Using FOI Laws in Mexico in Defense of the Environment

14 July 2006

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Environmental groups in Mexico, from the southern state of Chiapas to Coahuila on the U.S. border, are actively using access to information laws to directly impact ecological policies. Their work has shed light on the controversial La Parota Dam project in the state of Guerrero and uncovered irregularities in the administration of water services in the city of Saltillo.

Over twenty prominent members of the environmental community in Mexico shared their experiences in the June 26 workshop Documents in Action: How to Use Freedom of Information Laws in Defense of the Environment, an event organized by the National Security Archive and Mexican NGO Presencia Ciudadana and held in Mexico City. The objective of the workshop was to give non-governmental organizations the tools they need to transform new transparency laws into effective instruments for solving problems related to environmental work. Financial support for the seminar came from the Hewlett Foundation.

Participants of the event shared their expertise using the Mexican Federal Law of Transparency and Access to Public Government Information (LFTAIPG) and other access laws at the state and municipal level. Other participants included Aaron Colangelo from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Javier Apellaniz from the SEMARNAT (Mexican Environmental Agency), Maura Lievano from the Mexican Federal Institute for Access to Public Information (IFAI), Mayli Sepulveda from Programa Comunidades, and Jose Manuel Gil from the Institute of Access to Public Information of the State of Coahuila (Instituto Coahuilense de Acceso a la Información Pública).

Aaron Colangelo described cases in which the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) had proved successful. He explained how the NRDC had obtained information relating to the presence of the pollutant perchlorate (a key ingredient of rocket fuel) in water basins in practically every state in the U.S. The documents obtained by his organization contained alarming evidence about the magnitude of this problem and its impact on public health.

Javier Apellaniz, Director of Access to Public Information of the SEMARNAT offered an evaluation of LFTAIPG from the perspective of his agency. Apellaniz underlined the importance of having adequate access to archives, and pointed out that the people’s opportunity to exercise their right to information should be encouraged. Echoing what Isabel Bustillos from Presencia Ciudadana had stated in a previous presentation, Apellaniz emphasized the need for wider dissemination of the right to know and additional training on how to use existing laws.

During the second part of the program, environmental groups from various regions of Mexico presented successful cases in which access to information laws have impacted society. Priscila Bribiesca from the Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental (CEMDA) gave an eloquent presentation about the use of official documents in the case of the La Parota Dam in the state of Guerrero. CEMDA obtained documents from the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) on the project that were contradictory to the reality on the ground.

Frine Salguero from Presencia Ciudadana presented an audit of the Mexican Federal Law of Transparency and Access to Public Government Information (LFTAIPG). Their conclusions show that 82% of requests were answered in a timely fashion. According to Salguero, 42% of these responses were not satisfactory, since in many cases the authority claimed that the information requested did not exist and in other cases the government’s reply was not responsive to the request.

Raquel Gutierrez from the Instituto de Derecho Ambiental of Jalisco talked about her experience requesting documents about the Arcediano Dam, a project that would supply drinking water to the city of Guadalajara. Information obtained by her organization showed that the quality of the water that would feed the dam was unsuitable for human consumption.

Miguel Angel Garcia from Maderas del Pueblo of Chiapas presented the case of a sewage project in Cintalapa, a community located inside the natural reserve of Montes Azules, which negatively impacted neighboring Lacanja Tseltal. Responses to information requests showed that the water treatment system was not properly designed. As a result, the project was halted and the authorities publicly acknowledged that changes had to be made to ensure water was properly treated before it reached the Lacantun river. Unfortunately, some households of Cintalapa are illegally using the sewage system polluting the water resources of Lacanja Tseltal.

Manuel Gil from the Instituto Coahuilense de Acceso a la Información Pública talked about a successful case in which citizens used the federal, state and municipal laws in Saltillo, the capital of the state of Coahuila. Information requests showed that Aguas de Saltillo had overcharged 132 customers. Customers were later reimbursed and the company had to pay a fine of 1.6 million pesos.

The agenda, list of participants and supporting material of each of the different presenters can be found on this website.

Workshop Materials

Agenda

Participants

Handout: Puntos a Considerar al Realizar una Solicitud de Información

PowerPoint Slides



By Emilene Martinez-Morales for freedominfo.org

Transparency Programs Coordinator, Mexico Project, National Security Archive, George Washington University

Special thanks to Tamara Feinstein and Jesse Franzblau for editorial assistance

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