AS if ecology wasn't a hot enough topic in Mexican politics - with the Guadalajara gas leak explosions, border pollution problems, and Mexico City smog crisis - President Carlos Salinas de Gortari is adding a jalapeno to the political mix.
A Salinas proposal to dismantle the Ministry of Urban Development and Ecology (Sedue) has some environmentalists puzzled and dismayed. "It looks like he's trying to marginalize ecology or bury the political risks," says Homero Aridjis, president of the Group of 100, an environmental organization.
This week, Mexico's National Congress will debate the initiative to dissolve Sedue and create a new "super" Ministry of Social Development. The new ministry would include the controversial anti-poverty public works program known as Solidarity and take from several other ministries such duties as public housing and urban planning, forestry and land use management, promotion of indigenous rights and education. It would also include a new semi-autonomous agency to handle all environmental issues and enforce ment: the National Ecology Commission.
The Group of 100 and 32 other ecology groups have signed a letter questioning whether the "pulverization" of Sedue mid-way through President Salinas's six-year term is the best strategy. The letter asks Salinas to consider other options in a broader public debate outside the Congress, which is dominated by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI. Will it have teeth?
But other analysts see the Ecology Commission as a potential step in the right direction. "If it's got teeth and if it's run by technical experts, not politicians, then a decentralized, depoliticized agency will do a better job than a ministry of ecology," says Frederico Estevez, political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico (ITAM).
Prompted by the April 22 Guadalajara disaster, Mexico's Chamber of Deputies is talking about amending the Salinas proposal to include a federal attorney general for the environment. PRI deputies support the idea but no written measure has been submitted yet.
If the Ecology Commission functions like other semi-autonomous agencies, its board would include representatives from each ministry. "The environment touches everyone. It should be part of every ministry's planning," says Jaime Gonzalez Graf, director of the Mexican Institute of Political Studies (IMEP).
But the legislation leaves many key questions unanswered. How much funding will the commission get? Who will be in charge? Who will take the heat for environmental problems - the social development minister or head of the commission? How will the transition take place?
"The verdict is still out," says Martin Goebel, head of Conservation International in Mexico. "If the commission keeps the basic structure of Sedue, with the same people at the helm, the shift may not be so dramatic and may not be so bad," he says.
But Mr. Goebel foresees potential turf fights - over the transference of power and assets to the new ministry - that could divert energy from the nation's real problems. For example, the Forestry Service, now under the Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources, may chafe at being moved to the new Ecology Commission.
"The Forestry Service has fought the environmental movement in Mexico every step of the way. Most foresters are trained in crop management, not in managing a forest as an eco-system," Goebel says. Political connections
Balanced against these concerns will be the undoubtable desire by the head of the new super ministry, Luis Donald Colosio, to make it all work. This Cabinet appointment enhances his national political standing. PRI has ruled for the last six decades and traditionally, the reigning president handpicks his successor. Mr. Colosio is now considered to be among the top candidates.
As former president of the PRI, Colosio has brought the party through a difficult transition period with slightly better than average marks. He also has had experience in the presidential incu- bator ministry, the now-defunct Ministry of Budget and Planning. Salinas and his predecessor also worked in this ministry.
"Colosio is the centrist, compromise candidate between between populist politics of [Mexico City Mayor] Manuel Camacho Solis and the neo-liberal technocrat, [Finance Minister] Pedro Aspe," Mr. Estevez says. Education Minister Ernesto Zedillo is also considered a contender.
Salinas appears to be rewarding Colosio with a political plum. Colosio is being handed the popular, grass-roots Solidarity public works program, plus Banobra, the state-owned development bank, and public housing.
"This ministry effectively institutionalizes the Solidarity program of vote-buying among the poor," says Gonzalez Graf.
Estevez adds: "Colosio clearly has the political savvy to know where to put the money to use for political ends. Salinas has handed him a pork barrel agency. And the pork will grow."
But Estevez adds that Colosio does not have the nomination sewn up yet. "He looks good on paper. But he doesn't have much time. He needs results quickly and must avoid any catastrophes." For the 1994 elections, the PRI presidential candidate is likely to be chosen late next year.
Environmentalists are not the only ones concerned by the political shuffling. The Mexican Employers Federation warns in a confidential memo (published on April 20 by the Mexico City daily El Financiero) that the presidential race is heating up too early, distracting and destabilizing the Salinas adminstration.