Poaching and illegal fishing, illegal logging, irregular settlements, aquifer pollution, and changes in land use are the primary threats to Protected Natural Areas. Because of its incidence, the Samarnat – that has reported several crimes, most of them committed by the organized crime – considers it a matter of national security.
The national disaster that Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s government inherited from former PAN and PRI governments, also affected the country’s Protected Natural Areas (ANPs, for its Spanish acronym), which the UN had identified as critical areas to address environmental challenges. Due to the series of crimes reported in that conservation areas, the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat) considers that it is a case of emergency and threat to the national security of Mexico.
Illegal trafficking of wildlife, poaching, illegal logging, water and soil contamination, erosion and change in land use, and irregular urban development represent the five horsemen of the Apocalypse of the ANPs. The Secretariat currently headed by Victor Manuel Toledo classify them as ‘alarms’ and ‘threats’ to Mexico’s national security.
On February 13 the then secretary of Environment, Josefa González Blanco, held a keynote speech on ‘Environment, sustainable development and national security in Mexico,’ at the Centre for Advanced Naval Studied (Centro de Estudios Superiores Navales – Cesnav) of the Secretariat of the Navy. In that occasion, before a small committee of postgraduates in national security, she unveiled the ‘alarming’ crisis affecting the ANPs.
In that same occasion, the now former-official presented the ‘Diagnostic of the types of crimes committed in the Protected Natural Areas, according to their incidence’ (Diagnóstico de tipo de ilícitos en las Áreas Naturales Protegidas, según frecuencia). It classifies crimes according to their level of threat – ‘alarming, very frequent, frequent and little frequent’ – registered by those natural areas of the country that were created through a presidential decree. Moreover, they require, by law, protection, conservation, restoration, and development schemes.
In Mexico, the 182 ANPs cover 90 million 800 thousand hectares of area (12 percent of the national territory). There, 3 thousand inhabitants and 40 indigenous communities live. Six are considered World Natural Heritage; two, mixed World heritage sites; 44, biosphere reserves; 40, Protected areas for flora and fauna; 67, National Parks; 18, sanctuaries; 142, Ramsar sites (wetlands of international importance); eight, Protected Natural Resource Areas; and seven, Natural Monuments.
According to the Diagnostic, the ANPs presenting an alarming level of threat and a ‘very frequent’ index for crimes regarding a change in land use are: Cumbres de Monterrey, in Nuevo León; Laguna de Términos, in Campeche; Tehuacán-Cuicatlán, in Puebla; Valle de Bravo, in Estado de México; Montes Azules, La Franciscana y El Sumidero, in Chiapas; Bala’an K’aax, in Yucatán; El Tepozteco, in Morelos; Cerro Mohinora, in Chihuahua; Meseta de Cacaxtla, in Sinaloa; Marianas Nacionales, in Nayarit; Lagunas de Chacahua, in Oaxaca; and El Gogorrón, in San Luis Potosí (see map 1).
Other ANPs presenting an alarming situation and a ‘very frequent’ index for illegal logging are: Sierra de Álamos and Río Cuchujaqui, in Sonora; CerroMohinora, and Cacaxtla Plateau, in Sinaloa; Cuatro Ciénegas, in Coahuila; Marianas Nacionales, in Nayarit; Valle de Bravo and Nevado de Toluca, in the Estado de México, Necaxa, in Puebla; La Malinche, in Tlaxcala; Laguna de Terms, in Campeche; Pico de Orizaba, in Veracruz; Bala’an K’aax and Kalakmul, in Yucatán; Chan-kin, Lacan-Run and volcano Tacaná, in Chiapas (see map 2).
The ANPs presenting an alarming condition and a ‘very frequent’ index for pouching are:
Sierra de Álamos y Río Cuchujaqui, in Sonora; Meseta de Cacaxtla, in Sinaloa; Sierra de Manantlán, in the states of Colima and Jalisco; Zucuirán-Infiernillo, in Michoacán; Tehuacán-Cuicatlán, in Puebla; La Franciscana, Puerto Arista, Montes Azules, Yaxchilán, Chn-Kin and La Encrucijada, in Chiapas; Laguna de Términos, in Campeche; y Bala’an K’aax, in Yucatán (see map 3).
The ANPs characterized by an alarming and very frequent situation of irregular settlements are: Cumbres de Monterrey, in Nuevo León; Meseta de Cacaxtla, in Sinaloa; Valle de Bravo, in Estado de México; El Tepozteco, in Morelos; Barranca de Metztitlán, in Hidalgo; Laguna de Términos, in Campeche; the Sumidero Canyon y Montes Azules, in Chiapas; Nala’an K’aan, in Yucatán; and Yum Balam, in Quintana Roo (see map 4).
In the same alarming and very frequent condition due to crimes linked to water pollution are the following ANPs: Marinas Nacionales, in Nayarit; Zucuirán-Infiernillo, in Michoacán; Valle de Bravo and Ciénegas de Lerma, in Estado de México; Barranca de Metztitlán, in Hidalgo; Laguna de Chacahua, in Oaxaca; and Laguna de Términos, in Campeche (see map 5).
Populations and urbanity
Another issue that keeps the Samarnat worried is the human presence in conservation areas. In 80 ANPs, the report shows, there are indigenous communities (in some cases over 90% of the population is indigenous), 29 of which do not benefit from a management program. In particular, noteworthy is Agua Azul Waterfalls, a Protected area for flora and fauna, the Hydrological Basin of the Necaxa River, a Protected Natural Resource area, the water supply Basin of the National Irrigation District 043 Nayarit and the Bosencheve National Park.
Indigenous populations with over 500 inhabitants inhabit almost a dozen Protected Natural Areas. These groups, who often see their cultural identity threatened, have ancestrally occupied such areas.
Before a few students of the Cesnav, González Blanco explained the importance of the ANPs and its regulatory body, the National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (Conanp), as the ‘cornerstone of national development and security.’
The Conanp, he said, guarantees the preservation and sustainability of the ecosystems and natural environments – representative/characteristic of the biological diversity of Mexico – through an ‘effective, equitable, honest and transparent’ planning, management and administration ‘of the Mexican system of Protected Natural Areas.’
The former official explained the problem concerning the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve, respectively in Baja California and Sonora, covering an area of 934 thousand 756 hectares. She considers it to be an issue of national security.
‘The problem in the region is much more critical and profound. It is a matter of national security’, due to ‘illegal fishing and totoaba smuggling, presence of the organized crime, a potential fishing embargo on Mexico, few opportunities for the inhabitants and governance of the region at risk,’ warned González Blanco.
He added that the high risk of extinction threatening the vaquita porpoise must be factored in as well. It is estimated that there are less than 30 left and their distribution is the most restricted on the planet (they are present just in the northern part of California). The accidental capture of gillnets during fishing activities is the sole cause of their mortality.
González Blanco ended his speech with the promise of a ‘comprehensive solution’ to the country’s illicit acts affecting the environment, achievable, according to him, through ‘environmental governance, sustainable and responsible fishing, sustainable, productive diversification, conservation and monitoring of the vaquita marina and integral development for community welfare.’
The diagnostic of the ANPs was passed on to the new secretary Victor Manuel Toledo, after González Blanco resigned from the position on May 26 after unreasonably delaying an Aeroméxico flight. Following this resignation, on June 15 the former head of the Conanp, biologist Andrew Rhodes Espinoza resigned. He had been in charge of the area for nine years. Sergio Sánchez, Undersecretary of Management for Environmental Protection of the Semarnat, resigned as well.
Contralínea requested an interview with secretary Toledo to discuss this issue further. However, by press time, no answer was received.
The ANPs, fundamental to address the UN environmental challenges
Mexican protected areas are fundamental to address some UN environmental challenges – such as climate change, biodiversity loss, water crisis, food dependence, and natural disasters. Nonetheless, 75 out of the 182 lack of management programs for their preservation and restoration.
Environmentalists point out that the fact that Calderón’s government did not pay attention to the issue, and Peña’s government did not promulgate management programs for the ANPs, exposed the country to face several risks. For instance, environmental catastrophes, breach of international treaties on environmental protection, and violation of human rights of over 3 million inhabitants in the protected natural areas.
The Protected Natural Areas aim to preserve the environment of biogeographical and ecological regions and fragile ecosystems; ensure a balance and continuity of evolutive and environmental processes. As well as safeguard genetic diversity of wild species; preserve biodiversity, endangered species, endemic and rare species according to the mission that the Conanp announces on its portal.
An emblematic case of the lack of a management program is Yum Balam, a Protected area for flora and fauna, where the island of Holbox is situated. A management program was hurriedly issued for this area in late November 2016 – after 22 years – without complying with the legal obligations imposed by the administrative procedure. Nor was it implemented after some public consultations, warns Alejandro Olivera, of the Center for Biological Biodiversity (CBD).
The decree of the Mexican Caribbean Biosphere Reserve, whose management program was approved in 2017 – and which includes the Riviera Maya – did not clarify the number of buildings that may be built. Nor did it dealt with the issues of wastewater treatment and sewerage networks, points out Edith Martínez of Greenpeace.
The CBD, Greenpeace and Ricardo Ruiz Esparza of the Mexican Center for Environmental Law, agree that Yum Balam is an example of the damages that a protected natural area may suffer if no management programs are in place. Such programs are essential to delimit load capacities as well as protect the ecosystem in the ANPs.
During the interview, Alejandro Olivera claims that the Mexican Caribbean Biosphere reserve requires a comprehensive management program for the area that protects over 5 million 754 thousand hectares of reefs, seabed, coastal lagoons, wetlands and coastal regions.
Activists agree that although the issuance of management programs for this area of the country is an important step, it is not enough to protect natural resources.
The 75 ANPs that do not rely on a management program violate international treaties such as the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance; the Convention concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage. As well as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization, concerning the rights of indigenous communities, points out Alejandro Olivera.
Stop to irregularities in the ANPs: NCHR.
In 2016, the National Commission of Human Rights (NCHR) issued recommendation 26/2016 after detecting some irregularities in the ANPs that do not have any management program. The Commission confirmed that 27 areas underwent a transformation or loss of original ecosystems, aquifer pollution, soil erosion and deforestation caused by economic development and repopulation of the territory.
The NCHR requested to carry out new research to recategorize the territories that do not have a management program yet or that already lost their conservation vocation. Indeed, the absence of the management program leads to uncertainty regarding density and intensity with which individuals can carry out works or activities within the ANPs. Moreover, as the authorities rely on an excessive discretionary margin, they could arbitrarily deny or authorize such activities.
‘The management plan is an instrument to guarantee the conservation of the ecosystem and its biodiversity. It, therefore, helps to ensure the observance of the human right to a healthy environment by laying the foundations for management and administration as for sustainable development, conservation and preservation’, adds the recommendation.
In response, the Conanp explained to the NCHR that 27 protected areas did not have any management program, as ‘they are about to be revoked due to the loss of those conservation objectives which gave rise to their establishment.’ Moreover, 24 areas were facing polygonal issues, two were in the public consultation stage, and one had recently been added to the list of protected areas.
As for the remaining 24 declarations, the Conanp argued that they did not comply with the requirements laid down in Article 60, section I, of Environmental Law. Indeed, the area they occupied, their surface, location, demarcation, and correspondent zoning could not be determined. Such circumstances, according to the NCHR, required a modification to the declaration.
The Conanp claimed that the lack of a management program does not prevent the ANPs to benefit from adequate protection, conservation, administration, and management. Nor does it affect the right of residents to a healthy environment.
They also ensured that through the direct application of relevant provisions, it is possible to guarantee the conservation of the ecosystem and natural resources subject to protection. These provisions benefit owners, possessors or holders of other rights over lands, water, and forests within the ANPs.
The NCHR questioned that the Conanp’s arguments only justify the non-formulation of the programs due to the environmental issues affecting the ANPs. ‘This appears to be incongruous, since the lack of planning and regulatory instruments establishing the permitted activities and precisely delimiting the sub-zoning (management program), has contributed to the degradation or disruption of such protected areas.’
Environmental organizations warn that the management programs – such as those of Yum Balam and the Mexican Caribbean Biosphere Reserve – cannot wait two decades to be implemented. It is instead necessary to address the threats they face to protect ocean resources, prohibit the exploitation of hydrocarbons in the area, and plan the impact of the tourism industry.
‘Only these comprehensive policies will allow our oceans to cushion climate change and to keep the planet’s temperature below 2° C in the coming years.’
By José Réyez
(Translated by: Federica Antoniani)