~ This essay was originally published by Horizontal on January 26, 2016 ~
In the case of the mangroves at Tajamar, the Environmental Ministry has taken on the strange role of defending environmental destruction
Following hurricanes Gilbert (1988) and Wilma (2005) Cancún lost—and will probably never recover—much of what it was: Wilma stripped more than 12 kilometers of its beaches, which went from being a soft, white border to a steep, rocky edge. To make up for the loss, it has been necessary to constantly dredge sand from the waters surrounding the island of Cozumel, with the resulting impact on coastal stability and coral reefs. Every year more sand must be imported because the erosion of the beaches has not slowed, and is unlikely to do so.
These solutions are akin to fighting obesity by purchasing a larger pants size. The only thing that can prevent the ongoing erosion would be increasing the plant coverage along the coast, principally with the presence of mangroves. Each square meter of that ecosystem that is destroyed makes the beaches more vulnerable in the face of extreme climatic events.
Tourism seeks sun and sand, but without mangroves, there is no sand, and with its absence, no tourism. The recent events in Tajamar make it clear that despite more than two decades of deterioration due to environmental reasons, neither the hotel industry nor local authorities have understood why mangroves should be protected.
Tajamar is the name of a touristic complex backed by the National Fund for the Development of Tourism (Fonatur), the construction of which involves the loss of 57 hectares of mangrove along the Nichupté Lagoon. In Mexico, like elsewhere, the mangroves are considered one of the most important natural settings, of major environmental, economic, and social importance. Mangroves are the most productive ecosystem on the planet: they shelter and serve as a nursery for a tremendous number of species, they are a natural barrier against hurricanes, they control flooding, and filter and maintain water quality.
In Mexico, an official regulation (NOM-022-SEMARNAT-2003) and an article (60 TER) of the General Wildlife Law protect the mangrove ecosystem. These are clear regarding the prohibition of human activities that affect—directly or indirectly—the mangroves. An additional regulation (NOM-059-SEMARNAT-2010) lists the four species of mangrove found in the Caribbean as “threatened.”
Despite legal protections for mangroves that are among the strictest in Mexico, environmental authorities have failed to stop the deforestation. According to the Institute for Ecology and Climate Change (INECC), if the current rate of destruction continues Mexico will lose between 40 and 50 percent of its mangrove coverage by 2025. The decay has been so severe and so deliberate that in 2011 the Federal Auditor censured the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat) over its failure to develop a specific and coordinated strategy to ensure the conservation of mangroves. The deforestation in Tajamar makes clear the gravity of these institutional failures.
Until now, Fonatur has remained silent about the destruction. Instead, it has been Semarnat that, through a press release, has offered a justification. Semarnat’s argument is based on two points: first, that the Tajamar project has all of the required permissions and that article 60 TER took effect in 2007, two years after the project was authorized. The press release, however, fails to mention the law NOM-022-SEMARNAT-2003, which was in effect at the time of the authorization. That regulation establishes the specific guidelines for the preservation, conservation, sustainable development, and restoration of mangrove ecosystems, and states that “any projects involving channeling, the interruption of flow or deviation of water that puts at risk the ecologic dynamic and integrity of the coastal wetlands is prohibited.” Similarly, the regulation requires that “touristic infrastructure located within a coastal wetland should be of low impact, with local materials, with a preference for construction on stilts that does not alter the flow of water.”
The situation raises two important questions: 1) Is the Tajamar development’s authorization of environmental impact and usage truly legal? 2) Why is an institution like Semarnat that is supposed to deal with evaluation behaving in this case as a defender of the project, and even a promoter of deforestation?
The rush to destroy the mangroves of Tajamar owes to the fact that the permits for the project (a land-use change and an environmental impact authorization) expire in February of this year. If these permits expire and the mangrove remained in place, then it would be legally impossible to obtain new permits. Moreover, the permits that are now in place apply only to the master plan for Tajamar, which includes 44 lots over 49 hectares of coastal wetland. This does not mean that environmental impact has been assessed for each lot. In the future, these projects would have to be subject to the “inconvenient” environmental evaluations. Fonatur’s strategy is, therefore, to accelerate the total destruction of the ecosystem so that investors do not have to confront the complaints of citizen-ecologists defending their right to a healthy environment.
Adding insult to injury, the city of Cancún will host the next Conference of the Parties (COP13) of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. The ecological destruction of Tajamar makes it clear that the conservation of biodiversity is not an objective of Mexican environmental authorities. This incongruity should force a change in venues.
The legal battle begun by Cancún’s civil society has achieved the provisional suspension of the project—not only have they focused their efforts on exposing the illegalities, but they have guarded the lands night after night. What Tajamar has made clear is that these types of plans are incompatible with the necessities of sustainable tourism in the region. As a result of the environmental impacts of the last few years, Cancún has lost the white sand beaches that made it the principle tourist destination in Mexico. In the search for a new paradise, the predatory model of tourism is now spreading like a plague down the entire Riviera Maya, failing to understand that the only result will be ongoing destruction.
Fernando Córdova Tapia (@FerCordovaTapia) is the academic coordinator of the Ecological Restoration Laboratory of the UNAM and of the Research Group on Environmental Impact Reports of the Union of Socially Committed Scientists (GAMIA-UCCS). This essay was originally published by the website Horizontal under the title “Mientras tajan Tajamar” and is available at: http://horizontal.mx/mientras-tajan-tajamar/
Translation by Michael Lettieri, Trans-Border Institute
 Three signature campaigns have been launched in favor of the conservation of Tajamar and its mangrove ecosystem:
- Que se detenga el desmonte a la zona del Manglar en el Malecón Tajamar para la construcción de condominios.
- Retiren a México la sede para la COP13: la ONU no debe dar respaldo a un gobierno ecocida.
- La Unión de Científicos Comprometidos con la Sociedad exige que se revoquen los permisos de la obra.
 If the current situation in Cancún does not spark a critical awareness, then the coast of Quintana Roo is condemned to become one great Tajamar from Mahahual-Xcalak, passing through the Sian Ka’an Biosphere, to Tulum, Playa del Carmen, Punta Nizuc, to Isla Holbox.