Fernando Córdova Tapia is an ecologist first and foremost. But as a Mexican scientist concerned about climate change and environmental justice, he doesn’t have the luxury of abstaining from political activism.
By day, Córdova is a faculty member at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Away from the office, he helps lead the nonpartisan Union of Scientists Committed to Society (UCCS for its initials in Spanish). There, he focuses on analyzing government-issued environmental impact studies and communicating their shortcomings to communities in the path of federal infrastructure projects. He says such reports are often politicized and unreliable.
“UCCS was born out of a need for scientists to become more engaged in public life,” Córdova says. “In Mexico, there’s this notion that scientists occupy their own social class isolated from the rest of society, but we have so much information that needs to get back to people.”
Córdova’s current focus is Mexico City’s massive new airport. In reviewing the government’s environmental impact study, he and his UCCS colleagues identified several factors that were omitted (they believe intentionally so) from its analysis. Despite the government’s claims to the contrary, they say the airport stands to exacerbate the city’s ongoing water crisis by inhibiting natural drainage and inducing an insatiable demand for drinking water. In response, UCCS has engaged in a long-term campaign to shift public opinion and force the cancellation of the project in its current form.
While the group has scored some notable victories since its founding in 2006, its effort to block the upcoming airport — a major tenet of outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto’s domestic legacy — is perhaps its starkest challenge yet.
Córdova’s concerns are rooted in Mexico City’s long and complicated history with water management.
While it’s been an uphill battle, UCCS and its partners have managed to inform the national conversation about the airport’s viability and make it an issue in this year’s presidential election.
“In this election season, the Mexican media has used our findings to inform a critical perspective that’s free of conflicts of interest,” says Omar Arellano-Aguilar, another UCCS member.
Although the majority of candidates for the July 1 presidential election still support the project, they have been forced to defend their views in debates and in interviews with journalists. In March, the front-runner even announced his intention to halt the new airport, citing corruption as his main concern but also mentioning the lakebed issue, Reuters reported.
For Córdova, despite the airport construction moving forward, the campaign has made progress in the bigger picture. By equipping regular people with a scientific understanding of the issues at play, he believes UCCS has positioned them to make their case in spaces that were previously off-limits to all but the most well connected and academically credentialed voices. Over the long term, he hopes these efforts will set a precedent for meaningful public engagement and honest environmental analysis in federal infrastructure projects.
“We’re helping the community develop arguments that SEMARNAT is obligated to listen to,” Córdova says. “They don’t love that we’ve done that.”