The Cardenas: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

These days the name Cardenas serves to remind us of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western, “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”. In our own scenario Cuauthemoc would be The Good, Osiel (in prison at La Palma) The Ugly, and The Bad would be Alberto, the lamentable minister for SEMARNAT (Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources), irresponsibly imposed upon us by Vicente Fox whose sleep during political siestas on his ranch in Guanajuato is undisturbed by the ecological destruction of the country. So serious is the situation, that on May 5 the most important groups in the country (Greenpeace, The Committee of One Hundred, IFAW, Gema Ugam, Cemda, Teyeliz, Defenders of Wildlife and others) called a press conference at the very doors of SEMARNAT asking Fox for the resignation of his inept minister under the slogan of, “That’s enough now, Alberto Cardenas”. Since he was appointed to replace Victor Lichtinger in September 2003, his policy has been to dismantle the country’s environmental protections and to “PANisize” the personnel, both in the ministry and in PROFEPA (Prosecutor’s Office for the Environment) replacing experienced officials with his own party members, ignoring environmental problems but advancing his own promotion as a PAN candidate for the Presidency of the Republic. The accusations against Cardenas were based on 21 cases, all investigated by 30 organizations.

Evidence for his frontal assault on coastal wetlands and mangrove swamps is to be found in the modification, weakening and violations of regulations that protect those ecosystems, in favor of tourist developers. Mayan Place, in Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, was allowed 400% more rooms than its permit stipulated, wiping out 90% of the vegetation cover. Construction authorized for the third stage in Cancun, for example the Grupo Golf y Resort where 377 hectares (approx. 940 acres) by the ocean were sold to this business for 71 pesos (approx. $6:50) per square meter, caused much damage to the wetlands and mangroves that still remain. Teaming up with John McCarthy, director of FONATUR, Cardenas also lent his support to the ill-fated ESCALERA NAUTICA, which seeks to convert the Baja California peninsula and the Sea of Cortez into a recreation center for North American boat owners, threatening the rich bio-diversity, protected natural areas and endemic and migratory species, including the gray whale, the humpback whale, the whale shark and the laud turtle. However he has not demonstrated an equal concern for the tourists, allowing the program for clean beaches initiated by his predecessor to languish.

SEMARNAT and PROFEPA (under the direction of Jose Luis Luege) have been complicit in the illegal killing of more than two and one half million wild animals throughout the country, for granting illegal permits known as PAMS, and for not revoking the illegal permits issued by the previous administration, nor punishing the officials involved in the illegal importation from the Solomon Islands to the waters of Cancun of an exotic species of dolphin.

Protected species in danger of extinction in the Upper Gulf of California remain unprotected, allowing the fishing industry, encouraged by the SEMARNAT of Cardenas, to modify regulations that control permissible by-catches of mammals and marine turtles, increasing the risk for flora and fauna in all protected areas in the country. One more step towards total extinction of the Vaquita Marina, a species unique to Mexico, was taken when SEMARNAT was silent in the face of the killing of eight Vaquitas illegally trapped in nets during the second month of 2004.

Both SEMARNAT and PROFEPA have covered up for PEMEX, allowing it total impunity in spite of the damage and pollution caused by its multiple spills and accidents. They helped PEMEX dispose of its dangerous mud in an illegal dump in Panuco, Vera Cruz, and they have sponsored incineration of toxic residues with the consequent increase in dioxin and furan emissions, in violation of Mexico’s commitment to the Stockholm protocol for the reduction of persistent organic compound emissions. SEMARNAT under Cardenas has given its approval to Chevron-Texaco’s dangerous project to construct a re-gasification plant near the Coronado Islands, accepting as an environmental impact statement one that had been prepared for another project in the Yucatan.

When President Fox declared a regulatory moratorium in May 20004 – which was extended until November 30, 2006 – for the benefit of the business community, there was no resistance from SEMARNAT to defend the environment, even though among the affected by the moratorium were the mangroves and sharks. SEMARNAT under Cardenas and PROFEPA under Luege have filled a dossier of environmental negligence and complicity, from illegally authorizing the fishing of both the blue and brown shrimp in the Biosphere Reserve of the Upper Gulf of Clifornia, a refuge for the Vaquita Marina and the Totoaba, granting permits for activities that severely impact coastal wetlands, and mangroves, manipulating deforestation statistics throughout the country (a practice that Cardenas learnt when he was director of the National Forestry Commission, where he also learnt to favor forest mono culture plantations rather than sustainable community forest management), giving blessing for the reservoir construction in Jalisco and Guerrero against the wishes of the affected communities, even authorizing the development of Punta Maguey in Huatulco National Park. Cardenas is supporting strip mining in Cerro Pedro in San Luis Potosi, something forbidden in many civilized countries. And what can one say about the logging that is wiping out the Mariposa Butterfly sanctuaries, where this year there was a reduction of almost 75% in the Mariposa areas, something attributed by SEMARNAT to agricultural practices in the USA and Canada. But not to our loggers?

What was Cardenas’ response to the devastating criticism of the environmentalists? He circulated instructions to SEMARNAT offices reminding them of their obligation to inform the media of the work they are doing, especially their achievements and progress. Since there exists an electronic bulletin “The Best of the Environment”, on the Internet that transmits the propaganda, half truths and lies of SEMARNAT, the general public will be looking to see how the offices hide even more their mistakes, violations, abuses and impunity, since the SEMARNAT of Cardenas is pursuing a campaign to weaken the Commission for Environmental Cooperation in North America whose establishment during the negotiations for NAFTA was the fruit of the efforts of NGOs in Mexico, the US and Canada. The thirty groups have also complained that Cardenas has shut the door on any possibility of dialogue and has discredited experts of the government itself.

Alberto Cardenas has been the worst minister to pass through SEMARNAT, which is saying a great deal. What is dreadful is that the environmental problems of the country have worsened, such as the pollution caused by PEMEX in the land, rivers and oceans, unbridled deforestation of forests and jungles, destruction of reefs and mangroves, and the irreversible loss of animal and vegetable species. Recently, faced with damage caused by fire of 1000,000 hectares the colorful minister minimized the impact of forest fires (many occasioned by cultivators and cattlemen) implying that the critical stage was over.

“Enough of you now, Alberto Cardenas”, was the cry of the leading environmentalists in Mexico. Will the President of the Republic listen?