THE widespread notion that Mexico doesn't care about its environment, especially along the 2,000-mile United States-Mexican border, is no longer true.
Mexico is demonstrating that it wants to tackle, head-on, its pressing environmental problems. In particular, the country has to take and is taking much of the responsibility for allowing the maquiladora industry - factories that produce or assemble goods for export - to grow without strict environmental regulation.
The Salinas administration has been remaking Mexico from head to toe. The economy has been opened to foreign competition; state-owned companies have been privatized, and the educational system has been overhauled.
Strict environmental laws have been passed and are vigorously enforced, especially along the border, by the newly created Office of the Attorney General for the Environment. This office has already investigated and closed down thousands of companies for environmental violations.
These sweeping environmental policy changes have arrived at Mexico's northern border and will go forward with or without a free-trade agreement. Mexico's new leaders particularly like strict environmental regulations because, among many other benefits, they help make the economy more efficient.
In recent years, prompted by the Mexican government, the private sector has been building waste-water treatment plants, sanitary landfills, and housing units for maquiladora workers - and generally improving the area's infrastructure. Industrial park projects going up along the border (and in the rest of the country) now have to adhere to strict regulations similar to those found in industrialized countries. Many of these new facilities have won awards for environmental excellence under the country's Green Flags Program.
The success of these environmentally friendly industrial parks is spreading to the rest of the country as well. One of the world's most advanced industrial parks is located in Mexico City.
President Carlos Salinas de Goriarti says: ``We won't accept any new project, whether Mexican in origin or foreign, unless it strictly adheres to all applicable environmental regulations.''
In addition to taking unilateral steps to protect its environment, Mexico has been working with the US over the last few years to tackle the border's environmental problems jointly and to improve the area's infrastructure. In 1992 the Mexican and US governments unveiled the Integrated Environmental Plan for the Mexico-US Border Area.
This ``border plan,'' which will cost $1 billion to implement over 10 years, is currently working to achieve the following goals: strengthen enforcement of existing environmental laws; increase cooperative planning, training, and education; heighten public awareness of the border environment; and increase public and government participation in the implementation of the plan.
The Mexican government committed more than $460 million for the first phase of the plan. The funds are currently being invested in an array of environmental infrastructure projects in the border region. They include waste-water treatment, solid waste management, and improvement of dirt roads that contribute to air pollution.
The free-for-all polluting days in Mexico are over, regardless of what happens with the North American Free Trade Agreement. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.