Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park: Baja’s Miracle Threatened
By the 1990s, decades of destructive overfishing in the waters of the Sea of Cortez left the coral reef at Cabo Pulmo severely impacted. In order to restore and recover the vitality and biological diversity of the reef’s ecosystem, the local community on the east cape of the Baja Peninsula convinced the Mexican federal government to establish a protected area at Cabo Pulmo. The result was a 17,560-acre swath of marine and coastal habitat successfully established as a Marine Protected Area, 99 percent of which is based in the ocean.
Today, Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park is one of the most fruitful examples of marine conservation in Mexico. Fishing was banned inside the park, and local residents, in concert with the Mexican government, helped bring the reef back from certain demise. Today, Cabo Pulmo’s reef is called an “Ocean Miracle,” and it is a great success story for Mexican conservationists. Researchers recently reported that the biomass of fish in the “no-take” area has increased by an unprecedented 463 percent in just ten years, offering hope that Mexico’s amazing coastal ecosystems can be recovered.
Unfortunately, pressures from development just north of the marine park threaten the fragile beauty, abundance and rich diversity of the marine species for which the reef is famous.
In what could be a serious blow to conservation attempts in the area, a Spanish company, Hansa Urbana, has plans to build a tourism mega-development on 9,875 acres adjacent to the marine park. If successful, the sleepy pueblo and white sand-fringed beaches of Cabo Pulmo will be joined by sixty thousand new residents in a compound that will include hotels, condominiums, shopping centers, two golf courses and a 490-boat marina – creating a new complex called Cabo Cortes. With this development will come a service population to build and maintain these facilities on behalf of tourists, increasing environmental pressures on the peninsula.
Mexican environmental authorities have already given the green light to the Spanish company, but legal and media pressures by a coalition of local residents, non-profit conservation organizations and researchers continues. The goal of WiLDCOASTis to pressure the Mexican authorities to halt the detrimental development.
The director of the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park, Javier Alejandro Gonzalez, told the media in an interview that the National Commission on Natural Protected Areas (CONANP) found that Cabo Cortes’ environmental impact statement “was vague on several points,” and contained figures that “had not been validated.”
“We have spoken with experts like Dr. Octavio Aburto Oropeza, who confirmed that the reef at Cabo Pulmo will be severely impacted by a development project the size of Cabo Cortes; they forewarn of dire consequences if the resort project is not cancelled,” says Fay Crevoshay, communications director at WiLDCOAST.
Enrique Castro, whose family has lived for five generations in the small coastal community, is invested in protecting this ecological gem. “Fifteen years ago, we stopped fishing and started taking care of the reef. Today, we offer tourist services such as diving, snorkeling, boat rides, sport fishing [outside of the park] and lodging. And now they are going to kill the reef… what about us? Tourists will not come to see a dead reef.”
Currently, it’s uncertain just who controls the resort project of Cabo Cortes. During the global real estate boom in 2007, a Spanish savings bank, Caja de Ahorros del Mediterraneo (CAM), lent Hansa Urbana millions of dollars to buy the Cabo Cortes property. But Europe’s real estate bubble has burst, and the bank failed a stress test in July of 2011. Eventually, the Central Bank of Spain was forced to bail out CAM with a $3.8 billion loan. Meanwhile, CAM was overwhelmed by tanking real estate. To stay afloat as the economy worsened, Hansa gave CAM their assets in Mexico: their property in Cancun – Novo Cancun – and Cabo Cortes. In return, the bank wiped out $114 million of Hansa’s debt. The Bank of Spain then auctioned the floundering CAM to the highest bidder. Then in 2011, regional Spanish bank Banco Sabadell acquired CAM as part of Spain’s reorganization of troubled assets. It is unclear if Sabadell plans to sell the project or develop it. The offices of Banco Sabadell and Hansa Urbana both said they could not comment on this dispute.
The Rise of “Pulmo-Gate”
After it was revealed on TV that emails were exchanged between Mexican federal authorities and the developers of Cabo Cortes, Secretary of the Environment and Natural resources Juan Rafael Elvira Quesada was summoned to appear before Congress; the Mexican Senate wants to have a better understanding of the procedures that were followed authorizing the controversial real estate development of Cabo Cortes. During his appearance, the secretary must reveal the details of the process of authorization and update future steps in order to re-authorize the portions of the polemic project that have been suspended – the breakwater structure at the entrance to the marina, the water treatment plant and the desalinization plant.
The Mexican Senate has made it clear that Cabo Pulmo is a national marine park protected by international agreements. They have highlighted the fact that the Ecological Plan for Los Cabos, approved in 2011, forbids building on costal dunes.
Critics say authorities granted the permits in this case either because they wanted outside investment or because they were afraid of the consequences if they didn’t approve them (under trade pacts like those signed by Mexico’s officials, investors can sue governments who unfairly affect their interests).
At this stage, things are inconclusive. There’s sure to be news this year about the international conservation community’s efforts to protect the vital reef ecosystem at Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park.Take Action NOW! You can help save Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park. Go to http://www.wildcoast.net/media-center/news/244.
–by AJ Schneller and Fay CrevoshayIf you too are interested in becoming a citizen eco-reporter, contact Izilwane at: ExecDirector@izilwane.org.