Obama's visit to Mexico is a chance to revisit US-Mexico environmental cooperation

President Obama’s visit to Mexico this week will be the second time he meets with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in less than six months, highlighting the importance of the bilateral relationship between the two countries. During their first meeting in Washington DC shortly before Peña Nieto took office, the two discussed their mutual desire to collaborate on a broad range of issues, including climate change. At this week’s meeting the agenda is expected to focus heavily on economic issues. Indeed, Mexico is already the US’s second largest export market and third largest source of imports. This makes the trip a good reminder that when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was implemented nearly twenty years ago, the North American nations also agreed to collaborate on protecting the region’s environment. As the ties between Mexico and the US continue to strengthen, it’ll be important for the two countries’ leaders to ensure that upholding environmental protections is also part of the agenda.

A side agreement to NAFTA, the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation (NAAEC) is a commitment to ensure that freer trade and economic growth in North America is coupled with cooperation and strengthening of each country’s environmental safeguards. The intergovernmental Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) was set up to help facilitate this enhanced collaboration and allow public participation in the process. North American citizens can submit a citizen’s petition to the CEC when there are concerns that one of the countries is not upholding its environmental laws.

Earlier this month, NRDC joined ten Mexican partners on a citizens’ petition to the CEC pointing to a systematic lack of enforcement of Mexican environmental safeguards during the approval process of major coastal tourism developments along the Gulf of California. The CEC petition highlighted four projects that received approvals despite weak environmental reviews that did not comply with existing laws and regulations. One of the case studies in the petition is the Cabo Cortés mega-resort project that threatened Mexico’s Cabo Pulmo National Park until a successful grassroots and international campaign ultimately led to its cancellation. While this was a key victory, two months after Mexico’s former president announced the cancellation of Cabo Cortés, another large-scale and similarly unsustainable project was proposed for the exact same site. The ongoing interest in large scale development near Cabo Pulmo and other fragile areas in the Gulf of California highlights the critical need to ensure full enforcement of the environmental safeguards Mexico already has in place to protect wildlife, mangroves, and fragile ecosystems like corals.

The petition calls on the CEC to investigate the situation and develop a factual record about this apparent failure to enforce Mexico’s environmental protections. Having such a record in hand would help strengthen the environmental review process in Mexico by highlighting where greater efforts and transparency are necessary. Peña Nieto and his Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources are still in the early stages of the presidential term, and they have an opportunity now to make sure that the environmental impact assessment process is strengthened. They can ensure that, going forward, the reviews of coastal developments that can imperil internationally important marine ecosystems like Cabo Pulmo meet the highest standards and put the well-being of local communities and the natural resources they depend on ahead of commercial interests.

As President Obama and President Peña Nieto sit down to discuss a growing economic relationship we also need them to recall that the strong ties between the two countries include a common interest in ensuring long-term environmental sustainability. When Cabo Pulmo’s coral reef and local community were first threatened by the proposed Cabo Cortés mega resort, citizens on both sides of the border sprang in to action to protect the park. Now, tens of thousands of people have also joined their voices and written to North America’s environmental authorities calling for their support of strong enforcement  of environmental protections. The U.S.-Mexico relationship is strong and there are a multitude of issues of common interest, including protecting our environment.

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