21 February 2009

On third anniversary, mine tragedy political

Grupo México protest banner

The News

Unionized miners marked the third anniversary of a mine disaster that claimed 65 lives with a boisterous rally at union headquarters in Mexico City in support of their exiled leader, who is wanted on fraud and embezzlement charges.

On the other side of the capital, a group of widows and relatives of the deceased miners, along with social activists, also gathered on Thursday. But instead of spewing acerbic denunciations, they celebrated a Mass outside the corporate offices of Grupo México, owner of the ill-fated Pasta de Conchos coal mine, which blew up during the early morning hours of Feb. 19, 2006. Another group of relatives also celebrated Mass at the mine in San Juan de Sabinas, Coahuila.

Still, the sentiments expressed by the union and those at the Masses were similar.

"This is the murder of miners," mining union boss Napoleón Gómez Urrutia said from Vancouver, where he has resided for more than two years to avoid apprehension on charges pertaining to the alleged mismanagement of a union trust fund. "Never again will there be another Pasta de Conchos. Never again will they play with the health and lives of miners."

Outside the Grupo México offices in Polanco, Bishop Raúl Vera of Saltillo promised, "We're going to throw [Grupo México president] Germán Larrea out of here," pointing to the office tower.

The union, family members and church-affiliated activists working with relatives of the deceased all demand the same things: The retrieval of 63 bodies still trapped in the mine and a more thorough investigation into the actions of Grupo México. (The company has paid each family 750,000 pesos in compensation. No guilt was admitted.)

Their tactics differ radically, however - and mistrust between the two groups is mutual. A group of family members affiliated with the Diocese of Saltillo and the labor ministry of the Mexican Bishops' Conference accuse the union of only showing interest in Pasta de Conchos as a means of attacking Grupo México and opposing apprehension orders against Gómez Urrutia.

"The only rescue that the union wants is the rescue of Napoleón Gómez," said Cristina Auerbach, a lawyer with the labor ministry of the Mexican bishops' conference. She also expressed skepticism of the union's recent promotion of worker safety. Union officials availed the safety of Pasta de Conchos just 12 days before the disaster.
"Of course there's concern on the part of the mining union for its workers after Pasta de Conchos, but that doesn't excuse their prior responsibilities," she said.

At least one widow, Rosa María Mejía, backed the union leader Thursday. "Napoleón Gómez has always been at our side," she said. But she also reiterated that the pain and frustration of all the widows and relatives of the victims was first and foremost.

"It's a wound that is still open and will only be closed when the bodies of the miners are returned to us," she said.

13 February 2009

Cabinet secretary accuses former president

The News

A Cabinet member on Thursday confirmed that it was indeed his voice on a recording that revealed him saying that a former president had stolen half of the budget of a now-defunct federal fund, but that he has no proof to back up what he had said.

In tape conversation released Thursday on a radio morning show, Communications and Transportation Secretary Luis Téllez said that former President Carlos Salinas took half of the "partida secreta," a budgetary allotment that could be spent at the president's discretion.

"What appears on the tape is what I said to a group of friends at a casual meal, and I said it in an improper manner since I didn't have any thing to support it," Tellez said at a Thursday press conference.

"I have never had any evidence of illicit actions by former President Carlos Salinas."

Téllez added that he had been threatened with the prospect of the comments being made public by a journalist he did not name, who had wanted his cooperation on a book project. The journalist was identified by media outlets as Diana Pando.

On the tape, Téllez can reportedly be heard saying: "In the case of Salinas, half of the secret account was stolen. He did many things. [Former President José] López Portillo wrecked the country, [and] at the end, Salinas [did] too."

The revelations sparked outrage and indignation in Congress on Thursday. Some lawmakers demanded that Téllez resign, or at least take leave until an investigation has been carried out. Others spoke sarcastically of the secretary's past as a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

"Téllez knows a lot, without any doubt, said Javier González Garza, the leader of the Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, in the Chamber of Deputies. "Do you think that [the fund] was robbed? I believe so."

The PRD has alleged that Salinas stole the 1988 election from them and that the former president carried out a persecution campaign against the PRD around that time. Téllez served as an agriculture undersecretary in the Salinas administration, and was later campaign coordinator in 1994 for then-presidential candidate Ernesto Zedillo. He subsequently served as an advisor to Zedillo in Los Pinos and later as Energy Secretary.

Some analysts describe relations between the Salinas and Zedillo camps as strained.

"Salinas will look on [the tape] as another betrayal by the Zedillo clan," said ITAM political science professor Federico Estévez.

"Téllez would have been in a position to know … what the finances were during the last year of the Salinas administration," he said.

08 February 2009

Rising from ruin

submerged swingset

The News

CHAPALA, Jal. - The Titanic sets sail from the main pier in this municipality on the north shore of the country's largest lake, taking passengers on excursions to nearby Scorpion Island.

But earlier this decade, boarding the 12-person "lancha" - as such boats are locally known - wasn't easy. A precipitous decline in Lake Chapala's water level left the shoreline far away from the pier. Passengers had to board buses just to reach the departure point. Few bothered to show up, recalls Titanic captain Ramón Montes.

Today, however, he says he's making more trips than ever - at 200 pesos a boatload - thanks to a recovery in Lake Chapala's water level.

"There are at least 10 times as many passengers as there were six years ago," he said while docking at the Chapala pier. Within five minutes, his lancha filled up, and he was off to Scorpion Island again.

Six years ago, Lake Chapala was drying up - the lake's volume had receded to less than 20 percent of its capacity. The situation was so serious that some locals feared the level would never completely return to normal. Some in the ex-pat population fretted about low water levels hurting local property values; others who work in tourism and fishing figured their livelihoods would never bounce back.

"All you'd ever hear was that [Lake] Chapala is dying," said innkeeper Michael Eager, whose family runs La Nueva Posada in Ajijic, a village in the Lake Chapala area.

But some refused to give up on their lake. A local advocacy group organized events such as "hands around the lake," participated in forums and raised awareness. Politicians, too, promised action - in 2006, presidential candidates Felipe Calderón and Andrés Manuel López Obrador said that they would save the lake - but little concrete action was taken. That fueled conspiracy theories of unscrupulous politicians deliberately starving the lake to make other public works projects more saleable.

Other residents ignored politician's promises, and looked instead to divine intervention. Local Catholics pleaded with a revered local religious icon to save the lake; the indigenous Huichol, who consider Scorpion Island the southernmost point of their territory, said one of their gods was angry.

Then, almost serendipitously, the lake started filling up. In 2003, the water level climbed more than three meters during the annual rainy season. It continued climbing in subsequent rainy seasons, as upstream dams were unable to hoard any more water and spilled excess toward Lake Chapala. In 2008 alone, the water level rose more than two meters and swelled to more than 80 percent of full capacity.


Locals haven't forgotten just how grim the Lake Chapala situation was just a decade ago.

With the shoreline receding, farmers invaded the dried-up lake bed, using the land to plant crops ranging from agave to zucchinis. They built fences around their fields and dug wells. Some even raised cattle on what once was lake. Locals still tell stories of baseball diamonds, racetracks and playgrounds being built.

The number of tourist visits also dropped along with the water level, especially in the town of Chapala, located 40 kilometers south of Guadalajara.

"The lake was completely forgotten," said Eager, whose business is now usually full of customers from the Guadalajara area.

Extreme fluctuations in water levels are nothing new for Lake Chapala, which is mainly fed by the Lerma River. The most recent crisis was not even the worst fluctuation, according to the National Water Commission, or Conagua. The water level dropped to barely 17 percent of its normal capacity in 1955. But just three years later, it recovered to the point that water splashed over the Chapala pier and flooded the local parish, famed for its twin spires.

"There have always been ups and downs," said Eugenio García, Conagua spokesman in Guadalajara. "When the Chapala [water levels] fall, it's due to hydrological cycles."

Environmental groups and scientists partially agree, but they blame many of the lake's woes on issues beyond capricious weather patterns.

Unseemly political maneuvering by Jalisco and federal lawmakers is one bone of contention, as is water management along the Lerma River, which flows from the State of Mexico through five states before emptying into Lake Chapala.

Problems upstream in the water basin are said to be rife. Agricultural and industrial users have been accused of having priority over those who live downstream in the villages by Lake Chapala. Upstream farmers are said to withdraw vast quantities of water for irrigating crops that include corn, sorghum and strawberries, while agricultural runoff pollutes the river. Discharge from industrial operations in the State of Mexico and Guanajuato - home to a refinery - add to the contamination, say environmental groups and scientists.

(Pemex says its Guanajuato refinery is no longer polluting the Lerma River.)

Further complicating matters, they say that more than 3,000 dams in the basin were hoarding water, mainly for agricultural users. State and local governments have also bickered over sharing water.

But García said the upstream situation changed earlier this decade with the signing of a water-sharing agreement by the federal government and the governors of the State of Mexico, Querétaro, Guanajuato, Michoacán and Jalisco.

In years prior, García said that the dams would routinely hold back any additional water beyond the amount that had been authorized by Conagua, but the new agreement mandates that any excess be sent onward toward Chapala.

Still, many academics and environmental groups dismiss the government's role in rescuing Lake Chapala. Some say that the main Lerma River dams were filled, and thus couldn't hoard any more of the runoff from heavy precipitation in the basin.

"It was nothing more than heavy rains," said Alicia Córdova, an adviser to Amigos del Lago, a lake advocacy group. "There were [water-sharing] agreements, but they weren't respected."

The University of Guadalajara's Manuel Guzmán, one of the foremost experts on Lake Chapala, blames the recent water-level problems on politicians attempting to create an "artificial crisis." Guzmán alleges that the Jalisco and federal governments attempted to starve Lake Chapala of water so that a new dam on the Santiago River - which drains the lake - could be built to supply the Guadalajara area with a more dependable source of drinking water. (The Guadalajara metropolitan area depends on Lake Chapala for most of its drinking water.)

"In 2000 and 2002 there were ... torrential rains for filling the lake, but the water wasn't allowed to reach Lake Chapala," he said, adding that recovery only really began after uncertainty over the construction of the dam diminished.


Whatever the exact reasons for the rebound, the rise in water levels caught many by surprise. The water level rose so quickly in 2008 that farmers reportedly tried using canoes to salvage their floating crops. One ejido to the east of Chapala had 400 hectares of farmland swallowed by the rising waters. In the community of San Juan Cosala, parts of a new waterfront development built by the municipal government - but built too low - were flooded out.

The rising water also flooded out a soccer pitch and playground near the Ajijic shoreline, where fisherman Toño López docks his boat. Today, goalposts, a swing set and several trees poke out from the water. Farmers who grew crops on the lake bed were also flooded out.

López has no idea where the farmers who swooped in when water levels declined originally came from, or where they went. But he vividly recalls them trying to board canoes last summer in an attempt to salvage their suddenly waterlogged crops. "The rising water completely caught them by surprise," he said.

López said underwater obstacles - fence posts and barbwire left by the farmers, for instance - still present boating hazards. But he's not complaining; he's more than doubled his daily catch of "tilapia" and "charales."

Like many in the area, he once thought the source of his livelihood was going to disappear.

"No one knew if the water would return - only God," he said.

The religious groups who once pleaded for divine intervention certainly credit what they asked for.

Catholics in the area are currently contemplating honoring the Virgin of Zapopan with the title "Queen of Lake Chapala" for answering their prayers. The Huichols, meanwhile, regularly return for ceremonies at their sacred body of water.

But some residents remain cautious about Lake Chapala's comeback. Córdova, the Amigos del Lago adviser, said that pollution in the lake remains a serious concern, for instance.

"There are still many challenges," she said.

06 February 2009

Tomato King, R.I.P.

Cancer claims politician known as 'Tomato King'

The News

Andrés Bermúdez Viramontes, a federal deputy from Zacatecas and millionaire inventor best known as the "Tomato King," died of cancer Thursday at age 58.

The Chamber of Deputies honored the Tomato King with the lusty shout, "Tiempo!" ("time"), a tribute to one of the country's less sophisticated politicians who was known for hollering during legislative sessions, refusing to remove his cowboy hat and picking his nose in public.

"This singular person from our legislature generated a memory in each and every one of us," Chamber of Deputies Speaker César Duarte said.

The Tomato King created many memories during nearly a decade in Mexican politics, perhaps nowhere more so than in Zacatecas and his hometown of Jerez, a tidy burg in the central highlands.


In the mid-1970s, Bermúdez left his hometown of Jerez with his pregnant wife and stole across the U.S. border in the trunk of a car. Bermúdez soon found work in a Los Angeles suitcase factory but hated it and headed for California's fields. It was there that he would strike it rich, inventing a tomato-planting device.

He never forgot Jerez, however. He returned in 2001 and successfully ran for mayor under the banner of the Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD. But he never took office; state electoral officials ruled that he failed to meet residency requirements.

Undeterred, Bermúdez successfully lobbied for a change in the state electoral laws. His proposal was popular in Zacatecas, which is said to have more former residents living in Los Angeles than it does Zacatecanos in the state capital.

In 2004, Bermúdez ran for mayor again, but this time with the National Action Party, or PAN. (The PRD opted against nominating him.) He won again in a victory hailed by many political observers as the beginning of a wave of migrants-made-good who would return with money and north-of-the-border sensibilities.

Bermúdez promised to turn Jerez into a little United States and "get the scoundrels out of city hall," according to some locals.

But soon, critics emerged. Some said he fell into the same vices of his predecessors. Rumors surfaced that he had traded prostitutes for votes, was packing City Hall with relatives and threatening journalists. One local politician even alleged that Bermúdez won the election by promising to sow the fields with tomatoes.

Bermúdez failed to finish his term - but of his own accord, not because of the rumors.

He successfully ran for the Chamber of Deputies, where he quickly captured attention for his attire - as a tribute to a deceased relative, he always wore black cowboy clothing, a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and thick gold chains - and colorful outbursts.

In one particularly sarcastic bite, he promised to take skeptics of the legitimacy of the 2006 election outcome to Disneyland "so that they can fulfill their dreams and declare Andrés Ma- nuel López Obrador or Mickey Mouse president ... whoever they want."

The Tomato King - he never abandoned the handle, even in Congress - served as president of the Population, Border and Migration Matters Committee, but was never fully embraced by the PAN. His candor and off-the-cuff style made him a liability in the eyes of some party officials.

But the clothing, comments and uncouth gestures were all what helped make the Tomato King an unforgettable figure.

04 February 2009

Parties make big promises as Congress gets under way

Old PRI propaganda

The News

Congress on Wednesday returns for its final session before the July 5 midterm elections, when the entire 500-member Chamber of Deputies is scheduled to be renewed.

In the upcoming session, the National Action Party, or PAN, has promsed to focus on public security, the economy and credit card interest rates. The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, says it will fight for the "family economy" by freezing prices and introducing tax deductions. And the Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, says it will propose an "emergency" law that would allow the federal government to spend money more easily, as well as push austerity measures like slashing lawmakers' salaries.

But the final session before the midterm elections seldom produces much in terms of meaningful legislation, analysts say. Deputies in the lower house - none of whom can seek re-election - often take leave to seek other elected posts.

This year is unlikely to be much different, analysts say, as most of the legislative agendas currently outlined by the eight registered parties focus on retail politics -and in some cases, veer toward populism. In some cases, parties are championing issues with little prospect of being approved. (The Green Party, for instance, is on a crusade to reintroduce the death penalty.)

"I expect to see a lot of grandstanding," ITAM political science professor Federico Estévez said.

But Estévez did admit that the economic crisis might spur cooperation that usually doesn't exist in the lead up to federal elections.

The PAN's congressional leaders have emphasized the importance of continuing with economic and security measures left unfinished during the last session.

The PAN's coordinator in the Chamber of Deputies, Héctor Larios, said his lawmakers will push for overhauls to laws regarding acquisitions, public works and expropriations. The overhauls, he said, will allow the government to more quickly build roads, prisons, schools and hospitals called for in the infrastructure programs presented by President Felipe Calderón as a means of pulling the country out of crisis.

"If we don't [spend] rapidly . then government action is going to be much less effective," Larios said while in Chiapas this week.

Other PAN goals include passing reforms to the Attorney General's Office, or PGR, creating a new federal police corps, and passing a law that targets the finances of organized crime.

PAN Senate leader Gustavo Madero emphasized that his party would also target banking practices considered to be predatory, particularly those concerning credit cards.

The PRI pitched various populist proposals on Tuesday, including the sanctioning of those who hang "narcomantas," or banners with threatening, drug-crime related messages. The party also stole a page from the books of several state legislatures, urging that those who sing "narcocorridos," or drug ballads, be punished. Other PRI proposals for improving public safety include a new federal kidnapping law, although a constitutional provision still must be approved by 16 state legislatures before Congress can begin work on that issue.

PRI lawmakers also said Tuesday that they would push for a reduction in the price of diesel and electricity, make payments for medicine tax deductible, and encourage the federal government to present a labor reform package.

The PRI lawmakers offered few details, but said that after achieving the approval of an energy reform package last year, labor reform would be passable before the session ends.

PRD lawmakers have backed the idea of tackling labor reform. But they want it to target opacity in organizations like the heavily PRI oil workers' union and the SNTE teachers union, which has worked closely with Calderón.

"If [reforms address] the democratization of union organizations, transparency, and the electoral process inside these organizations, we'll certainly go for it," PRD Sen. Tómas Torres said.

The PRD will also present an alternative economic crisis plan.

Critics seek to fell gov't tree program


The News

The federal government launched ProArbol amid much fanfare back in January 2007. Through this ambitious program, the country would replant hundreds of millions of trees, reverse environmental degradation and arrest rampant deforestation. ProArbol also promised to pull some of the country's most marginalized communities out of poverty.

But two years on, the program is under fire. ProArbol is plagued by corruption, poor planning and a dismal success rate, according to studies by Greenpeace México and recent investigations by the newspaper El Universal.

The recent scandalous headlines and allegations of mismanagement and failure are a strict departure from the praise given to President Felipe Calderón for his environmental initiatives in the past two years. He has won U.N. recognition for spearheading reforestation efforts and has been lauded for his initiative to help developing nations confront global warming. He has used ProArbol to further burnish those green credentials.

Still, while environmental activists, woodcutters' groups and opposition politicians offer damning criticism of ProArbol and the president's environmental record, others - forestry experts among them - are calling for patience before passing judgment. They still defend the program as a sincere attempt to overcome decades of neglect and mismanagement of the nation's forests.

"It's a program with good objectives," said José María Chávez Anaya, a forestry professor at the University of Guadalajara. "But we can't say that something is successful [or not] when it's only the first or second year."

Officials have largely remained silent in the face of the allegations, which broke in January. But Environment Secretary Juan Rafael Elvira Quesada, for one, has disputed many of Greenpeace's assessments.

ProArbol is more than just a reforestation program, he argues, as it includes conservation and anti-poverty objectives.

"It's been [called] a reforestation program, but that's not what it is. It's a general environmental protection program," he told El Universal recently. "It's a social development instrument that tries to preserve the environment."

The Greenpeace report on ProArbol's early results paint a grim picture. The group alleges that 90 percent of the more than 289.6 million trees planted in 2007 have already died. And some 56 percent of the trees planted under the auspices of ProArbol were actually not trees, but included species such as cactus, agave and maguey, Greenpeace says. The environmental group also alleges that species not native to Mexico have been planted.

El Universal - which titled one of its stories, "Green corruption in Chiapas" - profiled an impoverished village in the southern state, where local woodcutters said that ProArbol funds could not be accounted for. The federal Comptroller, the paper reported, had launched an investigation into the misappropriation of funds.

Politicians have since jumped on the issue, calling for an account from ProArbol administrators. They also revived longstanding allegations that the governing National Action Party is using the program - among other anti-poverty measures - to build up rural support bases.

"Support arrives in a partial manner . and isn't supporting the presented projects in a way that's transparent or uniform," Democratic Revolution Party Sen. Rubén Velázquez told The News.

Others in the forestry industry have their own gripes with ProArbol. Gustavo Sánchez, president of the Mexican Network of Campesino Forest Organizations, or Red Mocaf, believes the program has failed to live up to its promise and fails to offer enough new initiatives to those who make a living through small logging operations.

"What ProArbol does is take all of the resources that previously existed and put them all in one bag. It's presented as a new program, but in reality, it's a messy sum of programs that already existed," he said. "There are almost no new components [to] ProArbol . only the name."

Red Mocaf also alleges that groups who receive funding from Conafor have gotten preferential treatment from ProArbol - violating laws regarding government programs.


ProArbol is hardly the first federal attempt at reforestation and forest preservation. During the regime of then-President Porfirio Díaz in the early 1900s, Miguel Angel Quevedo founded the Viveros de Coyoacán, one of many nurseries that would produce millions of seedlings. Known as the "Tree Apostle," Quevedo later had small forests planted near railroad stations across the country and founded the Mexico Forest Society.

Later efforts have been described with less romanticism by forestry experts, who say that reforestation attempts over the past 50 years have been plagued by a lack of planning, little monitoring of reforested areas and the introduction of exotic species.

Federal enthusiasm for tree planting has also ebbed and flowed. In 1992, then-President Carlos Salinas launched "Forest Solidarity," which focused on urban and suburban forests. From 1998 to 2000, some 283 million trees - 70 percent of which were native species - were planted annually during the administration of Ernesto Zedillo, according to Julia Carabias, an UNAM biology professor and environment secretary at the time.

She argues that inconsistent government action is a key problem. "The lack of continuity in the reforestation programs has not permitted the consolidation of a true, long-term policy of environmental restoration," she wrote in a recent column in Reforma.

Indeed, deforestation continued unabated in the decades leading up to ProArbol's launch. Mexico ranks fifth in terms of annual deforestation, according to the United Nations, and loses an estimated 360,000 hectares of forested area each year due to illegal logging, development, forest fires and the felling of trees to make way for farms and ranches. Between 1976 and 1993, the country lost forested areas equivalent to the area of Guanajuato state, according to Chávez Anaya. By 2000, it had lost another forested area about the size of Campeche.

But experts attribute reforestation difficulties to factors that go beyond corruptions and ineptness. Restoration, they say, is complicated for various reasons.

For one, Mexico's forests boast incredible diversity. The landscape ranges from jungles and mangroves to hills covered with pines, cloud forests and even groves of maple trees. There are 170 kinds of oaks native to Mexico - the richest diversity of any country - said Dante Rodríguez Trejo, a forestry professor at the Universidad Autónoma Chapingo in Texcoco, State of Mexico.

"It's a very complex country," said the specialist in forest fires who has studied parts of the ProArbol program for the National Forest Commission, or Conafor.

ProArbol oversees the planting of 52 types of trees. Ninety-four percent of the seedlings are native species. ProArbol also oversees the planting of the many non-trees that are a point of contention with Greenpeace and are included in the program's reforestation numbers.

Rodríguez Trejo defended the planting of non-trees, saying that plants such as cactus, agave and maguey are ideal for arid parts of the country, help rebuild soil and prevent erosion and can be harvested for commercial purposes. "It's very important to have different plants for different situations," he said.

Many experts also laud ProArbol - as well as federal programs such as Zero Tolerance, which combats illegal logging - for attempting to preserve the country's forests as well as planting new trees. ProArbol equips and funds teams of rapid-response firefighters on ejidos, or communal properties, and indigenous communities.

In a study for Conafor, Rodríguez Trejo found that for every peso invested in the 288 rapid-response teams, the federal government saved 166 pesos, primarily in loss prevention. For every hectare charred by blazes, another 13.4 hectares were saved.

Still, Rodríguez Trejo expressed some caution over the fact that trees are being planted at such a blistering pace. "Although it's well-intentioned to plant a lot of trees, [it might be better] to plant less, [and] try to take better care of what's reforested," he said.

Defenders of the program like to cite a recently released study from the Colegio de Postgraduados in Texcoco, which found that the survival rate of trees planted through ProArbol in 2007 was 57.6 percent. Carabias noted the study in her column. "I consider ProArbol to be the best integrated program in forest management to come out of the public sector," she wrote.


On the ground, in the nation's wooded areas, critics of ProArbol and federal tree-planting efforts and forestry policies are making themselves heard.

Gina Uribe, a founder of the NGO Fuerza Ambiental, works on reforestation and creek bed restoration projects in Chihuahua. In the ejidos and small communities where she works, planning is often lacking, Uribe said. Planting sometimes occurs toward the end of the rainy season, giving the seedlings a diminished chance of survival; seedlings also arrive from Conafor nurseries located in desert regions - in other words, transplanted to different microclimates - which jeopardizes survival rates, she said.

Perhaps most disappointing for Uribe, the authorities "haven't managed to integrate the program into the communities."

Sánchez, of Red Mocaf, expressed similar frustrations. But, he acknowledged, "There were high expectations in the beginning."

His hopes faded as members of his group - which mainly represents small woodcutters and promotes sustainable forestry - began complaining of ProArbol shortcomings. Costs for transactions were high, they had to wait more than a year for the program to deliver payment for services rendered and getting anything done required wading through endless red tape. Some Red Mocaf members, Sánchez said, now prefer to enroll in agriculture programs, which can be more profitable and involve less bureaucracy.

And, like Uribe, he also finds fault with the lack of community integration on the part of ProArbol. "A problem is that [often] they're going to try reforestation in areas where people aren't sold on [the idea]," Sánchez said. "It's [often] not their plan. Someone from the government comes and wants to plant what they want, but [locals] don't have the time or money to take care of the trees. [Reforestation] works when it's in a community that already has a culture of forest management because [people] already know the benefits."

Some of ProArbol's anti-poverty objectives also bother Red Mocaf members. Sánchez said that changes in forest management policies - making permits easier to obtain, for instance - would do more to alleviate poverty. "In the medium term, if you develop a scheme of sustainable forest development, you're contributing to the reduction of poverty," he said.


It remains to be seen whether the outcry over the Greenpeace and El Universal report manage to fell ProArbol entirely. Attempts to obtain comment from Conafor, which oversees ProArbol, were unsuccessful.

Calderón still regularly highlights ProArbol as a pillar of his anti-poverty measures. And he has gained political mileage out of his administration's reforestation efforts. The United Nations Environment Programme recognized Calderón and the "Mexican people" on World Environment Day 2008 for showing "global leadership" and planting 250 million trees in 2007. Calderón himself even planted the 250 millionth tree - a rare blue pine - on Dec. 23, 2007.

Elvira Quesada, the environment secretary, vehemently denied that the program had any political ends and told El Universal it had been audited at least 100 times. He also acknowledged the enormous challenges that ProArbol faces. "In the reforestation process, we're restoring what we lost in past decades," he told the daily.

Optimistic experts like Rodríguez Trejo of the Universidad Autónoma Chapingo, too, are adamant that it is too early to write the program off.

"It's a titanic job. We still haven't offset commercial [logging] with reforestation and restoration, we still haven't offset the rate of deforestation that we have," he said. "In three years, there's going to be a completely different picture."