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Mexico goes green — or does it?

President Calderon is trying to become a leader on climate change. But is it all for show?

President Felipe Calderon has pushed hard to transform Mexico into a leading voice on environmental issues, but his proposals have come under strong criticism in Mexico. Here, a view of Mexico's volcano Popocatepetl, right, and Iztaccihuatl mountain, Jan. 11, 2001. Glaciers that crown Mexico's tallest mountains could disappear within a few decades, with scientists pointing to global warming as a cause of their demise. (Daniel Aguilar/Reuters)

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — The communal lands outside San Juan del Rio are a world away from the plush boardrooms of Copenhagen. But here, in the heart of Mexico, the hard, dry earth has a secret to tell, one that could alter next month’s discussions on climate change and affect billions of people around the globe.

For almost two years, President Felipe Calderon has pushed hard to transform Mexico into a leading voice on environmental issues, hosting international summits on climate change and inviting climate guru Al Gore to discuss the dangers of inaction. In June, the president even pledged to cut 50 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, or 7 percent, per year until he leaves office in 2012, a promise that stunned many of his fellow countrymen.

All the while, Calderon has portrayed Mexico as the rare developing country willing to do its part to fight global warming.

“We all should contribute, each to our own degree, what we can in this fight,” Calderon said in September. “This has caused some tension with our fellow developing countries … but we believe that we can find formulas that will allow everyone to contribute when it comes to this matter of life and death.”

But the president’s proposals have come under strong criticism here in Mexico, where a string of failed programs, scandals and delays have cast doubt on the government’s ability to fix its own environmental problems, let alone design international accords.

The president’s environmental program consists of two pillars: a forestry program called ProArbol and a proposed international “Green Fund” to finance projects intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

ProArbol has come under particular scrutiny, its first two years plagued with poor results and charges of fraud. The program is charged with reforesting 400,000 hectares of forest per year, but a government audit found ProArbol only planted 341,000 in 2007, despite spending all of its funds.

Meanwhile, a Greenpeace investigation earlier this year found that only 8 percent of the trees ProArbol planted two years ago actually survived. In some cases, non-native trees were planted and quickly died, while in others, the trees were already sick or were planted at the wrong time of the year.

Rather than halt deforestation, ProArbol has only made it worse by pretending the problem is under control, said Hector Magallon, head of Greenpeace Mexico’s Forest Campaign. Mexico loses roughly 500,000 hectares of forest per year, ranking it among the five most heavily deforested countries in the world.

Like Calderon’s government as a whole, ProArbol has favored private companies — in this case timber companies and tree nurseries — over more effective, community-based solutions, said Magallon.

Cities like San Juan del Rio, once ringed by hearty forests, now fill with dust from the barren hillsides that surround them. The town of 1,000 sits at the foot of a mountain, its simple cinderblock houses clustered around a small lake. Dry, furrowed farms stretch out toward the highway. Above, the mountain slope looks barren and worn. The newspaper El Universal reported earlier this year that only two out of the 90 trees planted in 2007 by ProArbol in the community of El Coto, near San Juan del Rio, were still alive.