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Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Mexico Supreme Court sets precedent for environmental impact assessments

Environmental activists in Mexico and abroad celebrated the decision, saying it will force the federal environmental authority to conduct assessments in a more holistic manner.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — Mexico’s highest court set a legal precedent Wednesday when it halted the expansion of the Port of Veracruz, citing threats to human rights due to a flawed environmental impact assessment. 

In a unanimous decision, the court ruled the federal environment ministry Semarnat violated Mexican citizens’ human right to a healthy environment when it approved the project’s environmental impact assessment “in a fragmented manner,” according to a statement from the high court..

The flawed assessment “meant that the viability of the whole of the expansion was not assessed correctly, in detriment to the principles of prevention and precaution” outlined in the country’s human rights law and the various international agreements it has signed. 

Environmental activists in Mexico and abroad celebrated the decision, saying it will force the environmental authority to conduct assessments in a more holistic manner.

In a press release Wednesday, the U.S.-based environmental law nonprofit Earthjustice said the ruling “transforms the way the environmental impact assessment procedure operates throughout the country … [and] underpins the protection of the right to a healthy environment.”

Earthjustice attorney and Veracruz native Guillermo Zuñiga hailed the significance of the decision for future generations.

“I grew up in Veracruz. I am [from the town of Xalapa]. That area gave birth to me, and I grew up swimming in the rivers and beaches of Veracruz with my family. I want the children of Veracruz to have the opportunity to enjoy the richness of its biodiversity as I did,” said Zuñiga.

The Mexican Center for Environmental Rights (CEMDA) filed the injunction along with citizens of Veracruz “to protect and contribute to the conservation of the Veracruz Reef System,” said Xavier Martínez Esponda, technical operations director for the group.

The reefs and “the services they provide … are key to the well-being of the people living in the Veracruz-Boca del Río-Medellín region,” said Martínez. 

Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. (National Park Service photo via Courthouse News)

In a joint press release issued with Greenpeace Mexico and the Inter-American Association for the Defense of the Environment (AIDA), the Mexican Center for Environmental Rights called the decision “momentous” and cited the Supreme Court on the consequence that the protection ruling — known as amparo in Mexican law — will have in the future.

The court said the amparo “will allow for the establishment of criteria for future cases that examine the legitimate collective interest and human right of access to a healthy environment, particularly when there is debate over works that, at first glance, can also benefit society or the national economy, as in the case of the expansion of a port.”

Much of the construction on the port’s expansion has already been completed, but Wednesday’s ruling annuls the various environmental permits granted by Semarnat for the project. 

Breaking the environmental impact assessment up into multiple permit applications is how such projects have traditionally avoided complying with environmental laws in Mexico, according to AIDA attorney Sandra Moguel. 

“This wasn’t the first case of this fragmented environmental assessment. This is constantly happening in Mexico,” she said in a phone interview.

“Developers will divide up projects and apply for several different permits — first the desalination plant, for example, then the streets, then the lighting, the dredging, and so forth — and therefore the environmental authority can’t do a complete assessment. Semarnat is aware that this happens, but most often grants permits anyway.”

After Wednesday’s precedent, courts all across Mexico will automatically have to rule in favor of the plaintiff in such cases, annul any permits granted in this fragmented manner, and charge the environmental authority with carrying out a holistic assessment of environmental impact. 

Semarnat must now conduct this holistic assessment of the impact the port’s expansion could have on the Veracruz Reef System, known for the richness of its biodiversity in this part of the Gulf of Mexico. 

The port’s expansion threatens — among other marine life — the endangered hawksbill and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, whose migratory routes have long passed through the waters affected by the construction.

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Categories / Appeals, Environment, Government, International

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