Lessons from the Edge of the Desert: What World Leaders at Rio+20 Can Learn from Mexico's Decision to Protect its Largest Coral Reef

The coastline of Cabo Pulmo, Mexico.
The coastline of Cabo Pulmo, Mexico
Credit: Getty Images

Cabo Pulmo, a tiny town perched between the ocean and the desert in Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula, is worlds away from bustling Rio de Janeiro in Brazil; but this small town has made the type of transformational commitment to sustainability we need to see more of during the upcoming Rio+20 Earth Summit. And just today, Mexican President Calderón rejected a mega-resort project that would have threatened a way of life along this coast and could have irreversibly damaged the coral reef system of the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park on which much of the region’s marine life depends.  This is exactly the type of leadership and action we expect from other world leaders at the Rio+20 Earth Summit.

The story of Cabo Pulmo begins in an all too familiar way – unsustainable fishing leads to resource depletion and threatens well-being of local communities.  But the decision by community leaders to transition toward a more sustainable path and protect their marine resources is what sets Cabo Pulmo apart from the scores of similar small towns facing the same type of challenge. The town’s commitment to protecting marine resources is also what makes Cabo Pulmo an example for the Rio+20 Earth Summit.  We’re doing far more damage to our oceans than is sustainable and the heads of state that will convene in Rio next week must start acting now to turn this trend around. One of the key outcomes we need to see at Rio+20 are clear commitments to protect our oceans and marine resources by establishing new marine parks, stopping plastic pollution and curbing ocean acidification. And as Mexico just did, nations also need to commit to upholding conservation success stories like Cabo Pulmo.

Just off the coast of Cabo Pulmo is the most important and possibly the oldest coral reef system in the American Pacific. Two decades ago, Cabo Pulmo residents realized that overfishing was depleting fish stocks and their coral reef was suffering. Rather than turning a blind eye and continuing to deplete their natural resources, community leaders took action to save the reef. They worked alongside the government to create the Cabo Pulmo National Park and voluntarily decided to designate the entire park as a no-fishing zone.  Instead, they transitioned their fishing-based economy to low-impact ecotourism – trading in their fishing gear for scuba gear and other forms of nature tourism. Thanks to their efforts and stewardship, marine life increased by over 463% since the park was created (see the new OnEarth story Saving the Wonders of the Sea of Cortez to learn more).  

Cabo Pulmo is a marine conservations success story on a local, national and international level.  Leaders heading to Rio+20 next week should take inspiration from this courageous town and President Calderón’s decision to reject an unsustainable mega-resort project and take firm action on three critical oceans issues:

Extending marine protections to the high seas.  The incredible recovery of the Cabo Pulmo coral reef highlights the value of national marine protected areas; yet two-thirds of the world’s oceans are outside of national jurisdiction and there’s no legal regime to adequately protect such areas. That’s why at Rio+20 we need global leaders to agree on mechanisms that will allow the creation of marine parks in international waters

Stopping plastic pollution in our oceans. The Cabo Pulmo community is continuing to look for ways to become increasingly sustainable.  One issue they’ve identified is the need to reduce waste which can end up polluting the park’s fragile ecosystems. Lacking a publicly-run recycling collection system, the community started its own initiative and now community members make periodic trips to a neighboring town to recycle plastic and other waste. In similar fashion, cities elsewhere are leading efforts to reduce plastic pollution in the ocean. Such local action must spur global action.  We need global leaders at Rio+20 to help reduce plastic pollution by agreeing to reduce “single-use” plastic waste, increasing recycling and holding plastic producers accountable for waste generated.

Acting urgently to curb ocean acidification. In comparison to more degraded coral reefs, Cabo Pulmo’s restored reef system is better equipped to withstand climate-change induced ocean acidification.  But if our oceans continue to acidify, even the healthiest marine ecosystems will be at heightened risk. At Rio+20, we need leaders to commit to reducing carbon pollution and establishing a global monitoring system for acidification

Governments must also preserve hard-won victories like Cabo Pulmo National Park. Despite Cabo Pulmo’s success in restoring the reef system, this town of less than 200 residents had to wage a David meets Goliath-style battle against a proposed massive tourism and real-estate complex known as Cabo Cortés. Pollution from the proposed project threatened to seriously degrade the neighboring marine park and coral reef system.  Scientists, civil society and hundreds of thousands of citizens around the world joined Cabo Pulmo residents in calling on the Mexican government to protect Cabo Pulmo.  Today the Mexican government has done the right thing by cancelling the Cabo Cortés project.  


Nearly twenty years ago community leaders in Cabo Pulmo took decisive action to protect their coral reef. Their commitment to marine sustainability saved the reef system from becoming an underwater desert, devoid of life. Instead Cabo Pulmo National Park is now recognized as one of the most robust marine preserves in the world.  Today, the President of Mexico reaffirmed that healthy human communities depend on a healthy environment:  “You can have growth and economic development, but you must at the same time preserve the environment. That is what we are going to do in Cabo Pulmo”.

Rejecting the proposed mega-resort development by Cabo Pulmo is the kind of action our leaders need to take to affirm that green growth starts with vibrant oceans, clean air and water, a healthy climate. Rio+20 is a once in a generation opportunity to improve the health of our oceans and we need the world’s leaders to follow Mexico’s example and seize that chance.

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