"Offices here in the region are being evicted - there's no money to pay the rent," says the director of one World Heritage site
By Oscar Lopez and Christine Murray
MEXICO CITY, June 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Austerity measures by Mexico's populist president have slashed the country's national park service budget by 75%, sparking fears over the future of the nation's rich but fragile natural resources as policing efforts run out of funds.
CONANP, which cares for nature reserves, has seen its budget reduced in recent years but the latest cuts could see efforts to defend Mexico's national parks pushed to breaking point, with little to stop illegal loggers taking over, conservationists say.
"The offices here in the region are being evicted - there's no money to pay the rent," said Omar Ortiz, director of the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage wildlife sanctuary in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.
"We don't have the resources to operate right now - what's left is minimal," Ortiz told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Local CONANP offices can no longer pay for electricity, water or even petrol for vehicles to carry out surveillance since the recent budget cuts, he added.
Mexico's environment ministry SEMARNAT, which oversees CONANP and which also has seen budget cuts under President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has said publicly it was working with the finance ministry to resolve the budget crisis.
CONANP did not respond to a request for comment.
The president's sweeping public spending cuts, announced in April, have hit not only natural areas but funding for vulnerable groups from indigenous women to victims of crime.
Lopez Obrador, who has promised to take care of the environment, has said he is cutting government spending in order to reduce the burden on taxpayers.
Last week, more than 200 CONANP workers signed a letter to the president urging him to prevent the loss of personnel, local media reported. More than 20 former government officials also called on Lopez Obrador to halt environmental budget cuts.
Several departments are now trying to negotiate with the government, fighting for money for projects they say are essential.
But conservationists fear that the latest steep cuts to environmental programs may result in irreparable losses to Mexico's rich natural landscape.
Diana Siller, director of environmental justice nonprofit Jade, said that the cuts would leave natural spaces vulnerable to organized crime and corruption, potentially allowing development and construction on them.
"We already have a weak environmental authority," she said. "If you take away its budget it will basically fall apart or disappear."
She noted she was particularly concerned about prosecutor PROFEPA which investigates reports of illegal activity in protected areas.
Most at risk, environmentalists said, are the country's forests, which have already suffered huge losses. In 2019 alone, Mexico lost more than 320,000 hectares of forest, according to monitoring group Global Forest Watch.
"One of the important conditions for maintaining the... forests, that are the lungs of the country, is to be able to protect them from illegal loggers," said Astrid Puentes from the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA).
"Right now without the budget…(loggers) are going to party."
Some experts say Mexico's environmental authorities need reforms but blanket cuts won't help.
"You do need to perform surgery, but you don't need to reduce the budget - you need to rebuild," said Leon Avila, a professor of sustainable development at the Intercultural University of Chiapas.
"Diagnose where the disease is ... but don't close (CONANP) or destroy it."
Agricultural experts say that Mexico, exposed to droughts and extreme weather on both its Pacific and Atlantic coasts, will feel the effects of climate change more than many countries.
If the nation's forests fall prey to loggers and developers, conservationists fear that the country could see its rainfall further destabilized and will be left with few means of reducing the effects of global warming.
"We're already in a climate crisis, and this will obviously increase the impact much more," said AIDA's Puentes.
(Reporting by Oscar Lopez @oscarlopezgib and Christine Murray @chrissiemurray; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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