Salinas Adds New Notches To Environment Record

But Mexican critics say he plays to Congress to ease NAFTA's path

ROSS PEROT'S campaign to portray the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as a scam to allow polluting industries to flee to Mexico doesn't seem to jibe with President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's environmental record.

On Tuesday, a United States company was forced to pay a $2 million fine to the Mexican government to clean up an illegal toxic waste dump near Tijuana. Last week, President Salinas declared the Upper Gulf of California a national marine reserve to save two endangered species, the vaquita dolphin and totoaba fish.

Since taking office in 1989, Salinas has created 11 new nature reserves and increased Mexico's total protected area by more than 20 percent.

The latest moves, on top of international environmental awards and other Salinas measures, have many conservation groups labeling him the "greenest" leader in Mexican history.

"I would grade his work as outstanding. If we had presidents like him, one presidential term after another, Mexico would be much further ahead," says Martin Goebel, director of the World Wildlife Fund program in Mexico.

"I've worked in this area since 1980, and nobody in the US government can match the leadership Salinas has shown. I'd give him a gold star for hard work," says Peter Emerson of the Environmental Defense Fund in Austin, Texas.

These comments reflect a prevailing view among environmentalists, particularly United States-based conservation organizations. But some Mexican groups are dissatisfied and distrustful.

"He makes spectacular gestures with little substance," charges Rafael Gonzalez, director of Mexico's Greenpeace office. He claims Salinas courts US organizations with the aim of winning votes in the US Congress for NAFTA. "Salinas policies are aimed at creating a good external image more than actually confronting problems."

Mr. Gonzalez points to the dramatic 1991 closing of a large oil refinery located in Mexico City. The act was cited as part of the reason Salinas won an environmental award from United Earth, a group sponsored by Claes Nobel of the Nobel Prize family. "The plant was obsolete. It was going to be closed sooner or later," says Gonzalez. "But pleas from local residents were ignored until the plant closing served to send a political message abroad."

Gonzalez says Salinas's environmental efforts are undermined by the drive to attract foreign investment and privatize government entities. "Deregulation is opening the doors to exploitation of our natural resources without offering any real protection."

The president of the Mexican Ecological Movement, Alfonso Cipres Villareal, also sees Salinas in a less-than-favorable light.

"Mexico City remains one of the most polluted cities in the world. Water quality throughout the country is horrible. Salinas has made the minimum effort. He talks a lot, makes a lot of plans. But the results are almost zero," contends Mr. Cipres Villareal.

US environmentalists agree that enforcement of Mexican laws remains spotty. Environmental funding in any country, particularly a poor, developing country, is a problem. Nonetheless, Salinas has committed Mexico to spending $460 million on a border cleanup program. And the two-year-old federal attorney general's Office for the Environment is making some headway in fining and closing polluting factories.

Mr. Goebel and others are concerned the momentum may not last past the end of Salinas' term in 1995. But they sharply disagree that Salinas is all talk and no action.

"Salinas has bitten the bullet in terms of actions and commitments," says Peter Seligmann, the Washington, D.C.-based chairman of Conservation International. Last year, the group honored Salinas with its first World Conservation Leadership Award.

Mr. Seligmann cites Mexico's new National Biodiversity Commission, a body with a $1 million budget to catalog the unique wealth of plants and animals and set conservation priorities. He cites government funding for microenterprise eco-tourism projects, and the 1992 presidential decision to reroute a new highway around the El Ocote forest reserve.

But while the NAFTA side agreements on labor and environment are still being negotiated, Bill Snape of the Defenders of Wildlife, based in Washington, D.C., says it's too soon to judge Salinas.

"I might give him a passing grade," he says, "but I would argue that the final exam hasn't been taken yet. The final exam is how Mexico handles the NAFTA side agreement."

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