Sunday, March 25, 2007

Tourism Projects Trigger Conflict in Preserve

MEXICO CITY, Jan 17 (Tierramérica) - A golf course, hotels, luxury residences, stables and a private marina will occupy land next to a valuable biodiversity reserve in the western Mexican state of Jalisco. With official permission, the project developers have begun work, but opponents have sworn to stop them.

After receiving government approval to build in this fragile ecosystem, at the end of 2006, just as President Vicente Fox stepped down and the Felipe Calderón administration began, the developers accelerated work on their projects. Meanwhile, opponents are preparing their legal weapons, which may include lawsuits in international courts. "These plans, approved corruptly, can still be stopped," Alberto Székely, spokesman and lawyer for the non-governmental Council for the Defence of the Pacific Coast, told Tierramérica. The Council has worked to prevent unsustainable development projects near the protected zone for over 10 years. Székely said that objections to the projects would be lodged within Mexico, as well as with the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation, made up of Canada, the United States and Mexico. The Environmental Impact and Risk Directorate officially authorised the Tambora and Careyes Marina projects, on the edge of the Chamela-Cuixmala biosphere reserve, in the face of opposition from scientists and other experts, including the National Commission for Protected Natural Areas (CONANP). At least five similar projects for the same area were rejected in the 1990s. Among the entrepreneurs heading the projects that have just been approved is Roberto Hernández, a former banker and a close friend of Fox's. "There are countless irregularities in the way these projects were approved, which cannot be tolerated," Székely said. The Chamela-Cuixmala reserve is a tropical dry forest, 131.3 million square metres in area, with abundant flora and fauna, several of them endemic. Close by are other protected areas, including nesting beaches where sea turtles lay their eggs. According to the approval documents, which are lengthy and contain many technical and legal details, Tambora, the project proposed by the Operadora Chamela group, will occupy 6.8 million square metres of tropical dry forest adjacent to the reserve. Construction sites will cover two million square metres and will include a golf course, a 100-room hotel, residential areas, beach clubs and parking lots. The project implies deforesting 1.7 million square metres of pristine woodland. The Careyes Marina, proposed by the Imagen y Espectáculos de Lujo group to which entrepreneur Roberto Hernández belongs, will be built on 2.5 million square metres, of which 1.5 million will be preserved as a natural area. The rest will be used for a private marina, lagoons and 1,025 hotel rooms. The official permits for the projects impose certain conditions, so the developers will have to alter their original proposals, submit detailed plans for environmental management and sign agreements with the authorities, among other things. The companies are already working flat out on these points, Tierramérica discovered. Alberto Elton, director of CONANP for the western region, where the reserve is located, confirmed that he had been approached by the developers. "The people in charge of Tambora told us: 'We've got the project and we don't want to make any more fuss. Let's sit down together, and give us your help to see what we can modify to come to an agreement.'" "Now we have to make the best (cause the least damage to the reserve) of a bad job (the projects' approval)," he said. CONANP filed 29 complaints against the Tambora environmental management programme as originally submitted, including the risk posed by the project to "the continuity of the fragile local ecosystems." Elton said the Tambora project would have an inevitable impact on the biosphere reserve, recognised by the United Nations. He preferred to give no opinion on the Careyes Marina, as CONANP had not been consulted about that project. The law allows the Environmental Impact and Risk Directorate to request evaluations by other official or private institutions before accepting or rejecting a project, and to receive comments from social groups, but it is not obliged to agree with or accept their advice. The Tambora project and its environmental management plan also came under criticism from government bodies such as the Directorate General for Wildlife and the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity. Similar criticisms were made by the Institute of Biology of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, which has a research centre in within the nature reserve. "We will re-evaluate the permits and give our opinion, but as far as our studies go, we would still advise that the two projects should not be approved," Tila Pérez, director of the UNAM Institute of Biology, told Tierramérica. After receiving the criticisms, the developers made some adjustments to their plans during the last few months of 2006, which did not, however, change the essence of their original proposals, according to opponents. The Environmental Impact and Risk Directorate approved the modified projects as they stood, this time without asking for new assessments. The Council for the Defence of the Pacific Coast gave Tierramérica access to the documentation on which they based their arguments that the authorities should reject the projects. In it, eminent biologists presented dozens of pages of empirical evidence against the companies' plans. The Environmental Impact and Risk Directorate acknowledges receipt of these documents and say they have studied and considered them. The companies say the same thing. But their opponents can find no significant changes in the projects, and vow to battle on until they are stopped. (*Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent. Originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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