Collaboration might save what you can´t see at Tulúm
BY TALLI NAUMAN
All indications are that the Riviera Maya stretching along the Caribbean coast of Quintana Roo state is destined to become a national sacrifice area. The natural beauty of the area is being overrun by hair-brained commercial operations taking advantage of it. But maybe we can still do something to save it.
A good place to start would be Tulúm, located on the coast south of Cancún near the Sian Ka´an Biosphere Reserve. The area around the ancient Maya ruins there was designated as Tulúm National Park in the late 20th century. The CancúnTulúm Corridor Ecological Land Use Program took effect in 2001. The status of the natural protected area and the related restrictions provide a point of departure for controlling development to the benefit of the environment and residents.
Among the problems here, however, is that builders barge ahead with projects that break the rules, and environmental organizations are always trying to catch up to stop them, while authorities are standing somewhere in between.
The federal Attorney General´s Office for Environmental Protection has registered 33 complaints against hotels in Tulúm for failure to submit environmental impact statements. Now city fathers are trying to altar their urban development plan to permit yet other tourism developments in the national park, which is designated as a zero-density construction area. They want to allow hotels adjacent to the archeological ruins.
Tulúm is a landmark not only because of its sacred significance to Maya Indians and its historic architectural value. It is equally important for its environmental features. The world´s largest underwater caverns are located at the site, harboring mysteries yet to be unraveled.
Two of the longest subterranean river systems on the planet run beneath the ruins, the Sac Actun and the Ox Bel Ha. They pour through the biggest cave in all of Mexico. Scientists are wondering if the systems connect to six others nearby.
Researchers already know the hidden waterways are vital for wetlands maintenance on the Yucatan Peninsula, which in turn is crucial to minimizing hurricane damage and to maximizing fishing stocks. In fact, UNESCO has dubbed the Sian Ka´an reserve a World Heritage Site because of the marshes fed by this unseen marvel of hydrogeology.
If that isn´t enough to boast in the way of environmental services, the water source is also key to the health of the Meso American Reef, the second most extensive reef internationally and a prime nursery for marine life, as well as a barrier to tropical storms.
Clearly more money stands to be made by better showcasing of the above-ground monument at Tulúm. The concealed natural wonders of the monument zone might be better protected if the surface attraction generates more income, too.
But more than a half-dozen environmental groups want to make sure the lifeblood of the natural protected areas is not sapped by the proposed development. They are the Centro Investigador de Sistema Acuífero de Quintana Roo, Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental, Movimiento Ciudadano Ecologista de Playa del Carmen, Grupo Ecologista del Mayab, Amigos de Sian Ka´an, Centro Ecológico Akumal, and Yaxché Arbol de la Vida.
The opponents of the current proposal to allow the new tourism facilities in Tulúm are not saying they want to bar profit. They have a stake in the region´s prosperity themselves. They are saying they want to be involved in the decision making process. They have requested to be heard by elected officials before the urban development plan is modified.
Prevention is almost always better and less costly than remediation when it comes to environmental protection and sustainable development. So their information should be taken into consideration.
More importantly, they must be prepared to present the developers and decision makers with palatable, concrete alternatives to proposals deemed anti-ecological. Conservation advocates should know by now that you can´t "just say ´no´ " to development, the same way developers should recognize you can´t "just say ´no´ " to conservation.
Successful land use management depends on stakeholders collaborating and finding creative win-win solutions. If it can be done in Tulúm, maybe it can be done throughout the Riviera Maya, and the rest of the country. Let´s wish them the best in the effort.
Talli Nauman is a founder and co-director of Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness, a project initiated with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. She is the Americas Program Associate at the International Relations Center. (firstname.lastname@example.org)