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What the Recent Political Shift in Mexico Could Mean for the Environment

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On July 1, leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected Mexico’s new president, signaling a huge shift in government as he promises to uproot corruption, considered by most Mexican citizens to be the main cause for the widespread inequality and violence that plague the country.

If that’s all he achieves, with no firm strategic environmental agenda, the environmental movement in Mexico will still be in a better place, for corruption has severely impacted the environment in the form of illegally waived permits, lack of enforcement on existing protections, and the more insidious attacks on environmental defendants opposing major development projects with government support.

López Obrador will rule with a majority in both chambers of Congress, which will give him the power to enact swift policy changes, most likely focused on social justice issues, but also permeating the environmental justice arena. States and municipalities in Mexico where elections were held also voted massively for MORENA, Obrador’s 4-year old party—including my hometown Hermosillo—providing an opportunity to promptly replicate progressive change at the federal level in state and local laws. This also brings hope to underrepresented communities protected by the constitution but still underserved at the local level, such as native peoples, who are owners of significant portions of Mexico’s best preserved lands, and the LGBTQ+ community.

Environmental Justice Is the Obvious Place to Start

López Obrador, or AMLO as he is often called for his initials, has not made a trademark of bold claims for changes in environmental policy, for he knows what Mexican voters care about, and unfortunately we’re not there yet. People hunger for economic justice, the elimination of systemic violence, the establishment of the rule of law, and increased transparency in all aspects of government. Still, there are a number of things he should be able to achieve that would have a hugely positive impact on the environment and the conservation movement in Mexico.

The native peoples of Mexico, such as the Yaqui pictured here, have a crucial role to play as stewards of nature. Under the recent administrations, they have had to defend their lands from illegal mega-infrastructure projects, becoming targets for a growing number of attacks, in which local and federal governments have been accused of complicity. Photo: Juan Carlos Bravo

Violence against environmental defendants has gradually increased in recent years due to the past 2 administration’s ties to big corporate projects, which are promoted at the expense of local communities and their land. In my state of Sonora, the water and natural gas pipelines impacting Yaqui territory have resulted in several violent confrontations, with multiple activists incarcerated and abducted, and 2 people killed.

Throughout Mexico, the pattern repeats itself, with mining and hydroelectric projects completing the picture. In every case, the federal and state governments have been complicit in—sometimes even directly responsible for—attacks on environmental defendants, as has been documented yearly by CEMDA, the Mexican Center for Environmental Law. This is where I hope and think we’ll see some change. This is where it makes the most sense to start.

Although López Obrador has ties to large businesses, the major extraction companies, including Grupo México (one of the world’s largest mining companies), voiced their opposition to him during the campaign through a collective call joined by multibillionaire Carlos Slim (infamous for snatching the title of world’s richest person from Bill Gates on 3 different occasions) and other members of Mexico’s corporate elite, a move that likely backfired as voters perceived it as a desperate attempt by crooks from the 1% to stop the tide of change.

It’s worth remembering Grupo México is responsible for the worst environmental disaster in Mexico’s long mining history in 2014, also in Sonora, when they spilled 40 million cubic meters of sulfuric acid and copper sulfate in the Bacanuchi and Sonora rivers, as a result of chronic neglect of environmental protection standards. Directives of Grupo México no doubt fear that justice will finally find them, now that they will lose the protection with which previous governments tacitly provided them.

This new administration has a responsibility to stop impunity in environmental crimes and is clearly untethered by backroom ties to the usual suspects. It must remain impartial and apply the rule of law in all things related to environmental protection, remediation and mitigation, as well as in protecting communities’ rights to their lands and resources. It must act swiftly in all human rights violations related to environmental defendants if it is to live up to the expectation of over half the electorate.

Poverty throughout Mexico results in illegal extraction of natural resources as a means of survival, such as the illegal logging of oaks in the Sky Islands region of Sonora. Reducing it, if accompanied by adequate conservation and restoration programs, can have a positive impact in reducing unregulated extraction. Photo: Jan Schipper

Journalists have been hit even harder than environmental defendants, making Mexico one of the most dangerous countries not at war in which to be a member of the press.  Again, there is good reason to be hopeful that López Obrador can have a positive impact in securing conditions for a free and effective press because while many violent incidents are related to government corruption and ties with crime at the local level, lack of swift federal action breeds impunity and encourages more attacks. López Obrador has a chance to change that and allow the free press to thrive. In a democracy with a strong and free press, environmental causes find a more fertile ground to evolve and garner support, providing even more reason to be hopeful.

What We Know of the Strategy and the Strategist

Natural Protected Areas have suffered from very intentional defunding drives by Peña Nieto’s administration; any effort to revert this trend will be well received by the conservation community of Mexico. Photo: Juan Carlos Bravo

The sentiment of hope and change runs high in Mexico, and cautious optimism is justified throughout, though I don’t expect a big revolution for wildlife conservation over the next 6 years. Josefa González, Obrador’s pick for Secretary of the Environment, seems focused on environmental justice issues and solving existing land and resource conflicts, which given the state of things, makes perfect sense. González has spoken against fracking and inadequate public consultation prior to approval of major development projects.

But will she have the time and vision to promote wildlife management reforms, habitat connectivity policies, effective funding and management of Natural Protected Areas, and enforcement of the law in attacks on endangered species? Will she be amenable to the idea of protecting 50% of Mexico to fulfill our share of Dr. E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth vision?

It’s still too early to tell, yet I do believe we are more likely to find an ally in Josefa González. The burden of change then lays on Mexican citizens: It is up to us to inform and educate the incoming administration about the potential for ambitious and positive agendas for rewilding, wilderness protection, road ecology and other such critical environmental issues. If Mexico is to become a full-fledged democracy, it must start fulfilling even its most progressive environmental obligations.

Big Challenges and Not a Little Uncertainty

Not all environmental strides will depend on the ability of the new Secretary of the Environment. New leaders in the rest of the administration will also have an impact on environmental issues, including road permitting and development, adequate water management, eliminating perverse incentives on the expansion of the agricultural frontier, and improving forestry practices. So until we know more about how key agencies are populated, we won’t be able to assess the potential scale of change.

Ambitious rewilding initiatives such as the reintroduction of Mexican wolves are not likely to see many changes in an administration with an agenda heavily focused on reducing the social debt with the Mexican people. Photo: CONANP

Finally, the new President and Foreign Relations Secretary of Mexico will have to deal with the uncomfortable northern neighbor and his overcompensating need for a “big and beautiful” wall. Mexico will still not pay for it, but many of us expect a stronger stance regarding this issue.

As for migration, though it is not the problem it’s made out to be for the United States, we will all—especially wildlife—benefit from a strategic and humanitarian approach to the movement of people. And while even with the best intentions and most capable team, it would take more than the presidential 6-year term to curb poverty in the rural areas that are the source for forced migration toward our northern border, it does look like this new administration will be more receptive to the idea of fostering restoration economies in such places, thus addressing deep social and environmental problems simultaneously.

What really gives me the most hope I’ve had in a long time is the massive turn out at the voting booths. This is not López Obrador’s movement; this is Mexico’s moment. Mexican citizens are saying, “We need a massive change, and we need it now,” and we will hold López Obrador and his team to their promises, while we move forward to improve our country, for people and wildlife.

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