Greed and Noise in the Southeast

Widespread indignation has been aroused by the sale by FONATUR (National Fund for the Development of Tourism) to Golf & Resorts of 377 hectares (approx. 9421/2 acres) in the third stage of the tourist zone in Cancun for the ridiculously low price of 71 pesos (approx. $7.00) per square meter, even though it is valued at 1,750 pesos on the Land Register and the commercial value is 8,000 pesos. On April 24, 2002, Golf & Resorts (a Mexican company headed by Adolfo Fastlicht) signed an agreement with FONATUR to acquire the land, two thirds of which consists of mangroves and swamp, provided the necessary environmental permits were obtained, since the lands, according to John McCarthy, the director of FONATUR, John McCarthy, could not be developed on account of their “environmental fragility”. McCarthy characterized the sale as “a magnificent operation for FONATUR and for the future”. The property abuts the Kukulkan Boulevard and has three kilometers of beachfront. President Fox laid the first stone of the project last October 28, two weeks before the Purchase-Sale contract.

In 1971, the Wetlands Convention was adopted in the Iranian city of Ramsar, the only world treaty dealing with the protection of one particular form of ecosystem. So far 144 countries have signed it, and it came into force in Mexico in November 1986. Our government has entered 51 sites on the Ramsar List, covering an area of 5,101,443 hectares ((approx. 12,753,607 acres). Wetlands -among which are mangroves, swamps and marshes- regulate hydraulic systems, act as sources of bio-diversity and perform basic environmental services. Loss of wetlands leads to serious and even irreparable environmental damage, for which reason the principal purpose of Ramsar is to preserve them and for the member countries to commit to encouraging a rational use of all wetlands (not only those on the List) in their territory. This means providing for “the greater continuous benefit for the present generation, at the same time maintaining their potential to satisfy the needs and aspirations of future generations”, and naturally this includes preserving “the natural properties of the ecosystem” (quotes from Ramsar).

As is usually the case, Mexico was quick to sign but complied with half-measures. On May 7 of this year – with no prior public consultation as required by law, and in violation of several regulations – an amendment was published to the Official Mexican Regulation 022, allowing, with discretional compensation, all prohibitions on construction in the country’s wetlands to be over-ridden. As we know, Fox fired Victor Lichtinger, his first Secretary for the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) because he disrupted business, and appointed in his place Alberto Cardenas, for whom the fauna most deserving of his protection are rapacious businessmen. Following the change in regulation, the value of the land skyrocketed, but the bargain price fixed by Nacional Financiera (NAFIN)-at the request of FONATUR- remained. For the 40% of the land that was mangroves, NAFIN allotted no price, on the presumption that it could not be developed and therefore had no value (except for turtles and crocodiles, and other species of flora and fauna, protected by both national and international treaties I might add). In Mexico some 10,000 hectares (approx. 25,000 acres) of mangroves are lost annually. The project also threatens the reef of Punta Nizuc and is in violation of the Environmental Program for the Nichupte Lake System, the Program of Environmental Regulation for the Territory of the Cancun-Tulum Corredor (POET), and even the Mexican Constitution. From Cancun, Araceli Dominguez, of the Mexican environmental organization GEMA, is calling for access to FONATUR’S accounts and for a lawsuit to be filed against the officials who approved the sale.

That the environment is of little concern to John McCarthy we know through his aborted project to place a Nautical Ladder in the Sea of Cortez, but that it matters little to Alberto Cardenas is disturbing, since, unless he files as a candidate for something, he has nearly two more years to wipe out the country’s ecosystems. If the principal criterion for a development policy in the country’s natural areas is to encourage investment FONATUR style, then we can forget about the Monarch Butterfly sanctuaries, the Lacandonian Rainforest, the San Ignacio Lagoon and give a green light to sawmills, plastic factories, hydroelectric dams and industrial saltworks.

What is this beautiful project that will enrich the lives of present and future generations? The pretentious Riviera Cancun (formerly known as Costa Cancun and Nuevo Cancun) is to benefit from two golf courses, 3,777 hotel rooms, condominiums and villas, a clubhouse, a horse club, two sports clubs on the beach and a business district. Aurelio Ahumada (not to be confused with the imprisoned Ahumada), Director of Grupo Eco Red, the consulting firm contracted for the environment studies that slyly allowed SEMARNAT to do away with Regulation 002, has called for the construction of many golf courses that would be strung together to form “biological corridors”!! FONATUR has expressed its desire to “launch Cancun as a golf resort” to improve the “tourist profile”, no doubt in referrence to the migratory birds that abound in the golfing sanctuaries.

Meanwhile another crime is to be inflicted upon the Natural World. In February 2004, the Group of One Hundred, the Animal Welfare Institute and GEMA warned about the project of the Maurice Ewing, a ship owned by the National Science Foundation of the United States and in the service of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, to conduct research in the Gulf of Mexico by carrying out tests with a battery of 20 pneumatic canons, multiple sonar beams, and laser equipment in order to learn about the profile of the sub-floor, for the purpose of studying the Chicxulub Crater on the northern peninsula of Yucatan. The decibel levels will rise to 255. Much less powerful pneumatic canons have wiped out entire fisheries. This boat was held responsible for the deaths of whales in the Sea of Cortez following a study in these waters in September of 2002.

In February we were able to stop this lethal experiment in the Gulf, but now SEMARNAT has given permission for the voyage. The boat is scheduled to sail from Progreso on February 3 and carry out its activities until the 23rd. It is curious that this permit has been expedited, since, less than a year ago SEMARNAT, in response to a request from the Foreign Ministry, released a statement emphasizing that “these activities can be harmful to marine organisms, especially mammals”. They reminded us that President Fox had established an area of refuge for whales in Mexican waters. They listed the dangers of the research for the marine fauna in the Gulf of Mexico, such as, “distorting communications between each other, physical and/or behavioral changes, loss of auditory capability and death”. The power of these canons is such that the noise reaches 160 decibels at a distance of 9 kilometers. SEMARNAT warned that the methods proposed to mitigate this would not neutralize the negative effects on organisms in the area, emphasizing that “it is almost certain that any organism sensitive to changes in pressure will be adversely impacted by these activities and will probably die.” The license issued by the National Marine Fisheries only permits incidental harassment when there exists no possibility of causing serious harm or death to the marine fauna. But that is not the case here. Recently the International Whaling Commission, the European Parliament and several conservation organizations have sounded the alarm over the threats posed to cetaceans by loud noises in the oceans. In the Gulf of Mexico, thousands of whales, dolphins, tortoises, seals, manatees, orcas, fish, octopuses and other species are at risk.

Who grants John McCarthy the authority to dispose of the country’s natural resources, from Baja California to Quintana Roo, as though they were his own? Who permits Alberto Cardenas to manipulate the environmental laws to suit his convenience? The methods are clear: if a regulation or law is inconvenient, change it. If any official objects, fire him. In Foxlandia, as far as one can see, the old practices of corruption, influence tracking and fraud continue.