Monthly Archives: June 2012


How I Single-Handedly Saved the Parque Nacional de los Arrecifes de Xcalak

Categories: Field Work in Mexico, Nature Preservation, Sustainable Development

Field Research is the Best

One of the best things, obviously, about doing field work, is getting the chance to finagle yourself into areas where few people have, or will go.  One of those times, I recounted already, when I headed into the selva de manglar near the Laguna de Mala Noche in Quintana Roo, with a monitoring team from Simbiosis SA de CV.

Yesterday, I headed back to Xcalak, where I was staying for a couple days around selva work; this time, however, I wanted to examine the Parque Nacional de los Arrecifes de Xcalak (PNAX).  What I find particularly interesting about PNAX, is that it is a protected area established by the federal government, due in large part to local pressure by the local population of Xcalak, a small, politically and economically isolated fishing village on the southern-most tip of the eastern part of the United States of Mexico.

Location of Xcalak

Now, we usually think of protected areas and environmental regulation as restrictive, or at the very least, regulatory processes, limiting the kinds of human activity allowed in certain areas.  Certainly, some of the regulations required by the creation of PNAX – the prohibition on the removal and clearing of mangroves; restricted fishing quotas and techniques; limits on the size, location, and number of hotel rooms – have effectively prevented the possibility of the kind of tourism that has brought so much foreign income to Cancún, Playa del Carmen, and the Riviera Maya.  But, you see, that was the point.  While not all fishermen were entirely happy with the federal regulations of PNAX (some were very bitter, for example, about restrictions on the capture of conch and lobster, which would be used in subsistence consumption), all the ones I spoke to were adamant that that kind of desorbitado development was not appropriate, economically, socially or environmentally, for the tiny, underdeveloped fishing village.

Not Much to Do on the Beach in Xcalak

But, anyway, I digress.  I drove to Xcalak, and managed to convince (i.e. pay) the head of the fishing cooperative to take me out to the reefs to take a gander.  You see, the last time I was in Mexico, officials from the Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP) took me out on a reef monitoring trip in the Parque Nacional de Puerto Morelos, and I wanted to see how this section of the reef compared.  Well, in short, it was… incredible.  Simply incredible.  I could go on about the vibrancy of the colours; the movement of the fan corals in the underwater currents; the section of the reef dedicated to the crianza of new corals; lobsters shooting themselves backwards on our approach.  But I won’t.  I will, however, say that on my tour around the reef park, I, with the eagle-eyes for which the Fuentes-George’s are rightfully famous, spotted the accursed Lionfish, the rat of the sea, that invasive species trying to take over our role as the destroyers of ecosystems.  I called Oscar, the cooperative’s head, over, and with a small, spring-loaded spear, he impaled the lionfish right.  Through.  The.  Mouth.

In your FACE, Lionfish!

“In your face, stupid lionfish,” I thought.  “If anybody is going to be an invasive species, it’s gonna be us.”  Oscar said the fish would be taken to CONANP’s Xcalak office, right off the beach, to be tallied.  Thereafter, the spines would be de-venomed, and made into artisanal jewelry, and someone would eat the filleted animal.  I would have liked to eat the stupid fish myself, but alas, it was getting late, and the drive back to Chetumal would have to traverse unlit roads, bordered by mangrove swamps and forest, and I’d rather not do that after sundown.  But, by finding that pendejo fish, I felt pretty happy that I could do one tiny, tiny thing to help keep the PNAX healthy.

The Challenges of Management, or: Nature is Horrible, and Wants to Kill You

Categories: Field Work in Mexico, Nature Preservation, Sustainable Development

Potential Tour Guide/Nature Defender

One of the standard recommendations for attaining sustainable management and conservation of natural resources, is to involve local communities in their management.  In locales as diverse as Botswana, Mexico, and Qatar, the ideas are roughly the same: communities who live near, and depend on natural resources are often those with “lived-in” knowledge about how ecosystems function.  Moreover, by virtue of their proximity, they may be ideally placed to function as de facto watchdogs of environmental management.  This could also be converted into financial gain if, for example, local residents and users could be hired to act as monitors, or tour guides for ecotourists.  The added benefit, of course, is that this process may also contribute to greater environmental awareness – as local users are (presumably) trained as guides/monitors/stewards, they will become more aware of the trophic webs and chains in local ecosystems, and perhaps more ardent defenders.  This article, for example, is but one of many advancing this exact point.

However, it should be said that this idea that local communities can or should be drafted into the protection of environmental resources should come with a caveat: there has to be careful attention paid to adequate capacity-building and support.  Establishing management programs that place additional, inadequately compensated responsibilities on local communities – particularly when they are marginalized - may either be unfair socioeconomically, or problematic environmentally.  The fact of the matter is: monitoring natural environments is Hard Work.

Here’s an example: on Wednesday June 14th, I went out with a group of paid monitors hired by Simbiosis SA de CV in Chetumal, Mexico to monitor the mangrove forest near the coastal community of Xcalak in the state of Quintana Roo.  This monitoring was done, mind you, in support of a law approved in 2007, protecting mangrove zones at the federal level – they have a wide impact on the health of coastal ecosystems, including coral reefs, juvenile fish, and coastal integrity.  The monitors, all three of whom came from an ejido near the politically marginalized municipality of Carillo Puerto were paid about US$20 for a day’s work.  So this is what it entailed:

As soon as we stepped off the road, into the outer zone of the selva, we were surrounded by small armies of mosquitos.  And worse.  Large, ominous flies, about two inches long, buzzed threateningly, waiting to alight and draw blood.  We moved off at a rapid clip, and I saw a veritable cloud of them, hovering behind the man in front, tracking him through low-lying forest: I imagine we all had one. 

Our speed declined rapidly when we got to the first start of the mangrove swamp. The puddles of rank, foul-smelling, foetid, black water were small enough at first – only ankle deep. (I only began swearing when I realized that my allegedly waterproof Timberlands were NOT). Then knee deep. Then thigh deep. And this, mind you, with the swarms alighting when they could, always finding that spot that the repellant didn’t cover. And with half-rotted branches, and putrefying gunk underneath the black, turbid water. And having to climb over and under bone-white roots of the mangroves, tangled together like a corpse’s fingers.  Footing was, to say the least, insecure.

Like This, Only With More Roots

It took us about an hour to get to the first monitoring zone.  At that point, we were all soaked from swamp water and sweat, and stinking.  At that part, mercifully, there weren’t many mosquitos, and few black flies.  However, a gorgeous, tiny golden bug alighted on my knuckles, and only when it flew off did I notice the blood.  Monitoring itself was tedious: you mark a tree (we were looking at species of mangle rojo, or Rhizophora mangle) with a piece of tape, then measure the diameter of the trunk, estimate its height, its cupula size, and count how many propágulos it has.  Over, and over, and over again. ”¿Diámetro?” “5cm.”  “¿Altura?”  “3.5m.”  “¿Mande?  ¿2.5 dijiste?”  “No, son 3.5m.”  Etc.  Then it rained.  It poured.  We were soaked again.  Fortunately, this at least broke the heat of the Yucatán in summer.

Now, it was absolutely fascinating.  Bugs, plants, and critters I’d never seen before.  Butterflies broke up the monotony of the green and green over a greener green.  After the rain, flourescent green spots appeared on some of the roots of the mangrove.  Occasionally, geese flew overhead, and we heard the ceaseless moving of iguanas and lizards right out of sight. 

But still, this is not easy work.  5 hours, maybe in the mangrove zone, and two hours through very difficult terrain.  To this day, I don’t understand how we didn’t get lost - you can’t cut paths in the mangrove, because it’s a protected species, and while there were some strung up lines and markers at some places, these were few and far enough between that you could only navigate with an already-present real knowledge of the area.  And if you got injured or lost in this area, you would be effed.  I asked one of the monitors, a young guy from the ejido, why he did this, if he liked the environment a lot, or something?  No, he said, it’s just a job, and he has no idea what it’s for.  A job that pays $20 a day.

Now, these things have to be done, clearly.  But NGOs, project directors, and activists have to be really careful about how community-based management programs are designed.  They can be a source of empowerment and development, but they are additional responsibilities and we should recognize this.

What are We Doing to Ourselves?: The Ubiquity of Chemicals

Categories: Corporate Behavior, Green Consumerism, Toxics and Chemicals

I suppose this was inevitable.  Yesterday was Saturday, and being in  the Yucatán, with no interviews lined up for today, my options were 1) hang around the hostel, and continue working on my paper via notepad and pencil (taking it back to ’92, y’all), or 2) go to the beach.  Only a madman would have chosen number 1.

The Obvious Choice

So: I took a shared taxi to Puerto Juárez, then a $7 ferry to Isla Mujeres.  Lovely beach on Playa Norte – you can walk out 100m, and never have the absolutely crystal water go further than chest high.  But here’s the thing: this is a highly touristic zone, and the sun-sensitive visitors to Mexico also take this ferry all day for sand-and-beach.  I happen to be highly allergic to oxybenzone, one of the most popular ingredients in sunscreen, and all it takes is one brush against, say, a deck chair recently used by a Coppertone-slathered individual, for me to break out in rashes, itching, and suppurating swelling (helpfully alleviated right now by very, very high doses of Benadryl – which also has the side effect of making me high as a kite).

Now, I’ve thought a lot about oxybenzone over the years, having had multiple reactions and exposures to it, despite my best efforts to avoid it (I once unwittingly shared a straw with an amiga that used an oxybenzone-laden chapstick and came off looking like Mick Jagger), and have focused on two things that I find interesting/aggravating.  First, as many of you will find out, it is found in a wide, wide range of cosmetic products – look at anything that has the letters SPF on it, and chances are it has oxybenzone, or its relative, benzophene-3.  Second, it is an endocrine disruptor (see above link).  Now, it’s not the only way to get sunscreen; you can use anything that has inert chemicals, such as titanium dioxide, or zinc oxide and get much, much better coverage.  Problematically, the metallic sunblock is oldschool, and leaves a faint, whitish layer on your skin when you brush it on.  Not very stylish, yeah?  Plus, I am sure that the vast, vast majority of users are completely unaware that oxybenzone is harmful, not just to myself, but to all users, in particular infants and small children.

Spraying DDT in the United States

But this I thought was symptomatic of one of the major challenges to human health: we are surrounded by potentially harmful chemicals every day, ostensibly in the name of convenience.  Eventually, we learn about them, but often only after concerted action against the inertia, apathy, and perhaps active resistance of those who receive some benefits from distributing them.

While we, as an international community, have eventually responded to some of these concerns, banning some harmful but ubiquitous products at the domestic level in the 1970s and 1980s, and by internationalizing the campaign against toxic substances through instruments such as the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, it is still clear that in many ways, our attitudes towards dangerous chemicals hasn’t changed much since the 1960s.  The types of chemicals and products vary, and over time, awareness-raising leads to some civil society challenges to particular compounds, but toxins remain profitable, and information moves more slowly than commerce: hence, the continued ubiquity of harmful chemicals.

A Brief Note from the Field

Categories: Uncategorized

The Development Model of Cancun

Well, one of the potential drawbacks of field research I suppose.  My computer (iPad really) was stolen, meaning I can’t update or write as frequently as I can (living on a budget = avoiding the pay-per-minute internet cafes when possible).

But, a short notice on this computer, borrowed from my roommate at the hostel: the erosion at the beaches is extremely visible.  Walking along the playa in front of the Zona Hotelera, you can see the mini-cliffs and crumbling facades that mark the inevitable signs of disappearing beach.  Of course, this erosion is exacerbated by the fact that all along the playa, the hotels are constructed Right.  On.  The.  Beach.  Interrupting the fragile rejuvenation mechanisms.  Of course, there is little that can be done now, and all the proposed and actual stop-gap measures (trucking in sand, building buffering walls, constructing artificial reefs) won’t do much more than prolong the inevitable.  Especially since there is not a single mangrove standing in the Riviera Maya.

And yet, looking at the massive concrete-and-glass structures, all-inclusive resorts (replete with buffets, all drinks, nightlife, tourist bubble), it is obvious that there is no reasonable solution available.  It’s not as if, for example, the hotels can be picked up and moved.  So there it is – what is to be done?  Perhaps ensure that management in the southern part of the state avoids what Cancun has become.  Monday, I conduct more interviews – if I get access to another computer later, then perhaps more updates.

Notes From the Field: A Prelude

Categories: Conservation, Environmental Rights and Justice, Nature Preservation, Sustainable Development

Well, perhaps it will take longer to update than May 14, after all.

In any case, the next few updates will be from the field: for the next three weeks, I will be travelling through southeastern Mexico – through the states of Quintana Roo, Campeche, Yucatán and Chiapas – studying the politics of biodiversity conservation, land use management, and local autonomy over natural resources.

Why do these things matter?  First, as recognized by the Convention on Biological Diversity, Mexico is one of the 12 “megadiverse” nations in the world – 70% of the world’s biodiversity is found in these countries. Consequently, if we want to maintain the world’s natural capital, we should be concerned about what happens there.

Second, like most countries around the world – but perhaps moreso in developing countries – Mexico is under pretty severe political, economic and social structural pressures from international, as much as domestic, forces to promote economic growth. Naturally, the idea that promoting growth in certain sectors will bring ‘development’ to a still underdeveloped country and comparatively poor population is attractive; even if such growth comes at the expense of environmental quality in the short term, it may be in the national interest in the long term. In addition, if you consider that much of the environmental issues in developing countries are linked to poverty – issues such as poor water quality, a lack of adequate sanitation, exposure to preventable diseases – then there may also be an environmental justification in promoting ‘development’ in key sectors.

Of course, the problem is that this idea that developing countries can solve their issues through development should be critically examined. While major economic sectors such as tourism (since I’ll be in the coastal area of the Yucatán Peninsula) do promote GDP growth in the aggregate, it’s not always clear that this growth ‘trickles down’ to the marginalized population who needs development most. Ownership of capital and resources tends to be highly concentrated in the large earners, and aggregate figures may mask real socioeconomic inequalities. In addition, while it would be impossible to escape an environmental impact in any human activity, a lot of this activity is highly ecologically unsustainable. Coastal hotels, such as those that characterize Cancún, are severely disruptive of natural ecosytems. Over time, the precise features that the economic sector depends on – an aesthetically pleasing coastline – are those that are at risk of overexploitation and collapse. Without proper management then, these economic activities may contain the seeds of their own destruction.

In any case, I’ll update when I can – I’m about to board, so the next time I post, I’ll be in Mexico!