This article explores how state policies and legislation of successive Mexican governments in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sought to curb rapid deforestation by fostering the energy transition to fossil fuels (coal and oil) in industrializing regions of the country such as the Valley of Mexico and Monterrey.
|Anthracite coal breaker and power house buildings, |
Madrid, Mexico, circa 1935
In the 1850s, both conservative and liberal governments in Mexico took an interest in forest conservation. In 1854, during General López de Santa Anna’s conservative administration, the recently created Ministry of Development (Ministerio de Fomento) asked mining districts nationwide for information about the extension and characteristics of the forests being logged for mining. The government agency also inquired about local regulations governing forest exploitation and reforestation efforts. In 1857 the new liberal government, despite ongoing military challenges from conservatives, sent a memorandum encouraging state governments to enact legislation protecting forests. In typical fashion for Mexican liberals, the government not only delegated the responsibility to local authorities but also made clear that conservation measures should not interfere with the timber needs of industries and mines.
Calls for forest conservation became more common in the 1860s. Key institutional actors in Mexican science, such as the Mexican Society of Geography and Statistics (Sociedad Mexicana de Geografía y Estadística), began publishing significant work on forest conservation. In one editorial, the editors of the Boletín (the society’s publication) expressed alarm over rapid forest loss. Like Río de la Loza, they blamed factory owners and the indigenous population, who “cut and destroy their only patrimony,” although they also criticized owners of large estates (hacendados). The journal also published the work by conservationists such as Romero Gil, who drew from Alexander von Humboldt and Mexican mining engineers to argue that forests prevented drought and fostered human health. In one article, Gil offered an overview of earlier forest legislation and called for reviving provisions from colonial forest laws, particularly those relating to coppicing (horca y pendón). In an effort to inspire analysis and discussion of earlier legislation, the Boletín reprinted an 1845 Mexican forest code, one of the first issued in independent Mexico.
As coal production increased, it became clear to state officials that Mexico needed a modern legal framework to facilitate and regulate coal extraction. A heated debate broke out between those who argued that coal deposits ultimately belonged to the nation (following the tradition of the colonial mining ordinance, Ordenanzas de Minería) and those who defended the preeminence of private property rights. To a degree, the controversy was rooted in confusion over the natural composition of coal and other fossil fuels. For some experts, and seemingly many laypeople, the organic origins of coal and oil made them nonmineral. Critics of this position posited that although both were organic in origin, they had been formed by geologic nonorganic processes, thus qualifying them as minerals. Most experts agreed and considered both coal and oil as “fossil fuels” (combustibles fósiles). As such, coal and oil should fall under the old colonial tradition of state ownership that only governed minerals.
The matter was settled in 1884 when the federal government enacted a new mining code. The code’s authors were mostly interested in creating suitable conditions for Mexico’s industrialization and were perfectly aware that a key component of the project was the large-scale adoption of fossil fuels for industrial power. The new code recognized coal and oil as minerals (as under colonial law) but gave private owners full property rights to surface and subsoil mineral wealth. Thus the Mexican state relinquished its claim to being the ultimate proprietor of subsoil commodities, including coal and oil, and declared that private landowners could exploit those deposits without prior government authorization. The code also sought to stimulate coal and iron mining by exempting both from taxes for fifty years. It is important to note that scholars have often interpreted the mining code of 1884 as an attempt to attract foreign investment, overlooking its long-term effects on Mexico’s energy transition to fossil fuels. The code not only regulated the fossil fuel market; it created it. Beyond spontaneous market processes, it was lawmaking—that ultimate tool of politics and policymaking—that proved instrumental in Mexico’s transition to fossil fuels. The code remained the main legal framework for the coal and oil industry until the enactment of the Constitution of 1917.