Mexico's Riviera Maya: Ground Zero for Sustainable Development

Acknowledging the broad-based value Quintana Roo's diminishing forests afford society, state Governor Roberto Borge Angulo announced a 15-year strategic plan to restore 700,000 hectares (1,729,000 acres) of forest. With ongoing expansion of the tourism-driven Maya Riviera economy, prospects for success hinge on the ability to reconcile tensions and conflicts of interest inherent to notions of sustainable development.

riviera maya aerial view

It's holiday season and tourists' pockets, wallets and purses are going jingle-jangle as they disembark from planes, cruise ships, buses and automobiles to the hotels resorts and towns of the Mayan Riviera. Wherever they may go hawkers for local businesses, taxi drivers, tour operators, and hustlers are sure to follow.

Stretching south along the eastern side of the Yucatan Peninsula's Caribbean coast, the Riviera Maya gives witness to the hype and folly, as well as the promise, of ecotourism as a form of sustainable development. No matter how ¨eco-minded,¨ mass tourism brings with it a host of ills, as well as conventionally defined socioeconomic development – from destruction of ecosystems services and natural resources to corruption, socioeconomic dependence and poverty.

Acknowledging the broad-based value Quintana Roo's diminishing forests afford society, state Governor Roberto Borge Angulo announced a 15-year strategic plan to restore 700,000 hectares (1,729,000 acres) of forest, Riviera Maya's Santiago Tello reported December 26.

Development and sustainable forestry in a biodiversity hotspot

Tulum

Despite the mass tourism-centered development that continues today, Quintana Roo and neighboring states of Yucatan and Campeche have managed to preserve most of their forests. In fact, forest cover in Quintana Roo has begun to increase thanks to local, national and international conservation and socioeconomic development policies and programs, including the longstanding institution of community forest management.

Speaking at the UN climate change conference this past month, Gov. Borge Angulo explained that the state government's new commitment to reforestation flows directly from the 2010 UN climate summit held in Cancun, as well as this year's conference, during which some 195 nations party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreed to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and make concerted, persistent efforts to mitigate and adapt to global climate warming.

The sub-tropical and tropical forests of Quintana Roo and the Yucatan Peninsula mark the northernmost extension of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. The Corridor's unique, diverse ecosystems – which include the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the world's second largest – make it a biodiversity ¨hotspot.¨

Despite their fragility, the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor's ecosystems provide a wide range of fundamental ecosystems services that support socioeconomic self-determination, liberty and human dignity, including a chance of preserving and reviving indigenous, pre-Columbian knowledge and traditions.

Mass tourism, forest ecosystems and indigenous culture

Stretching out along the Yucatan Peninsula's Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico coasts and inland, Quintana Roo is one of Mexico’s most biodiverse states, Riviera Maya points out. As Tello writes:

¨Ninety percent of its territory consists of low-stature forests and it is home to over 1,000 species of flora, more than 360 species of birds, 105 mammal species and 83 species of amphibians and reptiles. There are 13 wetlands in Quintana Roo internationally recognized by the Ramsar Convention. The state’s Ramsar sites cover an area of more than 1.1 million hectares.¨

The Mexican federal government's Protected Natural Areas Program affords legal protection for land and marine ecosystems that span more than one-third of the state – 1,574,965 hectares.

Rafael Muñoz Berzunza, secretary of Ecology and Environment (SEMA), said that by restoring the landscape and fostering recovery of native species will strengthen biodiversity of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, as well as enhance the distribution and diversity of tree species. That will go a long way towards reducing ecosystems degradation, he added.

“The forest area of Quintana Roo is 18,000 square kilometers or 3.7 million hectares, which needs greater care and monitoring of our natural resources. These are actions that have been made since the start of the current administration, which has been to strengthen the green axis with the recovery of large forest areas.”

You can practically see the gleam of dollar signs in locals' eyes, and you can certainly hear the ring-ring-ringing of cash registers as locals and business owners at hotels, resorts, retail shops, bars and restaurants are dead set on making the most of the two or three months each year that could make or break them financially.

The highway leading south along the Mayan Riviera from Cancun to Playa del Carmen is one long, contiguous strip of private hotels and resorts whose roads and facilities have been hacked, bulldozed and paved out of precious, threatened mangrove ecosystems. This being ¨high season,¨ hotels and resorts compete against one another to attract the most trade, offering all-inclusive packages at rock bottom prices.

A delicate balancing act

Wildlife Adventure

It often seems tourists - not to mention the business owners, government authorities and local workers - give little thought, and pay less mind, to the long-term effects cheap-rate mass tourism is having on the coastal and marine ecosystems that attract tourists here in the first place. Generally speaking, they're here to soak up the sun on white sand beaches, enjoy the blue Caribbean, eat as much seafood, tacos and imbibe as much beer and tequila as they can, returning home as red as steamed lobsters fresh out the pot.

Though they don't explicitly include ecosystems and biodiversity conservation among their strategic goals, the redistribution of lands that originated during the Mexican Revolution and a resulting institutional framework of community forest management and social governance are credited as being instrumental in conserving forests and what native flora and fauna remains, as well as preserving and to some extent reviving pre-Columbian notions of local environmental responsibility and self-governance.

“The preservation and recovery of our natural environment is a top priority in my administration because the environment dictates the future of this great state,¨ Gov. Borge Angulo was quoted in Riviera Maya's news report. ¨At stake is also the future of our children, our natural resources and vigorous tourism, so we are working very carefully on this delicate issue.”

*Image credits: 1), 2) Wikipedia; 3) Yucatan Outdoors

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