In a win for Mexico's coral reefs, the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) once more issued a resounding "NO" to the massive Cabo CortÃ©s coastal tourism project that threatened Cabo Pulmo National Park. Although the environmental permit for the controversial project was revoked in 2012, the company behind the scheme never abandoned a legal challenge aimed at reviving Cabo Cortés. As a result, last fall a tribunal court in Mexico City ordered SEMARNAT to revisit the decision by which the project's permits were withdrawn. In effect this opened up the door for the project to potentially move forward again. SEMARNAT's latest decision, however, closes this door once more -this time definitively - and sends a clear signal that this type of proposal is simply not acceptable. This is a cause for celebration, but it's also a reminder of how fragile our planet's marine ecosystems are and the perseverance and political will necessary to protect them from harmful practices and developments.
First, a quick recap about Cabo Pulmo's ongoing story...
Located off the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, Cabo Pulmo National Park is today renowned as one of the world's great marine conservation success stories. But just a few decades ago, years of unsustainable fishing practices had degraded the area's rich coral reef ecosystem. Eventually, the local community began to work with the Mexican government, scientists and civil society to restore the reef system and create a marine protected area. Thanks to concerted conservation efforts, the reef system saw an incredible recovery in marine life in the years following the park's establishment. Yet the coral reef and the local community that helped protect it came under threat in 2008 when the Cabo Cortés project was proposed right next door. The developers behind Cabo Cortés planned to build the equivalent of nearly 30,000 guest rooms, a marina, a desalination plant, golf courses, an air strip and other facilities. Among other impacts, pollution and toxics from the proposed project posed a grave threat to the fragile coral reef and the massive development would have strained the local community's scarce fresh water resources.
In June 2012, following a years-long campaign to defend Cabo Pulmo from Cabo Cortés, former Mexican President Calderón announced the cancellation of the project's environmental permits. This was a major victory, yet ultimately temporary. In subsequent years two other versions of the project—first Los PericÃºes and later Cabo Dorado—were proposed on the exact same lands. Fortunately, neither of these projects which posed the same sorts of risks to the corals and neighboring towns ultimately moved forward, largely due to the unrelenting efforts of local citizens and activists.
But the underlying threat of Cabo Cortés, the first and most destructive proposal, never completely went away. Since 2012 a legal battle has quietly raged around the decision to cancel the project's environmental permits. The new document SEMARNAT issued on the Cabo Cortés project reiterates, in no uncertain terms, its rejection of Cabo Cortés. In over 100 pages SEMARNAT details the many deficiencies in the project's impact statement, highlighting how the proposal failed to comply with local environmental zoning and national environmental and biodiversity protection laws. In short Cabo Cortés was simply incompatible with Cabo Pulmo's protection. The strength of this new resolution makes it hard to challenge again.
Importantly, this new rejection sends a strong message that projects like Cabo Cortés that threaten Baja California Peninsula's unique natural treasures are just not appropriate. This is a critical message because over the years developers have shown significant interest in building numerous other large coastal resort projects along the peninsula's East Cape region. There are also significant concerns about the impact of various mining projects on the peninsula, including a plan to construct an off-shore phosphate mining project that would impact important marine habitat. By rejecting Cabo Cortés again, Mexico's environmental authority did the necessary and right thing in this case. Yet it will also be important for authorities to look beyond just one project and ensure Baja's irreplaceable coastal and marine resources are protected from short-sighted, ill-conceived projects. A key step will be to continue to work with local authorities to strengthen environmental protection and land use mechanisms and to work with local communities to identify truly sustainable alternatives.
But for now, however, well done Mexico!