MEXICO CITY — The administration of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has rushed to create more protected natural areas at the end of his presidency, but environmentalists accuse it of trying to “greenwash” an image of favoring petroleum in a time of climate change.
They note the administration is entering its final year after focusing in its first five on building a giant new oil refinery, propping up the state-owned oil company and legislating against renewable energy producers.
And while the government boasts about adding dozens of the new protected areas, it is simultaneously slashing funding for the environmental protection department and reducing the money available to safeguard those areas, the activists say.
The new budget for 2024, passed by Mexico’s Congress, cuts funding for the environmental department by $510 million (9 billion pesos) or 11%. It marks the latest cut for López Obrador’s administration, which including the new budget has allocated 35% less to its environmental department than its predecessor over the course of his six-year term.
One day after that budget passed, the environment department hosted an international conference in Cancun to celebrate its creation of more protected natural areas than any other administration in Mexican history.
In its first five years the administration declared an average of one new protected area a year. In the past three months, it created 16, mapped out 12 more and said it has an additional 10 planned before it leaves power.
Environmental advocates said the budget exposes an administration whose environmental credentials are just for show.
“This government wants to say that it cares about the environment just by creating new natural protected areas on paper,” said Gina Chacón, a researcher who convened experts to study the budget with the Northwest Civil Society for Environmental Sustainability, a coalition of climate charities.
“We don’t need to protect the environment on paper. We need to protect the environment with real policies, and policies need money,” said Chacón.
Mexico has a separate commission (CONANP) with its own budget that oversees protected areas. It has suffered consistent cuts in its funding since 2016, most dramatically in López Obrador's first budget in office.
Protected areas fall under a range of designations with different restrictions. The core of biosphere reserves can be used only for research, whereas national parks allow tourism and flora and fauna protected areas permit some types of resource extraction. Cultural shrines and natural monuments are also included under areas of natural protection, all of which come with management plans.
Next year, CONANP's budget will grow slightly to match inflation, but the budget's breakdown shows the increase will go entirely to salaries, while funds for protecting the areas remain the same. CONANP already dramatically overspends its budget every year, forcing it to borrow from the environment department's pot.
With the explosion in declared protected areas (now covering 33% of Mexico) and next year's budget cuts, CONANP funding averages 10.6 pesos per hectare (just under 2.5 acres) of protected area. As recently as 2016, funding averaged 26.5 pesos per hectare.
"It's just ridiculous," said Chacón. “Imagine, we did this calculation considering only 203 natural protected areas, but by the end of this year, we will have 225 natural protected areas that'll have to share.”
The Mexican environment department declined to comment on the cuts, and how it would protect the areas with less than half as much money per hectare.
In its evaluation of the budget, however, the House of Deputies committee for environmental funding wrote that most of the cuts came from funding for drinking water — a decision it noted as “striking.”
Mexico City declared a water “crisis” Friday, and more than three-quarters of the country is currently experiencing drought.
“No increase in budget is sufficient to solve all the environmental problems that our country faces, especially because the solution to some of these problems depends on achieving a comprehensive change in the economic model that prevails in today's world characterized by consumerism and mass generation of waste of all kinds,” read the report. The committee approved a budget that cuts funding by 11%.
Lawmaker Enrique Godínez del Río of the opposition National Action Party dissented in the committee’s report. “Although I agree that no budget increase is sufficient to solve all of the environmental problems our country faces I believe that A BUDGET INCREASE DOES CONTRIBUTE,” he wrote, using all capitals to stress his opposing view.
Overall, next year’s federal government budget is 4.3% larger than 2023’s, and drew initial criticism for making no specific allocation to recovery efforts in Acapulco after it was devastated by Hurricane Otis nearly three weeks ago. In a last minute move, some funds from controversial judicial cuts, which prompted four days of courthouse strikes, were redirected to the crisis.
The environmental budget does include a specific fund for climate change adaptation and mitigation, which will increase in 2024. The breakdown, however, shows over half of that fund is allocated to the Mexican military to supervise rail transport in the southeast and the Maya Train, a new tourist railroad under construction through the Yucatan jungle that has drawn widespread environmental criticism.
That is an obvious contradiction, said Carlos Asunsolo, head of research and policy at the Mexican Center for Environmental Law.
“The federal government is using green labels to simulate that it is allocating resources to the fight against climate change which finally end up in other projects,” like the Maya Train, Asunsolo said.
An hour after the budget was approved, López Obrador celebrated at his morning news conference. “I am very, very happy,” he said Thursday, citing increases to high-school scholarships and elderly care.
López Obrador also mentioned funding for the Maya Train and for Pemex, Mexico's state-owned and debt-plagued petroleum company.
As López Obrador’s administration nears its end, Chacón said, the president's environmental credentials have never been more transparent.
“It is clear for us now that environmental protection is not a priority for this government — has not been and is not currently,” she said.