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The work that threatens Xochimilco, the last wetland in Mexico City


When Claudia Sheinbaum took over the reins of the Government of the capital of Mexico, ecologists and environmentalists celebrated the victory. A scientist who was part of the UN panel of experts on climate change (IPCC) would drive the much-needed transformation of the congested and polluted megalopolis. Or so they thought.

In February 2019, three months after taking office, the head of Government announced a plan that was in direct conflict with that idea: the construction of a six-lane bridge that will destroy at least three hectares of the Xochimilco wetland, an area crucial for the resilience of the city due to its role as a water and temperature regulator.

The work had already been planned in the last two administrations of the city, but fell on deaf ears because the area has multiple protection tools. Was declared Heritage of humanity by unesco in 1987, he joined the Ramsar list of wetlands of international relevance in 2004 and has been a Protected Natural Area (ANP) of Mexico since 1992. In fact, the management program of that ANP specifically prohibits any infrastructure work. It also does not allow the felling of trees, but the project contemplates cutting down more than 650.

“All these mechanisms should help us protect these areas against speculation,” laments Luis Zambrano, PhD in Biology from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), who has dedicated a good part of his life to protecting the axolotl, one of the the endemic species of the wetland. “If all this goes through the Arc de Triomphe, everything is in danger.”

The city authorities awarded the work in August 2019 for 680 million pesos (30 million dollars). One month after, modified local regulations to streamline the environmental impact assessment process for all public works. If before that procedure had involved an exhaustive review by the Ministry of the Environment that could take months, with the change they obtained authorization in two weeks. With the road clear, construction began in February this year.

The main argument used by the authorities to justify the project is that the area where the bridge will be built is already degraded. In the early 1990s, the capital’s largest expressway, Periférico, was widened and passed over the wetland.

To mitigate the impact of the work, the city administration then decided to separate the two directions of the road and leave a median with a wetland that would allow the passage of fauna and maintain the flow of water between one side and the other. That median is the one that is being destroyed now to raise the six lanes of the bridge. EL PAÍS requested an interview with the person in charge of environmental impact assessment of the local Ministry of the Environment but received no response.

What most worries academics and environmentalists is that this elevated road almost two kilometers long is going to divide Xochimilco in two. “This fragmentation would condemn the northern area, which is the smallest and most under pressure for urbanization, to disappear,” reads a study by the UNAM’s Ecological Restoration Laboratory.

The opposition to the bridge has not been slow to be heard. On March 15, dozens of people closed Periférico at the height of the works shouting “Yes to the wetland, no to ecocide.” A week earlier, an activist from the Xochimilco Vivo organization rebuked Sheinbaum for being “destroying a Protected Natural Area”, to which she replied that “that is no longer a Protected Natural Area.” The very information of the Ministry of the Environment indicates otherwise.

The last show of force was made by a group of indigenous peoples of Xochimilco. May 7 they filed an amparo claiming that the construction of the bridge will put present and future generations at risk because it will damage an area crucial to counteract the effects of climate change in the city. A federal judge admitted the amparo.

A long legal battle awaits ahead on which the survival of this wetland will depend, the last remnant of what was once the great group of lakes in the Valley of Mexico.


elpais.com