Mexican President Felipe Calderón made international headlines recently with his comments regarding climate change at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he called upon developing and developed countries alike to act multilaterally rather than continue endlessly debating over how to tackle the problem.
Calderón expressed the need for “building bridges” instead of walking away, once again, from a forum with resolutions on paper that fail to materialise as actual policies – much less realities.
Calderón’s position regarding climate change is coherent with his administration’s current strategy touting Mexico as one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, as well as the venue of the UN framework convention on climate change this autumn. (By the way, the meeting is set to take place in the environmental disaster area that is Cancún, a project that converted an island into an artificial beach packed with human parking lots back in 1974).
But before allowing Calderón to crown himself International Advocate of Environmental Concerns, let’s do a reality check. If as he says, climate change is a problem that “we are all obliged to attend to”, he should start at home, where the “economic costs associated with trying to tackle climate change” are not the only concern.
While megadiverse Mexico is home to approximately 10% of the planet’s species, soon, all that fauna will have no place to live. This is because according to Greenpeace, Mexico takes fifth place in world deforestation – which is also, incidentally, a key factor in climate change.
But beyond any quick consultation of environmental websites, I can state from personal experience that a reform of Mexico’s national park system is urgently needed.
Over this past year, I have been invited to visit natural reserves in the states of Tamaulipas, Quintana Roo, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Hidalgo, and Campeche by nature photographer Antonio Vizcaíno (who co-authored the award-winning Wildlands Philanthropy: The Great American Tradition) and his team at the local NGO América Natural. Vizcaíno recently published another book of photographs titled, somewhat ironically, En Busca del Bosque Mexicano (In Search of Mexican Forests). And shooting his current project, Mexican landscapes, has been even more of a challenge given that pristine natural landscapes are becoming increasingly hard to find.
Vizcaíno, who has spent the past 20 years exploring not only Mexico, but the entire western hemisphere, has witnessed the destruction first-hand. And he feels that the most pressing problem Calderón and his team face is land ownership.
This is because there are no true natural parks or reserves in Mexico, if we define these as lands that are mostly or entirely off limits in terms of human impact. On the map, these areas abound. But in reality, they are conserved solely through the good will of local property owners, often coalitions of indigenous peoples granted parcels under the ejido system that began in the 1930s by President Lázaro Cárdenas. There have been many efforts, both grassroots and top-down, to encourage ecotourism in these reserves and thus preserve them from other activities which involve deforestation, such as agriculture, with varying degrees of success.
But there are no guarantees, and even forests considered pristine, such as El Cielo in Tamaulipas, are criss-crossed by fences and grazing cattle, while beautiful lagoons and waterfalls in Chiapas are teeming with informal markets, litter, and locals hawking their services as “guides.” Only at one reserve (El Chico, Hidalgo, created in 1898 as México’s first National Park) did I see uniformed rangers. In many other places where tourism is permitted, makeshift toll booths are set up at every property line, and entrance fees must be paid at several points along the way. Hotels encroach on what is officially reserve territory, gobbling up lush mangroves at places like Sian Ka’an in Tulúm. This, despite the fact that the president himself approved legislation in 2007 expressly forbidding any development whatsoever within coastal mangrove forests.
It’s rather like climate change according to Calderón: natural reserves here in Mexico look very different on paper than they do in reality.