Environmental Requirements in Mexico’s Legal Framework

Mon, 10/21/2013 - 15:43

Legal experts are generally positive about the legal framework in Mexico in relation to the environment, and argue that the environmental practices followed by the mining industry meet the standards of the world’s most developed countries. Legislation on environmental matters is contained in Mexico’s General Law of Ecological Balance and Environmental Protection, which was established in 1988.

The government has two principal bodies that are responsible for promoting and upholding this law: the first is Semarnat, the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, which was created in 2000 with the objective of protecting, restoring and conserving the country’s ecosystems, natural resources and environmental goods and services. This body also establishes the NOMs, or Mexican Official Standards, which are the government’s environmental guidelines on topics such as emissions, environmental impact and water usage. Essentially, Semarnat’s role is to establish the law and foment a culture of good environmental practice within Mexico. It is also one of the government bodies that grant permission for mining operations to begin, based on a comprehensive assessment of the mining company’s expected environmental impact, which takes into account things like gas emissions, mining waste disposal and water usage, recycling and disposal. The other key government body for environment issues is Profepa, the Federal Attorney’s Office for Environmental Protection. This body’s responsibility is to regulate the law, as well as ultimately to control and prevent environmental degradation in Mexico.

The Mexican Constitution states that every citizen has the right to a healthy environment, and the State guarantees the fulfillment of this right through the law. Those responsible for damage to, or deterioration of, the environment are accountable by law, and where found responsible for industrial contamination of the environment, even if through negligence, can be sentenced to anything between six months and nine years in prison. Such provisions in the law provide additional incentive to an industry that is already performing comparatively well in this area. “This year, only 15 companies have been recognized by Semarnat for their good environmental practices, and of those 15 companies two are mining companies: Industrias Peñoles and Grupo Mexico,” says Víctor del Castillo Alarcón, President of the Environmental Commission at Camimex. Furthermore, 80% of all companies that are currently affiliated with Camimex have the Industria Limpia (clean industry) certification, and the remaining 20% are in the process of acquiring this certification, which is issued by Semarnat. The mining industry is also the biggest planter of trees in Mexico after the forestry industry and the army – it has planted more than ten million trees in the last five years.

Few legal specialists have complaints about current legislation relating to the environment. “In regards to environmental law, the Mexican Official Standards for exploration are very strict and they are ahead of many countries. Likewise, the majority of mining companies operating in Mexico are taking their environmental responsibilities. They have obtained the required permits from Semarnat and have received awards from Profepa certifying them as clean industries. At this point, there is no need for modifications to the environmental law,” says Abdón Hernández Esparza, President of the Legislative Commission at Camimex. But not only is the legislation in place, it is also effectively regulated, which has led to the development of a real environmental conscience within Mexico’s mining industry. “From an environmental standpoint, the idea of Mexico being a dumpsite has been eliminated, not only in regulations but in practice,” says Juan Francisco Torres Landa, Partner at BSTL Abogados. “The notion that mining companies can come and devastate the land and destroy our environmental systems is not valid.” However, despite significant improvements on this level and a much more environmentally sustainable approach to mining activities on the whole, the industry still tends to be seen as irresponsible and highly damaging to the environment. “With time, the world has changed, and despite the fact that there is a new and more responsible mining industry in Mexico and the rest of the world, people who are not engaged in mining activities still see it as a sector that has high levels of water pollution and works with ancient processes, which is not true of large companies anymore,” says Héctor Herrera Ordóñez, Partner at Herrera Ordóñez Abogados.

Generally speaking, mining companies have been efficient in improving their reputation in the locations in which they work, fostering good professional relationships with local communities through a notable commitment to cleaner operations and environmental responsibility. However, the reputation of the industry with the general public will not improve until success stories become more commonplace in the news than those about destruction of the environment and corporate negligence. Whilst incidences of the latter are thankfully becoming fewer and farther between, such stories nevertheless tend to have greater impact. The improvement of the mining industry’s reputation in this area will therefore depend largely on its own ability to eliminate bad environmental practices altogether and communicate that to the wider public.