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The response to the environmental problem

Government's response: New environmental policies

Since 1970 Mexican environmental policy has passed through two main phases. The first one, from 1970 to 1982, involved two presidential terms, those of J. López Portillo and L. Echeverría, whereas the second phase, from 1983 to 1990, involved the mandates of Miguel de la Madrid and Carlos Salinas de Gortari. In the first phase, the debate about environmental degradation started with the first Law of Environmental Protection (Diario Oficial, 23 March 1971) and the creation of the Subsecretaría de Mejoramiento del Ambiente (SMA; Subsecretary for Environmental Improvement) within the Ministry of Public Health. Although this stage produced the first institutional mechanisms of environmental protection, it also betrayed a lack both of specific actions to prevent pollution and of a comprehensive view to deal with the growing environmental problem. Even so, during this period people started to be conscious of the deteriorating environmental quality in Mexico City and its impacts on human health and living standards.

During the second phase (1983-1990), environmental policy obtained a higher political status through the creation of government agencies devoted exclusively to the environment and through an increase in specific regulations and programmes. In the first half of the 1980s, the coordination of all government actions to prevent and control pollution passed from the Subministry of Health Assistance of the Ministry of Public Health to the recently created Ministry of Urban Development and Ecology (SEDUE), where a Subsecretary of Ecology was created. Additionally, a National Commission of Ecology was established in 1985 to define priorities in environmental matters and to coordinate the different public institutions dealing with environmental actions. As a result of these changes in national policies came an administrative change in the government of Mexico City (i.e. the Department of the Federal District, or DDF), which incorporated a Commission of Ecology in 1984 and, a year later, a General Directorate of Urban Planning and Ecological Protection to deal with decision-making on environmental problems within the city.

Until the mid-1980s, however, very limited actions were carried out to prevent pollution, mainly owing to the deep economic crisis that the country had faced since 1982, a situation aggravated by the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City. In this context the environmental problem lost its priority in relation to financial constraints and living standards. From 1986 onwards, social pressure mounted owing to the lack of effective action to prevent environmental deterioration and to the ever-increasing levels of air pollution in the city, particularly during winter. As a result, in 1986 the government of the Federal District formulated new programmes and specific regulations defining stricter pollution-control measures.

At the beginning of 1986, SEDUE announced a set of 21 antipollution measures to be applied in Mexico City. Among these, the following were the most important:

1. 2,000 state-owned public service buses were converted to run on new, low-emission engines;

2. non-polluting urban electric transport was extended to include 4.7 km of new lines for underground trains and 116 km of new lines for tramways, trolley-buses, and light trains;

3. solid wastes were dumped in sanitary landfills and the old open-space dumps were covered;

4. a programme was begun gradually to substitute natural gas for oil as fuel in the thermoelectric generators in the basin;

5. the metropolitan zone of Mexico City was supplied with low-lead gasoline in 1986;

6. a programme was established gradually to incorporate anti-pollution devices in new automobiles (Gaceta Oficial DDF, March 1986).

For the first time these measures tried to quantify actions and to set specific time-periods for their implementation. Together with these measures, highly oriented to control air pollution, the Urban Development Plan for the Federal District was approved in 1987. The establishment of an ecological reserve of 85,554 ha to the south of the basin in the Ajusco and the Chichinautzin ranges, where urban expansion was to be contained, agricultural activities were to be stimulated, and forest areas were to be preserved and expanded, betrays a primary concern with preserving the southern forests of the basin, which are also the most important water catchment areas for the city.

In 1989, under the mandate of Salinas de Gortari, the definition of an official environmental policy continued, dearly becoming a political priority. At a national level, a new Law of Ecological Equilibrium and Environmental Protection (1989) was passed and a National Programme for Environmental Protection (1990-1994) appeared in the National Development Plan. Along these lines, and as part of a more direct political response to the serious pollution problem, a programme against atmospheric pollution in the Mexico City Metropolitan Zone was announced in 1990. This programme included four main policy decisions: (1) to rationalize the urban transport system; (2) to improve the quality of fuels used in the basin; (3) to install systems to control polluting emissions from vehicles, industries, and service facilities; (4) to regenerate natural areas with high ecological disturbance.

To a great extent, this new programme was a continuation of the "21 measures" of the previous government and, it is apparent, the strategies were more oriented towards controlling critical levels of air pollution. The main actions taken in this new programme included the following measures.

1. Emission of atmospheric pollutants was to be controlled in service facilities such as public baths, dry-cleaning shops, and laundries. These places frequently did not comply with technical standards owing to their old equipment and a notorious lack of maintenance.

2. Industries in the basin were to be inspected regularly and systematically in order to verify the correct functioning of their pollution-monitoring and emission-control equipment. The use of this type of equipment became mandatory for all industries.

3. Checking vehicular exhaust emissions every six months became mandatory in late 1989, for both official and private vehicles. From 1991 onwards, the regulation was changed to compulsory verification every six months for heavy-use vehicles only and yearly for all other vehicles.

4. The use of each car was banned one day of the week, according to the numbers on the licence plate. The programme, initiated in the 1989-1990 winter, was aimed at reducing the circulation of vehicles to approximately 500,000 cars on average during working days. Currently, it is still in force, although some people have tried to outwit the ban by purchasing second, or even third, vehicles (often older heavy polluters).

5. The levels of lead in gasoline were to decrease even more than in 1986, and in 1991 unleaded gasoline was introduced to the basin and the use of catalytic converters became obligatory in all new cars. The lower levels of lead, however, increased the amount of unburnt oil residues, which in turn increased the ozone formed in the air of the city during daylight hours.

6. The two thermoelectric generating plants that work in the basin of Mexico increased their consumption of natural gas as a substitute for oil.

Despite these measures, atmospheric pollution has remained at critical levels.

Many factors have contributed to the sluggish response of official environmental policy. First, a marked delay has occurred in the application of the technical norms that regulate atmospheric emissions.

Although the atmospheric problem was clear to many experts by the mid-1970s, strict government control started only when air pollution was overwhelming in its magnitude, and substantial lag time separates the enforcement of control and the observation of environmental impacts.

Second, the political will to apply continuous and strict antipollution measures has been weak in relation to the economic interests of the main polluting industries. Such is the case of the automobile industry, which for years avoided the use of anti-pollution devices in new models, and of the industrial sector in Mexico City, which for many years avoided the installation of emission controls. Industries have enjoyed the protection of favourable treatment from government officers who did not wish to drive large companies away and found an excuse for not including industrial emissions in the financial costs of pollution control. It was not until the 1990-1991 winter that many industries faced formal closure and large penalties for not complying with the environmental legislation.

Lastly, for many years, government agencies consistently minimized the real danger posed by air pollution. They not only played down the real consequences of air pollution, but they used indices measuring air quality in a way that, by averaging over time and over different stations, hid local peaks in the concentration of pollutants. This self-deluding attitude was shared by many public officers who really believed that the problem was not so serious as some scientists and civil organizations contended.

Thus, the perception of the environmental situation by government decision makers has focused mainly on reducing air pollution and only secondarily on the regeneration of heavily disturbed or eroded natural areas. The current governmental approach does not include many other environmental problems and it does not address the more comprehensive issues of the causes of these problems and their differential impacts owing to poverty and social inequality.

The public administration has responded with strict measures to what it perceives as a potential source of political trouble, but the lack of a long-term vision of the problem may lead to rather ephemeral solutions. For example, the decrees that make car-exhaust checks mandatory and force citizens to stop using their cars one day during the week were aimed at reducing emissions by 10-20 per cent. With the number of cars growing at a rate of 6-8 per cent a year, however, the measures will have only limited effect in the short term, and the problem will continue and even worsen for several years.

The social response: Environmental activism

Environmental problems have acutely affected the Basin of Mexico for the last 15-20 years, but the inhabitants of the capital city have been relatively slow to respond. Lack of information about deteriorating environmental quality, basic ecological processes, and possible effects of increasing pollution levels has contributed to this slow reaction. For example, the government's attitude tended to belittle the importance of air and water pollution as a rapidly growing problem. In 1985 and 1986, however, a critical point was reached in public awareness; television and radio announcements exhorted people to lead an environmentally sound life, a "cleaner" and "greener" way of living. But these calls for action failed to provide reliable information about the prevailing situation or about what specifically one should do to improve it. With severe air and water pollution, plus a marked water shortage that resulted from the 1985 earthquake, new attitudes were demanded from citizens. The slogan "pollution is each one of us" ("la contaminación somos todos") seems, according to official policy, to hold every citizen individually at fault for the severe environmental crisis. The changes in school schedules imposed in 1987 to decrease activity during the early morning hours, when thermal inversions are more pronounced, and the restrictions on the use of automobiles imposed in 1989 drew everyone's attention to something serious being at stake.

Ecology entered the Mexican government's discourse formally in 1982. Although many ministries were involved in activities with ecological backgrounds (Fisheries, Agriculture and Hydraulic Resources), it was only in 1982 that ecology became part of the government's official worries - and, hence, open to public scrutiny. That year Miguel de la Madrid, as one of his first actions as President of Mexico, created a ministry called SEDUE, short for Secretaría de Desarrollo Urbano y Ecología, which curiously but symptomatically integrated urban development and ecology. During his campaign, de la Madrid had trumpeted an urgent need for a "national ecological awareness" to avoid the "historical immorality" represented by the destruction of nature as a consequence of modern development. Some 10 years later, ecology became an official issue, and a public issue.

It was during this period of transition from governmental indifference to, or lack of responsibility for, or both, the sudden decision to become "clean" that people organized and responded in different ways. The inhabitants of the Basin of Mexico, as well as some people living elsewhere, had certainly been conscious, in one way or another, of environmental changes prior to governmental pronouncements. The official framework, however, enhanced the social responses. Environmental activists, who had been considered radicals before 1986, suddenly became part of official discourse. In addition to urban-ecology activism, some academic groups had, since the early 1970s, developed political activities to protect natural zones outside Mexico City. Ecological activism had, for example, halted the construction of a nuclear reactor on Lake Patzcuaro, Michoacán. In this case, the inhabitants of the lake's shore, including Indian communities, gathered to oppose this project and finally succeeded in stopping it. The discussion around this issue aroused the environmental awareness of many people in different parts of Mexico.

In the deeply affected Basin of Mexico, however, organized reactions were sparse until the mid-1980s. Before this time, only a few groups of citizens had formed temporarily to oppose specific actions affecting the district in which they lived. The widening of avenues at the expense of parks, sidewalks, and green areas with trees sparked the Green Brigades in 1977, but their activities ended quite unsuccessfully in 1979. Both the importance and the weaknesses of this type of association become evident if we recall that, in the meantime, green movements and parties had become important in Western Europe as a reaction to nuclear energy, pollution, and environmental destruction in general. European ecological groups were heterogeneous in origins and aims, but none the less they had a strong influence in Mexico.

In 1983 the first ecological association with political aims was formed in Coyoacán, under the name of Asociación Ecológica de Coyoacán, Coyoacán, Ecological Association). Originally, Coyoacán, was a small town some distance away from Mexico City, but urban growth incorporated it into the perimeter of Mexico City (as it incorporated many other surrounding places). Today, it still preserves many colonial buildings and is considered to be a trendy place, where middle- and upper-class intellectuals like to live. The group was worried about the protection and conservation of the so-called "ecological equilibrium" in the Basin of Mexico, and it identified itself as independent of any links with political, religious, government, or industrial organizations. Other similar groups were formed in succeeding years, such as the Alianza Ecologista Nacional, self-defined as a "free and natural human organization where individual and group efforts are gathered to improve, protect and restore the environment" (Sandoval and Semo 1985a). These associations acted successfully against some official decisions that would have degraded the basin's environment and several other ecosystems in the country.

Despite their success in specific actions, these groups lacked a comprehensive and general proposal for the environmental management of the basin and the growth policy of the city. Many other groups of this type, identified by Semo and Sandoval (1985) as "green romantics," formed in different districts of Mexico City, and in 1984 they all got together in the Red Alternativa de Ecocomunicación (Alternative Network of Eco-Communication). Eclectic from the start, the network gathered advocates of alternative technologies, anti-nuclear activists, "post-hippies" worried about nature, people engaged with oriental philosophies, disenchanted leftists, and other marginal/radical groups. As might be expected, this group did not last for long, nor did it produce any lasting results, but it was a starting point for many other social experiments working with environmental problems.

Groups of intellectuals (among whom the lack of scientists is remarkable) interested in environmental issues were also formed. Among them, the self-appointed Grupo de los 100 (Group of 100) had an important impact on public opinion. One hundred artists, including painters, musicians, poets, and writers, gathered around the motto "No crisis can justify our sacrifice. We have the right to live." As was the case with all the other groups mentioned, this group has opposed various policies without producing a comprehensive analysis or a general proposal about its own environmental objectives. Because members of the group are well known, however, their complaints and opinions have been well received by a large part of the Mexican middle class.

Other environmental associations formed during the 1980s with more practical goals, often with the help of technical supervisors. Included in this group are, for example, associations of land-squatters who have enlisted environmental arguments to protect their tenancy, and associations of campesinos (peasants) who defend their land against the encroachment posed by urban growth on environmental grounds. These groups tend to be local and their aims are very specific; they lack the political influence and communication capability that characterize, for example, the Grupo de los 100.

Quadri (1990) and Semo and Sandoval (1985) recognize that, by 1985, four major kinds of environmental groups could be identified at the Encuentro Nacional de Ecologistas (National Meeting of Ecological Activists):

1. a group of opponents to almost any governmental proposal, heirs of the European anti-nuclear movements and proponents of this movement in Mexico;

2. people worried about the extinction of species and the loss of ecosystems (usually conservative in political outlook, this group has a romantic view of conservation that none the less has helped to create an awareness of ecological deterioration);

3. groups searching for alternative, environmentally sound technologies (these groups inherit positions from the United States and West European countries, involving such measures as paper recycling, where ecologically oriented production and consumption are good business. Though the impact of environmentally sound production and consumption in Mexico is still to be evaluated, it does express itself through specific issues. For example, traditional resource use among Indians is respected throughout the country as a non-destructive way to utilize nature. This tradition has enriched the views and consolidated public respect for a people who think that the environment can be transformed and exploited successfully without irreversibly destroying it);

4. people whose main concern is the political side of the environmental crisis, because they believe that the solution to environmental degradation lies in political decisions (as might be expected, the range of political positions within this group is large, and disagreements are more frequent than agreements; for Quadri, 1990, the Grupo de los 100 is a typical example of this trend).

Ten years of social response have yet to have the kinds of impacts on environmental issues one might imagine, in part because the various groups have been fragmented and not coordinated in their activities. In 1986, the Movimiento Ecológico Mexicano (Mexican Ecological Movement) and the Pacto de Grupos Ecologistas (Pact of Ecological Groups) brought together many of the environmentally active organizations. A third group, the Federación de Conservacionista Mexicana (Mexican Conservationist Federation), also exists, but its primary focus is the conservation of natural ecosystems and it has had little impact within the Basin of Mexico.

The environmental problems of the basin appeared in the plat forms of different political movements for the 1988 elections, motivated by the aftermath of the 1985 earthquake and by the new organizaciones de barrios (neighbourhood organizations). Public perception and awareness of these environmental problems seemed at that time to be changing very rapidly. The new political activism created a dynamic social situation, in which different groups were increasingly involved in environmental issues. The Convención del Anahuac, a centre-left, middle-class movement, was demanding an autonomous government for the Federal District, and also demanded stringent environmental protection measures (e.g. effective recycling of wastewater and protection of the remaining forests and chinampa fields). The Asamblea de Barrios, a popular working-class movement that arose after the 1985 earthquake, surprisingly expressed its support for these demands, and publicly attacked the official policy on public transport and the federal subsidy of the automobile industry.

This rather intense activism declined slowly after 1988, during the presidency of Carlos Salinas de Gortari. One of the most visible indications of this decline was the disintegration of the Pact of Ecological Groups. Its former members went in different directions: some remained as lone activists, some started to work within the new government administration, and others went back to their grass-roots organizations.

The reasons for these changes are still unclear. On the one hand, it seems that the ecological movement became disenchanted when some of its leaders accepted government posts. On the other, it seems that civil activism fluctuates with the presidential elections that occur every six years. Lastly, in 1991 the Partido Ecológico Mexicano, a political party, was registered to participate in the September 1991 elections, following the trend towards institutionalization of the European "greens."

What is currently clear is that: (1) the government is making a visible effort to meet some of the environmentally related demands of the people (even if the results are far from impressive); (2) the ecological movement has become institutionalized and has lost much of the dynamism that it displayed during the late 1980s; and (3) despite the undeniable effect that these organized efforts have had on societal attitudes towards environmental problems, ecological activism has not yet been able to halt or reverse the ongoing environmental crisis in the Basin of Mexico.

Review and conclusions

Although many of the environmental problems in the Basin of Mexico became severe in the late twentieth century, industrial development is not solely to blame. Urban primacy and political centralism have been a tradition in Mexican society at least since Aztec times. The Basin of Mexico, for nearly two millennia one of the most densely populated areas of the world, has used its pre-eminent administrative and political position to obtain advantages over other areas of the country. But modern industrialization, coupled with increasing technological capacity and political control, has dramatically exaggerated this historical trend and is responsible for the disproportionate urbanization and the biased distribution of population and wealth in the Basin of Mexico.

Since the revolution, a brand of economic development, which Sandbrook (1986) has called "conservative modernization," developed in Mexico through the alliance of three dominant sectors: the paternalistic post-revolutionary government, local private enterprises, and foreign capital. The goal of this alliance has been massive industrial development, often at the expense of social equality. The allocation of public resources, largely to the industrial sector, has accelerated urban growth. The Basin of Mexico concentrates government, public bureaucracy, a large middle class with a high capacity to consume, infrastructure such as electricity and roads, health services, and industries eager to profit from this growing market. These sectors have formed the "modern" part of the city, with its skyscrapers, large shopping centres, highways, and residential suburbs. Most of the city, however, consists of poor quarters inhabited by workers and underemployed persons who only a generation ago were peasants in rural Mexico and who migrated into the basin looking for a share in some of the services and goods that industrialization and urban development seem to promise. This migratory trend continues, and the metropolitan area is still expanding over forests and fields.

Unlike the past, current environmental change and resource constraints are not limited to those of the landscape or terrestrial ecology (e.g. draining the lacustrine system or deforestation). Now modern production and consumption have directly affected the biogeochemical flows that sustain air and water quality, and the pace and scale of environmental change are unprecedented. Importantly, the material standards of life in the basin, relative to impoverished rural areas, and as measured by common indicators (e.g. family income, health standards) have increased during the latter half of this century, a period that has witnessed some of the most rapid depletion of resources and a staggering array of environmental problems.

This circumstance occurred not from mining the basin's resources alone but from enormous levels of subsidies that brought (and still bring) critical resources to the basin and exported (and export) some of the environmental problems. The ability to continue this course in the face of the scale and pace of changes in demand seems highly unlikely, particularly in regard to water. The basin appears to be approaching, or has approached, a critical moment in its history in which a failure to address the problems associated with concentration may well trigger environmental biteback.

A strong decentralization policy promoting migration to smaller cities, promoting life in rural areas, and reducing the subsidies for the Basin of Mexico might stop the concentration process. But such a policy would cost hard currency in a country with a foreign debt of over US$100 billion, would go against the interests of both national and multinational industries, might also be disadvantageous in the short term for the workers of Mexico City, and could well create political problems for the party that supported it. People must be made aware of the seriousness of the environmental problem and provided with alternatives before demand-side actions are taken, such as those associated with decentralization.

Will awareness of the magnitude of the problem increase sufficiently to avert large-scale damage to the population? Or will the increasing incidence of health problems and the generalized deterioration in the standard of living trigger greater awareness and prospective solutions? We do not know, but almost every week during December 1991 and January 1992 air pollution levels reached levels considered dangerous under international standards. The booming automobile industry and the number of cars growing at a rate of around 8 per cent per year offer no reason to believe that the next few years will bring any improvements. Furthermore, the water shortage problem is likely to become more acute in the future, making the overall situation very difficult.

At a time of rapid change in the international arena, the future of the Basin of Mexico seems to be inextricably linked with the economic future that Latin America adopts and with the political and social model that the country adopts in the next decade. So far, the new winds of economic liberalization have had little or no impact on the general environmental problem. This, of course, may change in the future, but long-term government plans to deal with the problem are still lacking.

The long-term history of the basin is one of growth, collapse, and cultural rebirth, of catastrophic disintegration and cultural reorganization (Whitmore et al. 1990). Although more acute than ever before, centralism, resource dependence, and many of the other problems of the basin are not new. It is now in the hands of both government and society to find novel and original answers to the dramatic questions posed by the industrial development of the old Anahuac, the former capital of the Aztec empire.


1. The preliminary results of the 1990 population census yielded a total population for the basin that is 4 million below the projected value, based on the 1980 census and on other official statistics from government sources (see tables 7.1 and 7.4). These differences could mean that the rate of migration into the basin is decreasing, but they could also mean that there is a large error in either or both the 1980 and 1990 censuses. As the 1990 statistics are still preliminary, it is not possible to speculate further on this subject until the official and definite data are released.

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