Note: The first version of this essay received numerous informed opinions from colleagues, making it clear that there is both an interest in the subject and a need for more and clearer information. In this version I have tried to incorporate some of the notable things I omitted before and that were kindly pointed out. Any remaining omissions and inaccuracies are, of course, my fault alone.
Often enough, when I give a presentation about my work to a colleague from north of the border, I find myself explaining how the practice of conservation in Mexico significantly differs from that in the U.S. This isn’t surprising, since every binational venture, partnership, plan, strategy, discussion, or project reaches a point where peers from our very different countries notice discrepancies in our expectations—with the outcomes ranging from startled looks to heated arguments. Recently, however, it struck me that we take too little time to explain our respective approaches to one another such that we prevent conflict in what is increasingly becoming an international community of conservationists.
So I decided that a good starting point for my contributions to Wildlands Network’s Conservation in Motion blog would be to summarize the key similarities and differences between conservation in Mexico and the U.S.—if for no other reason than to save me the trouble of writing extensive and repetitive footnotes in later entries! Assuming I am sufficiently thorough, I hope to refer you back to this essay when I discuss the conservation needs of Mexican wolves in Mexico, or the trials of jaguars trying to run the gauntlet of mounting obstacles between Mexican Highway 2 and the infamous border wall. I must clarify from the start that this essay does not intend to compare the merits or efficacy of both countries and is limited to highlighting some of the differences that, in my experience, shape our expectations of how we should go about protecting nature. It also does not intend to be authoritative or complete and there are many individual exceptions to the trends and explanations here included.
A Tale of Two Countries
From this foreigner’s point of view, the two pillars of conservation in the U.S. are the extensive public lands system and the visionary laws providing long-term protections for these lands and their wild inhabitants. Resting upon these two pillars are public institutions comprising all levels of government and charged with the stewardship and management of the natural capital, and citizen groups that have been instrumental in achieving conservation on the ground—from watchdogs to collaborative partners to more independent agents of change. Public and private institutions employ many scientists and lawyers in their ranks, serving as unlikely champions of progress. And finally, private and to some extent public entities channel the resources of a diverse philanthropic community, whose members range from schoolchildren donating their allowance, to the wealthiest corporations on the planet.
How does this differ from conservation in Mexico? To begin with, there are no significant public lands in my country. Sure, there are patches here and there, and in theory, every coastline and perennial riverbank belongs to The Nation. But you can forget about vast swaths of land, ripe -or not- for congressional or executive designation. As for those coastal and riparian lands, very little can be done to enforce domain over strips of sand a few meters wide and thousands of kilometers long. In practice, then, land here is mostly owned or possessed by individuals, corporations, or communities. Notable among the latter are ejidos, tracts of land owned by a set number of members (ejidatarios) who bequeath their ownership rights to their heirs. Yes, there are federal nature parks in Mexico, but these are not public lands managed for the public good. Natural Protected Areas, or ANPs as we call them, represent a layer of regulation over a mosaic of tenures. This regulation can be—but isn’t always—used to limit the expansion of adverse development and to promote best practices among ranchers, farmers, fishermen, tourists, and others within the geographic limits of the protected area. ANP status also, in theory, doubles the fines imposed for environmental transgressions.
What we do have in Mexico is a legal framework that places conservation solidly in the public agenda and provides legal mechanisms for it to be effected. In some regards this legal framework is similar to that of the U.S. in others it differs significantly and it would be beyond the scope of this essay to explore the specific differences. However some things to note are the nation-wide prohibitions of poisoning and trapping of animals and the—fortunate—absence of publicly funded “wildlife-control\” agencies that focus on eliminating animals that happen to be inconvenient to humans, particularly predators.
The Law and the Lands
What strikes foreigners the most is that despite having good laws for conservation, there is little enforcement capacity. Park rangers in Mexico are not law enforcers; they have no such training or capability, and are not armed or authorized to perform arrests. State environmental agencies do not regularly conduct law-enforcement activities, and the federal agency in charge of legally protecting wildlife and ecosystems, PROFEPA, is a Federal Attorney’s Office with “inspectors\” that can carry out some law-enforcement duties but who are also not, armed, trained or authorized to perform arrests, so they depend on coordination with police for many actions, leaving out any chance of catching someone red-handed and placing forceful actions in the hands of the same people that already struggle with the much more patent conflicts among humans. Government agencies are not the only ones to be blamed for the lack of enforcement, we the Mexican citizens need to know our laws better and demand that they be applied.
Such enforcement deficiencies, have many obvious limitations. But to its credit, the federal parks agency (CONANP – Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas) has managed to advance conservation goals by encouraging people to embrace conservation as a necessary part of their lives and work. CONANP—created in the year 2000—is the main public vector of conservation in rural communities all over the country, as it struggles to balance traditional extractive practices and the sustainable management of resources. It does so in great measure through collaborations with private and communal land-owners.
CONANP is an office of SEMARNAT the Secretariat for the Environment and Natural Resources, an agency that has other tools in its land-conservation toolbox. Two of these tools are designed to provide some level of protection, or at least responsible management, in private and communal lands; these are the UMAs (for Unidades de Manejo Ambiental) and the ADVCs (Areas Destinadas Voluntariamente a la Conservación). UMAs are parcels registered for extractive or non-extractive use of natural resources, including wildlife. Anybody that wishes to hunt or harvest wild animals or plants in their property needs to register it as an UMA and present studies and reports supporting the management actions undertaken. SEMARNAT provides limited amounts of money through open calls for proposals to fund studies, improvements and management of the UMAs. Zoos, plant nurseries and other facilities that manage wildlife in captivity also need to register as UMAs and follow reporting protocols.
ADVCs are parcels certified by CONANP as private reserves that live in a legal gray area where they are not quite ANPs but have some of their protections by voluntary request of their owners. How will those protections stand the onset of multiple threats from development is anybody’s guess as landowners could in principle ditch the designation if it proved unprofitable, or it could be lost as the parcels change hands, or it could be contested in court by third parties. Being a relatively new concept, it is hard to say how effective ADVCs will be, and until SEMARNAT or some other entity, starts providing partial funding for their management they are unlikely to serve the strong role Land Trusts in the U.S. now serve. In any case the role of private lands in conservation in Mexico cannot be overstated, given the lack of significant patches of public lands, and despite both UMAs and ADVCs over-reliance in private goodwill, it is hard to tell what other mechanism would be more effective at this point.
So who’s in charge of wildlife and other issues?
Because of its field presence throughout Mexico, CONANP is also entrusted with planning for and funding the recovery of government-designated Priority Species, which include thick billed-parrots, jaguars, Mexican wolves, vaquitas, sea turtles, and many others. Management of these and other threatened and endangered species, it should be noted, is the realm of the General Directorate of Wildlife (DGVS), a bureaucracy within SEMARNAT that issues permits for research, management, and (for some) hunting.
DGVS has almost no field experience and is mostly geared towards regulating exploitation. Its permitting process is opaque and in the case I know where it was contested in court it proved to be unlawful. This office was supposed to create and foster Consultancy Committees for priority species to inform its management decisions, but has failed to do so in over 10 years, thus perpetuating its opacity and ineffectiveness in regulating science-informed management and permitting.
CONAFOR is SEMARNAT’s third conservation branch, a Forest Service-like organization, if you will, without the land stewardship, and very few law-enforcement components. CONAFOR has a strong focus on regulating extraction, it is also the agency charged with fire management in rural and wild areas.
State-level agencies charged with conservation are usually mediocre bureaucracies that manage most hunting permits, namely those of non T&E species. These agencies are easily infiltrated by minority interests, they half-heartedly tolerate carnivore conservation, and begrudge effective federal involvement. I leave it to readers to judge the similarities within your states. Meanwhile, county-level offices that deal with conservation are practically non-existent; some municipios—the county equivalent—have Directorates of Ecology that deal mostly with waste disposal and water issues, though there are numerous and commendable exceptions that actually engage in land planning and long-term stewardship, a difficult task to achieve with three-year administrations.
No Word for Wilderness
Mexico’s public institutions view nature as a conglomerate of resources and services to be managed. You might say that the same is true in the U.S., but at least there are U.S. laws recognizing the intrinsic value of wild animals and places—with the most famous of these being the Endangered Species Act and the Wilderness Act. Despite a robust legal framework for managing and protecting nature, Mexico has no laws that recognize wilderness; heck, we have no word for the concept in Spanish. I struggle to understand the historic origin of this linguistic want, but that is a matter for another essay.
Our current laws, agencies, and philanthropists, along with most citizen groups, share one well-intended but painfully incomplete vision: sustainable development. The intent that originated our environmental agencies was to regulate extraction, not to preserve intrinsically worthy aspects of nature for their sake and the sake of future generations of humans.
Further, the whole environmental legal system is implicitly based on voluntary compliance, as the capacity for enforcement is close to zero. In a country where journalists and students can be publicly murdered without consequence, what are the chances of wolves and jaguars being protected by public institutions—or of their killers being met with some kind of justice?
This is not to say there is no rule of law in Mexico, but social order is largely maintained by communities, regular businesses, and the remarkable work of a growing number of citizen groups—both formal and informal. Such groups not only hold the line. They are the keepers of hope for Mexico’s future…