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Mexico and the Sustainable Development Goals

The capture of the State by the corporate elite largely explains the SDGs’ slow progress - particularly in Mexico. Español.

Laura Dowley
22 March 2019
Environmentalist activists hold posters reading ‘Monsanto Out’ in Mexico City, Mexico, May 19, 2018. PA Images. Photo: Jesus Alvarado/dpa. All rights reserved

Agreed upon by UN member States and designed “to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity”, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030 are commendable objectives indeed. But three years after they came into effect, progress has been sluggish, particularly in Mexico. What is going wrong?

Albeit not the only cause, the capture of the State by corporate elites goes a long way towards explaining the problem. Undue corporate influence on State institutions and policy decision-makers undermines the State’s ability to promote economic growth, reduce poverty and inequality, and protect the environment.

The capture of the State is both the cause and the effect of the stark disparities of wealth which beset Mexico and which the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda acknowledges as one of the “huge challenges” facing sustainable development. While the Mexican economy is now the world’s 15th largest, Mexico ranks 17 in the most unequal country index in terms of distribution of wealth.

Since economic power translates into social and political power, what we end up with is a system in which the economic elite are able to ensure that the country is governed in line with their own interests. This, in turn, tends to intensify inequality.

All around the world, extreme concentration of wealth has reduced the amount of public resources available for development.

All around the world, extreme concentration of wealth has reduced the amount of public resources available for development. As countries become richer, government s paradoxically become poorer, mostly due to high levels of tax evasion and avoidance, illicit financial flows and the hiding of private profits in tax havens. A 2018 World Bank report on development found that multinational corporations are transferring up to 40% of their profits to tax havens, and that Mexico is one of the economies most affected by this phenomenon. In 2015, the Mexican State lost 197.1 billion pesos (14.2 billion dollars at the average exchange rate for that year) through tax evasion by private companies.

The establishment of a strong tax base in Mexico would undoubtedly result in a huge increase in funds available for sustainable development. Sadly, for so long as the Mexican State continues to consent to corporate interests, this is unlikely to happen.

The current human rights crisis in Mexico is symptomatic of a system that allows economic interests to shape State laws, regulations and public policies for their own benefit. Considering the high degree of convergence between human rights and the SDGs, Mexico must find a way to properly implement international human rights standards if it is even remotely serious about these goals.

Violence against journalists and human rights defenders has spiralled out of control in recent years: 120 journalists were murdered between January 2000 and October 2018 and, in 2017, Mexico was the third most dangerous country in Latin America and the fourth most dangerous in the world for land defenders and environmental activists. Today, only three months into the new administration, 14 journalists and human rights defenders have already been killed.

The capture of the State has meant that, time and time again, the Mexican State has failed to implement laws that seek to prevent human rights violations by private businesses.

The majority of the attacks against human rights activists happen in the context of business activities - not surprisingly, given the obvious discrepancy between sustainable community-led development and private-sector profit-driven interests. Mining, infrastructure construction, energy and logging are all industrial activities frequently related with targeted attacks against those who oppose them.

The capture of the State has meant that, time and time again, the Mexican State has failed to implement laws that seek to prevent human rights violations by private businesses. More often than not, large businesses act with almost complete impunity, the effect of which is to increase violence further.

The 2014 spill of toxic waste from a Grupo México copper mine into rivers in the state of Sonora, in northern Mexico – the worst environmental disaster in the history of the mining sector in Mexico – is emblematic of the Mexican State’s failure to implement laws for the protection of local communities.

At the time of the spill, the environmental regulator had actually allowed a Grupo México subsidiary to operate without the environmental permits required for handling hazardous waste, in breach of its international obligation to prevent violations of the local communities’ right to a healthy environment.

Not only are laws not properly implemented; in some cases, national legislation is unduly lenient with the private sector regarding its obligation to contribute to sustainable development.

The mining lobby, for example, has managed to ensure regulations which favour its interests over those of the affected communities. Under the guise of encouraging development, the Mining Act considers mining to be in the public interest and preferential to any other use of the land – which means that the land of indigenous and farming communities is in practice readily available to extractive companies.

The Act violates the principle of international law establishing the communities’ right to self-determination. Moreover, considering that 50% of the population in the gold and silver producing areas are living in conditions of extreme poverty, the Mexican government must ask itself if mining has actually been the catalyst for local development it had promised.

López Obrador poses with El Salvador's president elect Nayib Bukele

Can things change under the administration of new president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO)? His promise to fight corruption and inequality is clearly a step in the right direction.

But the road ahead will be a tough one. Both phenomena have come to be deeply entrenched under the rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) – the party that held power from 1929 to 2000. The conservative National Action Party (PAN) took over the presidency from 2000 until 2012, and then the PRI returned to power for a six year term marked by corruption scandals in the Federal Government.

The cancellation of the new Mexico City airport – a project mired in corruption and human rights abuses – following a nation-wide public consultation in October 2018 looked like a promising move by AMLO, who was then president elect.

But the process was criticised by experts for being non-binding and failing to meet international standards for public participation - the decision should have been made by the communities whose land was affected by the project, not by the nation as a whole.

Only a few weeks later, the new administration conducted a second consultation regarding another major development project. The results of this consultation did not go the way the 82 potentially affected indigenous communities had hoped.

The construction of the Mayan Train will go ahead despite obvious violations of the international law principle that indigenous peoples must give their free, prior and informed consent to projects which may affect them and their territories.

The construction of the Mayan Train – a train line in the south-east of the country – will go ahead despite obvious violations of the international law principle that indigenous peoples must give their free, prior and informed consent to projects which may affect them and their territories.

Presented by the government as a boost to social and economic development, with due respect for local indigenous cultures, the train also happens to cross five states that are home to major energy projects. The government itself admits that one of the project’s objectives is to allow the energy industry to flourish.

One wonders who will actually benefit from this kind of development. It looks increasingly as if local communities will be sidelined, yet again, by development policies designed to produce massive financial gains for the business and political elite.

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