Wednesday, March 28, 2007
THE CHAMELA-CUIXMALA BIOSPHERE RESERVE AND ECOLOGICAL SANCTUARIES THREATENED BY ILLEGAL DEVELOPMENT PROJECTS IN THE MEXICAN PACIFIC COAST
I . BACKGROUND. The unprecedented complex of legally protected areas in the Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve region in Mexico’s Jalisco coast, south of Puerto Vallarta, encompassing the Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve, two Marine Turtles Beach Sanctuary in Playa Teopa and Playa Cuixmala and a Migratory Birds Archipelago Sanctuary in Chamela Bay, is the result of the successful efforts of a great and unusual partnership between, on the one hand, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (“UNAM”, recognized for its excellence as the best university in Latin America and among the best 100 universities in the World) and, on the other, the Cuixmala Ecological Foundation. Together, UNAM and the Cuixmala Ecological Foundation have been able, during the last 22 years, to endow the region, one of the most biologically rich and environmentally delicate sites in the World, with various layers of legal protection, both at national and at international levels. Few other sites in the planet can claim to have achieved such degree of protection because of their environmental importance. Aside from the above mentioned Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve (which is jointly managed by the two institutions under an agreement with the Mexican Government) and from the two Sanctuaries, the complex of estuarine lagoons of the Reserve, have been recognized as a Wetland of International Importance under the 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, and as a part of UNESCO´s Man and the Biosphere Program (MAB). As a result of the scientific work carried out in the area by the University and the Foundation, what is now known about the region has led the World Wildlife Fund to consider it one of the 200 most important eco-regions in the world. The National Biodiversity Commission (CONABIO) identifies it as a priority area for conservation. II. PREVIOUS THREATS. Ever since those efforts were launched, it has been necessary for UNAM and the Foundation to resist the numerous threats and pressures to which the region and its protected areas have been subjected, particularly from ill-conceived touristic development projects that, typically, follow the most negative models that have, not only in Mexico’s coasts but in those of many other countries, proved to be destructive of the very natural ecosystems and resources that attract the investments in the first place. Since the Reserve was created, not less than 6 huge development projects (“El Faro”, “Farallón”, “Caracol”, “Rancho Don Andrés”, “Marina Careyes I” and others, all of them under the false guise of “green touristic projects”) had been consistently objected to by the University and the Foundation, with sound legal and scientific arguments and supported by numerous local, national and international non-governmental environmental institutions, particularly the Council for the Defense of the Pacific Coast), and invariably turned down by the authorities, always because of their failure to meet the requirements demanded by various environmental laws. Both institutions had contributed significantly, also, to the adoption for the Jalisco coast, in 1999, of one of Mexico’s most advanced Environmental Zoning Programmes (POET) in the country, whose existence and enforcement represents still another great layer of legal protection for that region. III. THE ENVIRONMENT AND THE RULE OF LAW IN MEXICO. The challenge of defending these protected areas, despite the entering into force of well designed environmental laws applicable to them, was always made worse by Mexico’s acutely precarious rule of law situation, that yields a worrisome measure of legal uncertainty and insecurity in all fields, and not only for foreign and domestic investment, as has been signaled and recognized by many financial institutions. The tremendous deficiencies in the empire of the rule of law in Mexico is recognized, from all quarters, as the number one problem facing the nation, that significantly curtails its potential for progress. The advent of democracy in Mexico did not translate, unfortunately, into the strengthening of the legal protections that had been secured for the region. The opposite occurred, since President Fox’s Administration (2000-2006) failed not only to advance in its number one campaign pledge (to restore the rule of law and the administration of justice) but, at the end of its term, had actually accumulated and earned the worst record of environmental performance in more than 20 years, failing to comply and to enforce environmental legislation and dismantling important legal provisions, particularly those protecting Mexico’s coastal natural resources, ecosystems and protected species, in order to favor unsustainable development projects. The Government’s National Tourism Fund ( “FONATUR”), with its illegal “Nautical Steps project” and other similar coastal developments such as Litibú, that have threatened Mexico’s other great protected ecosystem (the Gulf of California, known as the “World’s Aquarium”), and that also contravened a battery of the country’s most important environmental laws, are only a small part of that negative record. Numerous other equally illegal and tolerated projects and activities, that have damaged Mexico’s natural heritage in the Caribbean and in the Pacific, dramatically expanded deforestation in the World’s fourth largest country rich in biodiversity, turned its heavily polluted water resources unusable and, above all, made worse the already unmanageable problem of hazardous and domestic wastes disposal, that have devastated and dirtied Mexico, and turned it into a perilous ground for human health and for the environment, integrate also the poor record of environmental performance accumulated by the last governmental Administration. This has helped to consolidate a “pattern” of disdain for environmental laws in favor of “development” that makes Mexico, liable under the 1994 Environmental Agreement (adopted together with the North American Free Trade Agreement, “NAFTA”), to heavy sanctions by the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation headquartered in Montreal. Some efforts are underway to submit such a claim to the Commission. IV. THE MARINA CAREYES PROJECT. The Chamela-Cuixmala region was not spared from the effects of such adverse policy, and is now threatened from all corners of its various protected areas. On the Northeast, the illegal construction of the highway Chamela-Villa Purificación, by the Jalisco Government and with the open complicity of the Federal authorities, specially the so-called Office of the Federal Environmental “Prosecutor” (PROFEPA), is threatening the Biosphere Reserve precisely at the place where the river that supplies the habitat of its protected species, dry forest and wetlands, enters its territory. On the Southwest, the illegal construction of a deceitful project called Casa Matos is also threatening the Reserve and the Turtle Sanctuary. By far, the most threatening are the “Tambora” and “Marina Careyes” touristic development projects in the Western and Northwestern flanks of the Reserve, impacting both the Turtle Sanctuary,the best kept crocodile population in western Mexico and the Chamela Bay Migratory Birds Archipelago Sanctuary. None of those projects have met with any of the requirements demanded by law, particularly regarding the prevention of environmental impacts, and they are all already illegally underway and with the equally illegal blessing of the Mexican environmental authorities, both by the outgoing Fox’s and the new Calderón’s Presidential administrations, which significantly pave the way for the next six years to come. The Marina Careyes project, owned and promoted by Mexican banker Roberto Hernández (formerly owner of Banco Nacional de México), is of special concern because he has persistently tried to undertake similar ill conceived developments in this particular Mexican region for more than a decade. His determination to invest and develop in the area, often in association with the Brignone family (founders of the Careyes touristic development, and sponsors of all of the above mentioned ill conceived projects, that were objected to and never authorized), disregarding the environmental importance of the region, has become a sort of stubborn obsession for Mr. Hernández. He had already submitted a project to build a marina in the Careyes area 2 years ago, and had to withdraw it because it was totally beyond the parameters set by the law. The strategy was to re-submit it with another name in 2006, at the end of the Administration. This time he found a way, surely an obscure and questionable one, to have his Marina project being illegally authorized, allegedly in the very last hours of the outgoing Fox Administration, although in reality it seems to have received the blessing in the first few days by the new Calderón Government (albeit by the same re-appointed official, Ricardo Juarez, Director General for Environmental Risk and Impact of the Ministry of the Environment). Apparently, Mr. Hernández has finally found someone who cannot say no to him, and a way to get his way. It is not only that, as a result of the illegal Environmental Impact Assessment Studies submitted for each of the projects, and of their equally illegal authorization by the Government, the delicate protected areas in the region, particularly the Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve, will be at the mercy of uncertainty because of environmental impacts for which, not having been previously identified, no appropriate mitigation measures have been foreseen. Even worse is the fact that, in both cases, the preparation of the sites to be developed, the construction of the projects and their operation and maintenance over the years, once they are running, are sure to have very negative specific environmental impacts. Since those specific impacts have not been identified, the sum or accumulation of them will not be met, either, with any previously prepared precautionary mitigation measures. Some of the specific and accumulated impacts will inevitably occur, some that could have been tempered or even prevented will also necessarily occur, and all of that because, on the one hand, the developers did not comply with the legal requirements to assess the environmental impacts and, on the other, the authorities not only did not enforce those requirements but went ahead and illegally authorized the undertaking of the project . V. THE MARINA CAREYES PROJECT. The Marina Careyes Project is a touristic residential development that entails the construction of an artificial marina for boats and for the undertaking of a variety of naval activities, 1,025 rooms, commercial areas, beach clubs, roads, infrastructure for the provision of water, drainage and sewerage, electric energy and phone service. All of this is supposed to happen in an exceptional, vulnerable and delicate natural area of high biological diversity, where 430 terrestrial vertebrates have been identified (as many as 80 of them legally protected) that include 70 species of mammals, 270 species of birds, 68 reptiles and 19 amphibians and 110 species of fish, together with more than 1,120 species of plants, several thousand species of insects and invertebrates, many of them protected because they are threatened with extinction already specially two species: turtles and crocodiles. Four species of turtles dwell and have their nesting area in the Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve’s beaches which share their borders with the future Marina site. National and international environmental laws recognize the turtles’ protected status due to the past over-exploitation of its population and are now classified as endangered specie. The constant protection’s efforts and the low perturbation which have been implemented for the past 20 years, allowed the nesting for thousands of female turtles. In the Cuixmala beach alone wich has a mere extension of 3,5 km. more than 6,000 nest sites were recorded and approximately 350,000 baby turtles were born and released into the ocean increasing the existing numbers of these decimated species which when they reach their reproductive maturity they come back to the same beach they were born to lay their eggs. The “Golfina” specie is the most common in the area and it is now responding well to the conservation programs put in place at the Teopa and Cuixmala beaches. Also other reproducing female turtles from species which are in a critical survival state are coming to nest into these two sites like the “Laud”,”Prieta” or “Carey” after which the holyday destination Careyes is named and shares its borders with the future Marina site. This year alone the biologist have released more than 40,000 baby turtles in Cuixmala and 40,000 in Teopa. Undoubtedly the building and existence of a Marina will wipe out the reproductive potential of these two well established sanctuaries. The turtles are very vulnerable to the modification of the beach’s general conditions and of the nearby areas, to boat traffic, to illumination coming from houses and tourist developments as well as towns. All this will impair their navigational and positioning skills. Last but not least the spoiling of its nests by the renown ‘”hueveros” who resell the eggs as gourmet food. The river crocodile,best known locally as “caíman”, belongs to the specie “cocodrilus acutus”, which is protected by the Mexican and international Law. It has been classified as an endangered specie and this is why it is under protection. The Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve is a sanctuary for this specie, protects it from illegal hunting and provides the natural habitat for its survival. After more than 20 years of protection, the crocodile population in the Reserve’s wetlands has shown a significant recovery concerning its numbers and structure. Today the estimated population size is approximately of 600 crocodiles, of which 40% has reached reproductive maturity. This increase allowed the re-colonization of areas within and outside the Reserve were the crocodile had previously disappeared. According to the experts, the crocodile population in the Reserve area dwells in the wetlands nearby the future Marina site where its construction and the associated development project associated with itt will dramatically change the behavior and the dynamics of the existing crocodile population in the Reserve which is the only protected area in the coast of Jalisco and as far as crocodile population and its distribution it is considered to be among the best in the Mexican Pacific coast. In the same fashion as turtles, crocodiles are very vulnerable to hunting or the perturbation and modification of its natural habitat , the nest spoiling during the reproductive period as well as to human presence and activities. A project of such magnitude, in a site where, due to its exceptional environmental importance, should be left as undisturbed as possible, will inevitably unleash numerous and dangerous adverse impacts resulting mainly from: · the alteration of sand dunes, wetlands, mangroves, tropical forests and marine ecosystems, all of which are places of refuge for species and which form natural biological corridors, which are indispensable for the maintenance of a coastal area rich in biological diversity · the massive removal of vegetation cover and its elimination will contribute to the loss of humidity and soil fertility radically modifying the landscape and will increase the erosion and the runoff and transport of sediments. · all of the above will in turn affect the quality of superficial and ground water, causing harm to the wetland. · the removed cover will deprive various animal species of their burrow, their food and habitat and will tend to disappear from the area. · habitat modification in the area where the project will be developed, which is located in the zone of influence and at a stone throw from the limits of both the Biosphere Reserve and of the Turtle Sanctuary, will inevitably impact turtles severely, given the mobility of some of the affected species. · fragmentation of the habitat will create barriers to that mobility and increase the possibilities of extinction. · roads will perform that pervasive function, and they will also modify air quality and produce several forms of pollution because of the asphalt, the dust, the oil spills and the noise from the construction equipment and the circulation of vehicles. · the added presence of tourists and workers in the region will increase access to natural resources, water consumption, generation of solid wastes, and an increment in the demand of energy, drainage and sewerage services. · that increased human presence will disturb many sensible species of animals, particularly those predators with sigil habits, such as the felines which exist in the area and are threatened and thus protected species. · birds are particularly sensitive to human presence and noise in their nestling processes, and will tend to abandon their nests, causing high levels of mortality in eggs and chicks. Many of them are migratory species that come form the United States and Canada, and their protection has been agreed through treaties with those countries that will be contravened. · to build breakwater facilities for the marina and floating docks, it will be necessary to excavate and dredge the seabed, in order to maintain the depth of the marina, which involves the extraction of materials with heavy equipment, that will have several impacts inland and at sea, altering the physical and chemical composition of its waters and altering the biota. · increased turbidity in the water will result, together with an increment in the ingestion and accumulation of contaminants by fish, a short term lowering in the level of dissolved oxygen, modification in the bathymetry that will provoke changes in the circulation of water, in habitats and in the diversity of species. · heavy equipment is likely to have typical spills of oil substances increasing water pollution. · dredging will lead to hydrological alterations that will alter the beach zone. · these impacts will produce added erosion, sedimentation, loss of vegetation and fauna, flooding and changes in the drainage of humid soils and mangrove. · the disposal of materials removed while dredging will contaminate groundwater deposits, the flow of superficial water will be altered and the use of the land will be affected. · the planned installation of a station for the provision of combustible fuels (diesel, gasoline and lubricants), with a fuel storage facility, a fuel supply dock, a net of ducts for the distribution of the product and an area for offices, will necessarily involve the threat of leaks and spills on land and in water modifying the physicochemical and biological components of the water, soil contamination, loss of habitat and risks for human health · the increase in the number of boats using the facilities of the marina, imply greater maritime traffic, with the possibility of having leaks and spills at sea, that will generate noise from their engines affecting turtles and marine mammals · the increase in the number of people coming with those boats will come together with an increase of solid wastes and the use of services. How will each of those inevitable impacts specifically happen in the area of the Marina Careyes project, as a result of the multiple works and activities that will be carried-out during each of its phases of site preparation, construction, operation and maintenance over many years, and what measures will be timely planned in order to prevent those impacts and the synergic impact of their accumulation, or at least to moderate them or ameliorate them, was precisely the mandatory function of the Environmental Impact Statement that those promoting the project were under a legal obligation to submit for authorization. The General Environmental Act and its Regulations on Environmental Impact, clearly demanded compliance with 13 specific requirements, in order to ensure that all direct and indirect adverse impacts and their accumulated effects in the region would be properly and scientifically identified and objectively declared in an Environmental Impact Statement (MIA, for “Manifestación de Impacto Ambiental”), together with specific proposals for measures to prevent them and mitigate them. The same Act and its Regulations mandated the authorities of the Ministry of the Environment (SEMARNAT) to assess compliance with each and all of those 13 legal requirements. They were nowhere to be found in the MIA for the Marina Careyes project. The SEMARNAT official in charge of the assessment of the MIA was warned of this situation by various governmental institutions and non-governmental groups. As it also happened in the case of the Tambora Project, for the Marina Careyes project the Council for the Defense of the Pacific Coast presented to SEMARNAT a well documented analysis of the MIA, with a well substantiated finding proving that it did not comply with any of those requirements. The finding was produced by prominent specialists, including one of the scientists with the greatest record of work and publications in the area, coincidentally a winner of the National Biology Award. With numerous and well argued scientific and legal arguments, the finding proved that the MIA did not comply with a single one of the above mentioned 13 legal minimum requirements, as it failed totally to identify the environmental impacts of the project and, consequently, no real mitigation measures were foreseen or proposed making the Marina project, consequently, evidently and notoriously illegal. Still, the above mentioned SEMARNAT official was somehow persuaded to go ahead and illegally authorize the project. Numerous organizations, individuals in Mexico and abroad, have begun to mobilize to prevent such ecological crime.