The Mexican government announced in September that it was making a significant reduction in Mexico’s contribution to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC).

The CEC is a product of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) environmental side accord, created in response to demands from civil society, unions, academics, and Congressional representatives from Mexico, Canada, and the United States. It was created to monitor the environmental impacts that the free trade agreement would bring to the region and lay the foundations for joint work on environmental issues. Among its objectives were: establishing the bases for coordinated public environmental policy; increasing cooperation between the three countries; strengthening cross-boundary development and enforcement of environmental regulations, policies, and practices; encouraging transparency and public participation in environmental rules and policies; and promoting pollution prevention.

Each of the NAFTA member nations provides the CEC with $3 million a year for a total of $9 million annually. The Mexican government’s intention to reduce its contribution to $1.2 million could mean the virtual liquidation of this international environmental institution and comes on top of a long list of bad decisions President Vicente Fox’s administration has made on environmental issues. This decision was immediately repudiated by Mexican environmental organizations, among them the Mexican Environmental Law Center (Cemda), Greenpeace Mexico , the International Fund for the Protection of Wildlife and its Habitat, and the Mexican Network on Free Trade (RMALC).

The Mexican government did not consult with citizen organizations, non-governmental experts, or the Secretariat of the CEC before making its unilateral decision. One of the CEC’s primary functions has been to seek consensus and consultation, transparency, and grassroots participation, as well as effective application of environmental legislation in each of the three countries. It is important to note that its on-going programs and projects are in the course of implementation. Trinational commitments mean one partner country cannot abandon them overnight by simply deciding to cut its financing obligations.

The announcement is absurd and senseless. If any government has benefited from the existence of the CEC it is Mexico’s. Carrying out the planned cut will mean a very considerable reduction in the commission budget and, practically speaking, its imminent disappearance. Due to a pact in which the economic participation of the countries should be equal, Mexico’s action would lead the United States and Canada to matching reductions; Article 43 of the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation (NAAEC) establishes that no party is obliged to pay more that the others. This would lead in time to the dissolution of the CEC or of some of its most important functions. Among these are citizen petitions and the factual records produced under NAAEC Articles 13, 14, and 15, as well as the collaboration of CEC’s Joint Public Advisory Committee. Lack of money would be an easy excuse for the governments to say that these activities could not be supported.

The $9 million annually allotted has not been increased since the CEC was created 11 years ago. The reduction by Mexico would represent a serious violation not only of NAAEC but also of the Vienna Convention on Treaties, which establishes that no country can adopt measures that contradict the objectives of the treaty it has signed (Articles 18 and 19).

CEC’s Role in Environmental Research

Throughout more than a decade since its founding, the CEC has researched many environmental problems under two procedures established in its bylaws. One is defined under Articles 14 and 15, stating that citizens may request CEC Secretariat elaboration of factual records as a tool to investigate alleged failure to effectively implement environmental law in any of the three countries. For this procedure the CEC has followed 51 cases, 29 of them related to Mexico . The other procedure, established in Article 13, affords the CEC Secretariat the power to elaborate scientific studies on diverse environmental problems, either by citizen request or by a CEC trinational initiative. Under this procedure, five cases have been investigated, including two in Mexico, about the genetic contamination of maize and the pollution of the Silva Reservoir in Guanajuato, respectively.

Have these two mechanisms been so burdensome to the governments that they now seek to be rid of them? If so, interested citizens, non-governmental organizations, and the public at large will protest loudly and with reason to all three governments. To get rid of these important mechanisms of trinational environmental protection would show a grave lack of sensibility not only for the environment but also for citizen participation and the concerns of those who are legitimately interested in improving conditions today and for future generations.

The Mexican environmental groups that issued the call for their government to reconsider the cutback of resources for the CEC likewise noted that the administration has reaffirmed its lack of familiarity with the mechanisms of international cooperation available to Mexico to protect and conserve the environmental and natural resources shared with the United States and Canada. What’s more, the administration’s action demonstrates its absolute disdain for what its own constituents have established as a way to monitor the impacts of trade in our societies.

Mexican Government’s Lack of Commitment on Environmental Issues

With its plan to cut CEC financing, the Mexican government reveals its intention to weaken and possibly kill the commission, which in turn reveals the administration’s attempts to dismantle the legal and institutional framework for environmental issues that has been built over so many years. This situation is evident not only at the international level, but the national level as well. On the domestic front, as the head of the federal Environment and Natural Resources Secretariat (Semarnat), Alberto Cardenas authorized projects damaging to the environment, such as the Nautical Staircase, and modified the Mexican Official Standard 022 protecting coastal wetlands, in order to promote development of projects such as the Manzanillo Pier expansion in the state of Colima. Who did the Semarnat’s staff consult about the planned cutback of financing for the CEC?

The worst of it is that the government supposedly the first to be interested in boycotting and weakening the CEC is that of the United States . The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has a negative environmental record both nationally and internationally. Many CEC investigations have bothered the U.S. government, particularly the case about genetic contamination of local varieties of Mexican maize. On this issue, the experts’ panel report made for the CEC Secretariat, complete with recommendations on countering possible damage to agro-biodiversity caused by Mexico’s importation of genetically modified corn, was ready to release by June 7, 2004. But due to U.S. government pressure, the information was not made public as rules specify until November 2004. The report was finally published as a consequence of having been leaked to the media. The causes of the delay were two: publication of the report would have influenced a Bush administration legal case in the World Trade Organization against the European Union for its restrictions on some genetically modified products; and releasing the report before the presidential re-election balloting could have meant losing votes in the strong grain and Hispanic sectors. In this process, the U.S. government expressed its disenchantment with the CEC and its work. It is lamentable that today the Mexican government is the one to take the first step toward limiting the scope of CEC work in the interest of the United States government.

Another controversial case in which the CEC played a prominent role was that of the illegal construction of a pier at Cozumel , Quintana Roo, in 1996. Mexican environmentalists denounced their government to the CEC Secretariat, charging that the then Environment, Natural Resources, and Fisheries Secretariat (Semarnap) failed to effectively apply the law to the construction project. As a result of this citizens’ petition, and in spite of the government’s inconformity and anger, the CEC elaborated its first factual record, which led to then-President Ernesto Zedillo’s declaration of a Natural Protected Area for the Cozumel Reefs, a management plan, and the considerable reduction of the mega project