Asserting long-standing but disregarded environmental protection legislation, Gustavo Alanis presents the Mexican citizen sector, government, industry, and everyday citizens with the tools and training to get involved, clean up, and protect the natural resources of Mexico.

This profile below was prepared when Gustavo Alanis was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003.
Gustavo Alanís brinda herramientas y entrenamiento a la sociedad civil para que se involucre, y proteja los recursos naturales de  México. Su estrategia abarca la formación y el litigio, promueve la responsabilidad corporativa y la justicia ambiental. Para asegurar la aplicación de las leyes ambientales mexicanas, fundó en 1993 el Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental (CEMDA) con una base de 16 abogados.


Asserting long-standing but disregarded environmental protection legislation, Gustavo Alanis presents the Mexican citizen sector, government, industry, and everyday citizens with the tools and training to get involved, clean up, and protect the natural resources of Mexico.


A lifelong resident of Mexico City, Gustavo feels the ill effects of tremendous environmental destruction and neglect every day. Recognizing that air and water degradation pose immediate threats to human health and well-being in his community, he works with various social actors to ensure that existing environmental law is fully understood, kept relevant, and actively enforced by the nation's judicial authorities. His strategy, which encompasses training, public education, and litigation, has already brought to the Mexican environmental movement a new level of sophistication and impact. Moreover, his use of international legal policy, particularly the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), to determine and protect environmental safety rights, promotes corporate accountability and environmental justice on a broad stage. By representing people's democratic right to a clean environment, Gustavo helps Mexicans keep pace with the developing global economy and put their legal system to work for them.


From the polluted streets of Mexico City to contaminated public water supplies to the treeless forests of the Sierra to the overdeveloped coastline, Mexico suffers from widespread environmental decay and the destruction of natural resources. As in most countries, Mexico's environmental troubles stem from a range of direct and indirect causes, including negligent factories, naïve citizenry, corrupt governments, and faulty public works. One of the world's most biodiverse countries, Mexico stands to lose a great deal, not only environmentally but also economically, if these destructive practices continue.

The government is not blind to the need for increased protection of its vast natural resources. In fact, the conservation of natural resources appeared as a national mandate in the post-Revolution 1917 Mexican Constitution and comprehensive environmental laws have been on the books since 1971. However, the systems in place fail to enforce these laws. Judges, public servants, and lawyers commonly plead total ignorance of the legal dimensions of environmental protection. And while Mexican citizen sector organizations have been engaged for many years in the fight for better environmental protection and conservation, they have not effectively used available legal resources to advance their cause.
In response to external pressure to comply with national environmental laws and NAFTA standards, the Mexican government created the Federal Procuraduría of Environmental Protection (PROFEPA), which still has largely failed to enforce long-standing environmental legislation. Only large, well-funded organizations like Greenpeace and Pronatura can afford to hire lawyers to use existing laws to protect the environment and they have not, choosing instead to stay focused on advocating for new policies, organizing communities, and promoting education on environmental responsibility. No organization, big or small, seeks to activate existing national laws and international mandates or teach the public about its right to a clean natural environment.


Gustavo plans to change that trend. To initiate the process of ensuring enforcement of Mexican environmental laws, he founded the Mexican Center of Environmental Law (CEMDA) in 1993. Gustavo's initiative soon grew to include a base of 16 lawyers and a national alliance of citizen sector organizations. With seed funding from the W. Alton Jones Foundation, CEMDA began its quest to file precedent-building court cases while simultaneously reaching out to educational institutions, the media, and everyday citizens. Gustavo began his effort to show the people of Mexico how to use the law to protect the environment by identifying key points in the society that needed to be changed. He spread his message across multiple groups, educating the citizen sector about possible uses of environmental law, introducing law students early on to this aspect of law and getting them excited about it, training judges, magistrates, and staff members, serving as counsel (on a pro bono basis) on several strategic cases, and raising awareness about a broader level of the environmental protection already available in national and international law.

Gustavo has designed a range of programs to address, from all angles, the legal dimensions of environmental mistreatment. As part of its biodiversity program, CEMDA advises and trains environmental organizations about the laws protecting natural habitats, so that they have legal recourse when businesses try to build in resource-rich areas. Similarly, CEMDA has collaborated with the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of the Mexican government to pass several Decrees of Natural Protected Areas and corresponding management plans. Gustavo's biodiversity project also leads workshops on environmental conflict resolution to encourage competing interests to settle their disputes amiably and based on past precedent or existing law.

In the area of environmental litigation, and for the first time in the history of the Mexican judiciary, CEMDA has developed and implemented environmental law training courses for judges, magistrates, and their staff, all of whom are unfamiliar with national and international environmental protection parameters. Gustavo and his colleagues work simultaneously with law schools to ensure that future generations of lawyers receive training in environmental law. At the Iberoamerican University, for example, an environmental law module has already been made a required part of the curriculum. CEMDA is showing the way in which environmental law can be practiced from inside the legal infrastructure as well as by those outside it.

Gustavo's work has had a significant impact on a number of high profile law suits launched by CEMDA. The center collaborated on a case against the island of Cozumel involving the proposed construction of a massive dock. The suit reached NAFTA's Environmental Cooperation Commission, where the planned dock was deemed environmentally destructive and ordered canceled. In Southern Baja California, CEMDA was able to halt a proposal, led by the Mexican government and the Japanese company Mitsubishi, to build a salt refinery in a protected natural area. On the pristine so-called Mayan Riviera, home to endangered marine turtles, CEMDA convinced the Zedillo presidential administration to revoke its authorization of a project to build five hotels. With a solid reputation for success in environmental law suits, CEMDA receives dozens of requests each year from across Mexico. To best utilize its resources, the center is now defining criteria to assess which cases will most likely set legal precedent, and therefore require their most substantial investment.

CEMDA launched a trade project about three years ago in order to curb the occurrence of environmental disputes. Every two months, the program organizes a working group to help set Mexico's agenda on issues related to trade and the environment. In light of the increasingly global nature of commerce, CEMDA has also begun to address these issues on an international scale. In 1994 the center organized the first International Conference on Trade and the Environment, followed by the publication of the book Trade and the Environment: Law, Economics and Politics, in conjunction with the National Institute of Ecology. In 1998 the second International Conference was held in coordination with the Iberoamerican University, with a particular focus on Latin America.

Because close relations with relevant government and social agencies are critical to building an awareness and abidance of environmental law, Gustavo developed a project devoted to air and energy policy and works in conjunction with the National Commission for Saving Energy. He has already organized two national seminars on alternative energy. A goal of these seminars has been to encourage public and private transportation companies in Mexico City to adopt new, cleaner combustion cells as a way of reducing the city's overwhelming air pollution. CEMDA also involves the media and everyday citizens in the fight against environmental destruction through regular print, radio, and television coverage of important local and national events. Gustavo has made a priority of spreading the message that environmental destruction is neither morally nor legally acceptable, and that mechanisms exist by which citizens can get involved and voice their opinions.

With this multifaceted arsenal of well-systematized tools for ensuring the legal conservation of Mexico's natural resources and protected areas, Gustavo and his colleagues at CEMDA are beginning to have national impact, working in such states as Quintana Roo, Baja California Sur, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Tabasco, and Veracruz. He dreams of establishing CEMDA branches throughout the country, and the center already has an office in Cancún and a lawyer who is interested in opening one in Oaxaca. Gustavo draws on his experiences in Mexico City as President of the Interamerican Association for the Defense of the Environment, which comprises similar organizations from Colombia, Peru, Chile, Costa Rica, Canada, and the United States. CEMDA also plays an active role in RODA, a network of environmental law organizations in Mesoamerica. At the same time, CEMDA is serving as a model for environmental law initiatives in other parts of Latin America and is addressing the challenges set forth by NAFTA to all of North America.


Born in Mexico City into a family of lawyers and politicians, Gustavo felt compelled, even as a child, to follow the example set by his ancestors. Armed with a strong awareness of the difference between right and wrong, he decided to study law at the Iberoamerican University but felt a growing frustration about the lack of compliance with the law that seemed to permeate Mexican business and society. Working and studying simultaneously, he began to explore the government sector through a job at the Office of the Secretary of Agrarian Reform. To his dismay, he quickly became disillusioned with the lack of concern for the public even among those who served it. The prospect of becoming a corporate lawyer did not hold his interest, and he began to explore other career options, particularly in the field of environmental protection and advocacy.

Gustavo had a dream of transforming the way environmental law was applied in Mexico. Gustavo knew the U.S. had experienced extensive legal action on the environmental front, and on a trip there, he researched and then applied to a program that he thought would give him the best start to launch his dream in Mexico. He chose to attend the American University's Masters in the International Environmental Law program in 1992 with a scholarship from the Mexican National Council on Science and Technology. He remained in the United States to work, on a one-year practical training visa, at the Environmental Law Institute, helping to coordinate its various initiatives in Mexico. Despite receiving various job offers to stay in Washington, he returned to Mexico City in 1993 to found CEMDA.

Since 1993 Gustavo has gained national and international recognition as a leader in the fields of environmental law, civil society, business, and government. In addition to his role as President of CEMDA, Gustavo is a member of the Leadership on Environment and Development Program, a university professor, and an advisor to the Committee on Intellectual Property and the Convention on Biological Diversity of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.