Mexico's president signed decrees creating four new biological reserves and five other protected areas Monday, setting aside about 160 million acres (65 million hectares) for environmental conservation.
Enrique Pena Nieto's office said in a statement that it was the largest amount of land the country has ever decreed as environmentally protected, and with it Mexico joins a group of nations that have met a commitment to safeguard 10 percent of their maritime area. It said Mexico has now designated 23 percent of its sea surface as protected.
The decrees establish the reserves of the Pacific Islands, comprising some 3 million acres (1.2 million hectares) of waters off the west coast of the Baja California Peninsula; the Mexican Deep Pacific, a swath of ocean over 2,600 feet (800 meters) deep from Chiapas state to Nayarit; the Mexican Caribbean, which includes an important reef system; and the Mountains of Tamaulipas, a habitat for various feline species and the source for eight different watersheds.
Pena Nieto signed the decrees as a U.N. Biodiversity Conference was being held in Cancun, Mexico.
"Either we change our way of life to stop the loss of biodiversity, or this loss will change our lives forever,'' Pena Nieto said in remarks at the conference.
Pena Nieto also said the five additional protected areas will be off-limits to oil exploration and extraction. They cover areas with mangrove forests, coral reefs and other expanses of water in the Pacific Ocean, the Sea of Cortez, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, as well as jungle regions in southern Mexico.