Summary and Keywords
In Mexico, the laws and norms that regulate the environment emerged at the end of the 19th century to standardize infrastructure construction and preserve nature. However, it was not until the early 1970s that the first formal government entity dedicated to promote environmental protection, the Vice-Ministry for Environmental Improvement, under the Ministry of Health, was founded, mostly responding to a government initiative rather than social pressure. Other laws were then issued and applied by the Secretariat of Urban Development and Ecology. However, in the 1980s, civil society pressed for more regulations aimed at protecting the environment.
In the 1990s, the Ministry of the Environment, Natural Resources and Fisheries (SEMARNAP) was created, focusing on natural resources, biodiversity, hazardous waste, and urban-industrial environmental problems. Its objective was to reduce the trends of environmental deterioration and to promote economic and social development under criteria of sustainability. This and other institutions have evolved since then, covering a larger set of topics and media. Nevertheless, degradation has not been stopped and is far from being reverted, because even though there is a toolbox of policies and instruments, many of them economic, they have not been fully implemented in some cases or enforced in others because of economic and political factors.
With the changes in institutions, legislation was also modified. Mexico became part of international environmental agreements and included the rights to a safe environment in the constitution. However, this legislation has not been enough to modify behavior because often the incentives either for regulators or for polluters themselves are not enough.
Environmental degradation is a market failure. It can be shaped as an externality that markets alone cannot solve either because of overproduction, abuse of open access resources, or underprovision of public goods. In any of these cases, resolution comes only through government intervention. Regulations must include consideration of the benefits and costs they impose to change behavior. However, regardless of formal regulation, there are still a host of environmental problems that affect both urban and rural communities and Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations, and there is a regulatory vacuum integrating environmental aspects with economic and social development issues. Examples of this are the Energy Reform of 2013 and the Law of Waters, as well as the Law of Biodiversity, where impacts on communities are often left aside, because of a de facto prevalence of economic activity over human rights. On the other hand, legal loopholes prevent adequate management of wildlife resources and sufficient treatment of hazardous waste discarded by industries, even if they are regulated. Furthermore, environmental regulations are based on corrective regulations, such as obligations, restrictions, and sanctions, but these have not strengthened their preventive character. It is still less expensive to pollute or degrade the environment than take measures not to. A shift in the paradigm toward policies that create incentives to protect the environment, both for polluters and regulators, may foster much better environmental quality.
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