Mexico: you can't lead in wetland protection if you're losing ground

Credit: Ralph Lee Hopkins

Mexico marked 2012’s World Wetlands Day by announcing four new Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance. Yet meanwhile, Mexico’s Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park – a key Ramsar and World Heritage site– remains under threat. The addition of the four new sites, totaling 23,612 hectares, is indeed a positive step forward. But for Mexico to ensure its wetlands are preserved, it must do more than simply add new places to its inventory of protected sites; it must uphold its existing commitments.  The proposed construction of a mega-tourism complex, known as Cabo Cortés, adjacent to the Cabo Pulmo park threatens one of the world’s healthiest marine reserves.  If Mexico wants to be a leader in wetland and coastal sustainability, it simply can’t afford to lose Cabo Pulmo.  Mexico should follow its newest commitment to wetland protection by now canceling the controversial and risky Cabo Cortés project.

        Photo credit: Ralph Lee Hopkins

Environmentally-sustainable management of wetlands and coastal areas is vitally important. When Juan Rafael Elvira Quesada, Mexico’s Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources, announced the four new Ramsar wetlands he highlighted their key role in providing water and food, and in reducing the impacts of climate change. Elvira Quesada also noted how these new Ramsar sites can help promote local development through ecotourism.  He’s right – environmentally-sustainable and appropriately sized tourism can indeed maintain important ecosystem services and bring needed benefits to coastal communities. In fact, when overfishing nearly devastated the Cabo Pulmo coral reef  –at 20,000 years one of the most important reefs in the Eastern Pacific– local fisherman voluntarily set aside their fishing nets and re-directed their economies toward small-scale ecotourism.  They also worked with the government to designate the area as a national park and no-take zone where fishing was prohibited.

The Cabo Cortés mega-tourism scheme would be something radically different.  Proposed by Spanish developer Hansa Urbana, Cabo Cortés would rival Cancún by paving over untouched swaths of land to build 2 million square feet of commercial and office space, including 28,000 hotel rooms, and a jet port. It would also include at least two 27-hole golf courses that would drain the local community’s limited fresh water reserves.  A 490-slip marina would bring boat traffic and pollution to waters that have astonished Mexican and international scientists with their abundant and healthy marine life – biodiversity that has recovered from years of overfishing, thanks to the community’s avid efforts to protect the reef.  In short, the Cabo Cortés project would undo the years of hard work to restore and preserve the Cabo Pulmo coral reef.  The increased pollution and degradation from the project would threaten the pristine beaches and crystalline waters tourists want to enjoy during a visit to Cabo Pulmo, the very resources that, when protected and managed sustainably, bring benefit and security to local people.  With this at stake, it simply makes no sense for Mexico to move forward with the Cabo Cortés development.

Last November, a joint Ramsar-IUCN mission visited Cabo Pulmo to evaluate the threats to the site from Cabo Cortés.   The mission met with the project proponents, government representatives, local community representatives and NGOs and academics concerned about the project’s impact.   Now, according to María Rivera, Ramsar’s  Advisor for the Americas, the organization is finalizing  its recommendations to Mexico  with regard to Cabo Cortés.  All options are still on the table, including recommending that Mexico grant no further permits.  Ramsar is expected to provide its report and recommendations to the Mexican Government in the next few weeks and it is imperative that these be made public as soon as they’re released so that the local communities and groups who have worked to preserve Cabo Pulmo can continue to do so effectively.

Local environmental groups in Mexico also marked World Wetlands Day and delivered a letter to President Calderón urging him to uphold Mexico’s commitments to protect wetlands, including the Cabo Pulmo Ramsar site.  The letter highlighted how increased pollution and pressure on water and coastal resources from Cabo Cortés would impact Cabo Pulmo National Park, and called on him to definitively cancel the controversial and risky project during his term.   Mexico is already second in terms of areas designated as Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance and the four most recent additions show that the government recognizes the importance of sustainable wetland management.  With concerted efforts, Mexico can be a real leader in the region and world on wetland protection– but not if it’s losing ground in Cabo Pulmo and putting at risk what local communities have worked so hard to successfully restore.