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February 9, 2022

Mexican Supreme Court Orders Protection of Reefs and Wetlands in Veracruz

Victory: Mexico’s highest court halts a major port expansion project, ruling in favor of community and environmental defenders of the reefs on the Veracruz coast

Contacts

Miranda Fox, Earthjustice, (415) 283-2324

Victor Quintanilla, AIDA, (557) 052-2107

Veracruz, Mexico

Mexico’s Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation ruled unanimously to defend the Veracruz Reef System (SAV) by halting the Port of Veracruz expansion project today. This victory for the residents of Veracruz and beyond will protect the vulnerable reef, home to sea turtles and other critical ecosystems, that is globally recognized as a UNESCO biosphere reserve and Ramsar Wetland of International Importance.

The Court 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."

Earthjustice supported our partners at CEMDA in the injunction that they filed on behalf of the community. This filing argued the port expansion project violated the right to a healthy environment because it did not take into account the best scientific information available or fully evaluate all environmental impacts 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 region," explained Xavier Martínez Esponda, CEMDA's technical operations director.

The 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. The decision indicates that the country’s highest court supports making the environmental principles of prevention and precaution much more ingrained in the decision-making process of infrastructure projects. It signals to authorities and investors that it is more expensive to not completely evaluate their projects with accuracy than to comply in time and form with the Environmental Impact Assessment.

Background

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 Inter-American Association for the Defense of the Environment (AIDA) also delivered a joint amicus brief to the Supreme Court in support of CEMDA’s filing with the court. Guillermo Zuñiga, an attorney with Earthjustice, emphasized that his ties to this reef are important and personal: “I grew up in Veracruz. I am 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.”

Sandra Moguel, AIDA 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.

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 it 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 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.

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