Supreme Court orders protection of Veracruz's reefs and wetlands
Photo: Manuel Victoria.
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9 February 2022
Mexico’s high court unanimously ruled that authorities violated the right to a healthy environment by authorizing the expansion of the Port of Veracruz. Environmental authorities failed to use the best scientific information, analyze the port expansion in a comprehensive manner, and consider all of its impacts. The ruling implies that the project’s approvals are unfounded and that its impacts must be re-evaluated, this time in a comprehensive manner, to determine the viability of the project.
Mexico City, Mexico — On February 9, residents of Veracruz won a victory before the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation in a legal injunction filed to defend the Veracruz Reef System (SAV) and its environmental services against the expansion of the Port of Veracruz.
The justices of the Court unanimously voted in favor of the draft ruling that protects the reefs of Veracruz and transforms the way the Environmental Impact Assessment procedure operates throughout the country. This decision underpins the protection of the right to a healthy environment, and it sets a new precedent that will change the way officials determine how projects are assessed by their environmental impact.
The Court held that "the protection of wetlands is a national and international priority that has led our country to issue a strict regulation of this ecosystem and… any analysis made in relation to wetlands must be guided by a criterion of maximum precaution and prevention."
The ruling pointed out that the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat) violated the right to a healthy environment by authorizing the expansion project of the Port of Veracruz, since "it did not take into account the best scientific information available; it did not analyze or evaluate in a complete manner each one of the different environmental impacts that the project and its modification could cause, in addition to the fact that the project and the works related to it were analyzed in a fragmented manner."
The Supreme Court’s ruling annuls the authorization for the port’s expansion and orders a complete reevaluation of the project’s environmental impacts and determination of the consequent viability of the project.
"CEMDA filed this injunction, together with the community, to protect and contribute to the conservation of the Veracruz Reef System, as well as the reefs and the services they provide, since they are key to the well-being of the people living in the Veracruz-Boca del Río-Medellín conurbation," explained Xavier Martínez Esponda, CEMDA's Operational Director.
The case sets a precedent that will transform the way in which Semarnat and state authorities conduct Environmental Impact Assessments in the country. Martinez Esponda pointed out that, "with this decision, the principles of prevention and precaution will have to become much more ingrained in the decision-making process. Likewise, authorities and investors should learn the lesson that it is more expensive, in all senses, not to present their projects in a complete manner, than to comply in time and form with the Environmental Impact Assessment."
The Veracruz Reef System is a National Park and a wetland of international importance according to the Ramsar Convention. It has great environmental value as the largest reef system in the central region of the Gulf of Mexico. This reef system hosts the greatest biodiversity of species in the western Gulf of Mexico and is also home to several protected species, such as the critically endangered hawksbill turtle. The SAV also helps mitigate the impact of storm surges and hurricanes, which have increased in frequency and intensity as a result of climate change.
The Port of Veracruz expansion project was proposed in the late 1990s and its implementation included plans for new breakwater works, access and navigation channels, land access, terminals, and port facilities. These works will damage reefs and seagrasses in the area, as they will be impacted by the increased sedimentation caused by the construction works.
Due to the importance of the case, international environmental protection organizations supported the process. Earthjustice and the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA) delivered a joint amicus brief to the Supreme Court in support of CEMDA’s filing with the court.
Sandra Moguel, AIDA's attorney, emphasized that "it is not the proximity of a project that determines who are the affected people and who should have access to justice to defend their right to a healthy environment." In its brief, AIDA explains that international law obliges the Mexican government to allow anyone whose fundamental rights are threatened by environmental harm to access judicial remedies, even if their connection to the threatened ecosystem is indirect or remote.
Guillermo Zuñiga, an attorney with Earthjustice, emphasized that his ties to this reef are important and personal: "I grew up in Veracruz. I am a Xalapeño. 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."
Alejandra Serrano Pavón, a lawyer with the international organization Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW), was interested in the case because of the opportunity to encourage the Court to broadly interpret the right to access to justice in defense of the environment. ELAW presented an amicus brief that supported the filing, through which is provided examples from various countries around the world that recognize a broad interpretation of this right, which allows "any civil society organization or, at least residents of a place, to initiate a legal action to protect the environment."
We widely celebrate this decision of the First Chamber of the Supreme Court, and we hope that in the process of executing the judgment, the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources complies with what it has been ordered to do under the highest standard of protection enshrined in the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, known as the Escazú Agreement.