chihuahua and Durango.

With only limited resources available, actions have been taken against clandestine loggers in the states of Mexico, Campeche, and Michoacán, as well as in the Zempoala and Chimalapas regions. According to Becerra, “Large-scale deforestation is run by organized groups; it’s a real mafia.” Protecting forests is the responsibility of 320 forest rangers, each of whom must watch over the equivalent of the total land area of the state of Tlaxcala.

Given this situation, the National Institute of Ecology (INE) and Profepa have begun a process of revoking authorizations for logging and have undertaken the corresponding administrative and legal processes, with the aim of establishing the responsibility of government officials or technical personnel who granted the licenses.

Also included in Profepa’s inventory of irregularities are licenses for exporting wildlife. For example, one fully documented case concerns a license granted to an individual to export 50,000 birds from the country’s southeastern region. “We cannot permit this type of abuse,” emphasizes Campillo, adding that it would appear licenses have been granted without even the most minimal investigation.

Lastly: When Julia Carabias served as secretary of the environment [under the previous administration], companies responsible for polluting, such as Pemex [the national oil company] and the Federal Electricity Commission, were never sanctioned, despite evidence against them. Campillo concludes by saying, “My intention is not to make mistakes and to attack the roots of the problems.”

As for Environment Secretary Lichtinger, “a man willing to take on challenges,” he admits it’s not an easy situation, especially since “we don’t have adequate policies or instruments for managing basins, water, forests, land, and industries.” He says it’s necessary to work toward decentralizing functions, so state-level authorities can assume their role in protecting ecosystems. Lichtinger says he’s accustomed to being accountable and emphasizes that his current post will not be an exception. “We’re going to start to modify some things, we’re going to put a stop to processes of degradation, and we’re going to build on the positive things from the past.”