Environmental Degradation in Mexico

By Barkin, David | Monthly Review, July-August 1993 | Go to article overview

Environmental Degradation in Mexico


Barkin, David, Monthly Review


If we were to believe the international press, Mexico has passed through its worst crises and is now on the road to recovery. No longer is it the pariah of the international financial community. The serious environmental crisis and the rest of the nation's problems are on the mend. The press joins the international financial community in celebrating the "new team" of pragmatic politicians--personable and technically competent, bent on overcoming the heritage of cynicism and corruption and to confront forthrightly the ills that beset Mexican society.

Pete Hamill, a journalist normally critical of the Mexican system, has joined this peculiar conspiracy to confound international investors and interested observers alike; celebrating the new team's skills in tackling Mexico City's monstrous environmental problems, he ends an article in Audubon magazine (January- February 1993) on an optimistic note, with a quote from the present mayor:

[Mexico City] will be a paradigm of how under adverse circumstances people can find a way to live together .... To do things fight. Not to lose what has been acquired in the past ....I plan to be living here in the year 2010. Probably my children will be living here, too.

In contrast, even the most ardent of the supporters of the Mexican model occasionally bemoan the environmental morass, which seems more intractable than the economic crisis: Matt Moffett's usually upbeat reports on the neoliberal restructuring and the apparent success of the nation's anti-poverty program change tone when it comes to the environment: a recent front-page article in the Wall Street Journal was titled: "In Mexico City, One Rarely Sees Anything as Lovely as a Tree" (March 5, 1993).

Mexico's environmental crisis is not limited to the problems of La Capital, as Jonathan Kandell's award-winning biography of the capital city is called. But almost one-quarter of all Mexicans live in the metropolitan area; much of the nation's personal wealth and productive apparatus is also concentrated there. The majestic snow-capped peaks of Popocatepetl and Ixtacihuatl, together with the other surrounding mountain ranges, cannot contain the devastation inflicted by the wholesale disregard for environmental imperatives in this mile-high cauldron of power and wealth, of ethnic and cultural diversity, which encompasses the many forms of horrifying marginality: poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and human degradation. Through the length and breadth of the land, the Mexican people suffer the ravages of ill-considered development programs and rapacious developers. Even now, as the awareness of the nation's environmental crisis creeps into the public consciousness, new industrial and rural "improvement" programs continue to demonstrate a wholesale disregard for the natural environment, the resources that the country has inherited, and the people who have jealously guarded them for millennia.

Mexico's Environmental Crisis

The Mexico City metropolitan area has a population of about eighteen million. The Salinas administration is proud of having overcome the crises of 1976 and 1982. This success has its dark side; structural imbalances, social dislocations, and falling standards of living are only sustainable because of the massive inflow of foreign capital and the increasingly authoritarian exercise of power. Mexico's environmental crisis is a reflection of this more general crisis, and now the country's environmental disorders are transcending social classes.

Modernization has decimated urban labor markets and living standards. The real value of the minimum wage has declined more than 65 percent since 1976; it is now about $4 a day ($U.S.) in Mexico City and along the border, while in the interior it is 20 percent less. In fact, the minimum wage is no longer useful as a guideline for industrial employers, who pay about twice the base wage just to assure that their workers will survive.

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