Environmental Issues of Mexico

Index: Major Threats and Conservation Record | Conservation Programs and Ecotourism | Biosphere Reserves | Ecotourism | Ejidos and Ecotourism

Major Threats and Conservation Record

Mexico is a huge country (one of the world’s 15 largest) with a big population (96 million in 1996) growing at a fast pace (between 2% and 3% annually, due to double within 24 to 34 years). There are major environmental threats, chiefly destruction of natural habitats, and the country has had, until very recently, a poor environmental record and outlook. Suffering from widespread poverty, governmental neglect and corruption, and little organized local interest in conservation, Mexico for most of its history has been a state where business and agricultural interests held nearly absolute power over development decisions and the uses of natural resources. Economic growth, at almost any cost, was the mantra, everyone’s chief concern; conservation was a very low priority for business, government, and most citizens alike. One indication: Mexico did not join the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the chief international agreement to stop trade in threatened and endangered plants and animals, in effect since 1975, until 1991, the last Latin American nation to do so. During the past few years, some big changes have taken place. Triggering growing environmental awareness in the country have been increasing education, local and international publicity over Mexico’s pollution levels and poor environmental record, the gradual weakening of the formerly omnipotent Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and the emergence of a sizable middle class who vacation in the countryside and take vocal interests in living healthy lives. The dramatic decline in environmental quality has been noticed, and people and government have begun steps to reverse the decline.

Mexico has a host of environmental problems, including significant chemical pollution from factory discharges and waste dumping, but the main threat to its biodiversity probably stems from deforestation and other natural habitat losses. Forest habitat is lost for a number of reasons. The major factor is land use – land is cleared for crop agriculture, cattle grazing, human colonization, and for business development. A rapidly multiplying human population and economic growth propels and constantly increases these uses. (For instance, currently there is explosive population growth among the Yucatan Mayan people, owing to high birth rate, low infant mortality rate, and high immigration rate – mostly young people arriving to seek jobs in Cancun.) Other causes of forest loss are over-exploitation for timber and fuelwood, and natural agents such as fire and disease. The use of trees as fuel for heating and cooking takes an especially heavy toll on forests. In Oaxaca, for instance, it’s estimated that each family burns on average about 12 kg (26 lbs) of wood per day. Very few forested areas of Mexico are free from human disturbance; in fact, most forests contain scattered settlements whose residents are usually very poor and who still practice age-old slash-and-burn agriculture. The rate of forest loss, one of the highest in the world, is officially estimated at anywhere between 300, 000 and 400, 000 hectares (740, 000 to one million acres) per year, but is actually higher – perhaps double these estimates. (Reforestation rates average less than 100, 000 hectares, or 250, 000 acres, per year.) Forests in some regions are destroyed faster than others, for instance, over half the forest cover in the Selva Lacandona region has been lost since 1980 (see below).

Compounding the ongoing threat to its forests and other natural habitats is the dawning realization that Mexico is a treasure trove of biodiversity and a center of endemic species – those that occur only in one place; destroy them in Mexico and they will be extinct. During the 1980s and early 1990s, as an initial, necessary step for conservation, Mexico underwent surveys and censuses of much of its biodiversity. The results are in, and they are stunning. Mexico, it turns out, probably holds more species of plants and animals than any other country on earth but two. For instance, there are some 30, 000 plant species, of which between 50% and 60% are endemic; 49 species of pines (more than half the world’s total); 450 mammals (Brazil, which is more than twice Mexico’s size has only 394 mammals); about 1000 birds, 693 reptiles; 285 amphibians, and more than 2000 fish. As of the mid-1990s, many species were known to be already threatened: 64 mammals, 36 birds, 18 reptiles, 3 amphibians, and about 85 fish.

Wildlife surveys, in addition to identifying and counting species, note where they are located and in which habitat types they occur, so that biologists can target and prioritize geographic regions and habitats for conservation attention. That is, they can determine which habitat types are most threatened and where, and which ones, based on their biodiversity, are most worth trying to save. For instance, the last large expanse of virgin tropical forest in North America, Chiapas’ Selva Lacandona (the Lacandon Jungle), near Mexico’s border with Guatemala, with its high level of biodiversity, has now become a top conservation priority for Mexico and for international conservation organizations. Likewise, wetland areas along the Yucatan Peninsula’s coasts were recognized for their biodiversity holdings and identified as critical migratory bird stop-over habitat and as a result, recently were given given protection as biosphere reserves. Overall, based on its degree and rate of habitat loss and the amount of biodiversity it holds, Mexico is now considered one of the 15 most environmentally threatened places in the world.

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