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A mangrove forest in Cancun that was home to many crocodiles, boas, eagles, herons, frogs, squirrels and iguanas is destroyed

  • The construction work for a multi-use development was carried out as previously agreed, but the animals and plants were not rescued before clearing out the area —something that is required by law.
  • Two days after the mangrove clearing started, several people entered the site and observed living animals such as crocodiles, boas, eagles, herons, frogs, squirrels and iguanas as they fled.
  • According to Greenpeace, Mexico is facing rampant deforestation, not only in the mangroves, but also in other forest systems such as tropical rainforests and dry forests.
Environmental organizations note that it will take between 20 to 30 years to recover a mangrove as the Tajamar, but only if the real estate project is halted. If they start building on the site, it will be lost permanently. Photo courtesy of the Save Tajamar Mangrove group.

Soldiers guarded and anti-riot elements surrounded the zone, as 150 trucks and cranes cleared the Tajamar mangrove without saving the flora and fauna. All this was confirmed by Aracely Dominguez, president of the Mayab Ecologist Group (GEMA, Grupo Ecologista del Mayab), who witnessed what happened.

“As Mexicans, it hurts us to witness that instead of using the public force against criminals, they are using it against citizens and against the environment. It is truly embarrassing to see that the government is doing this, to see that it does not have neither political nor social sensitivity,” complained Domínguez in an interview for Mongabay.

A Catholic Church basilica —the biggest in Latin America—, shopping malls, offices and more than 3,000 homes plan to be built in the area. This puts the survival of crocrodiles, snakes, herons and plants species under risk. One of this species is the white mangrove, which is listed as a threatened species under Mexican law NOM-059.

Even though it is part of a lagoon system, the affected mangrove is not within the Nichupté Mangroves Protection Area.

According to an announcement by Quintana Roo State governor, Roberto Borge, the National Trust Fund for Tourism Development (Fonatur), which is in charge of the project, has had since 2005 the necessary licenses for tourist development in the area. This means that the construction work were carried out according to an agreement, but without having appropriately rescued the animals and plants, as required by law.

However, Domínguez has accused Fonatur of committing a serious crime– giving false information to the environmental authorities, failing to comply with the conditions laid down for the conservation of flora and fauna, and working alongside developers in the destruction of a mangrove.

Years ago, the General Directorate of Environmental Impact and Risk (Dgira) “authorized Fonatur to urbanize, divide into lots, and make changes in land use, even though it provided false information claiming there was not a mangrove in the area —when actually 65% of the area was made up of mangroves,” stated Domínguez. The license that was to allow the clearing of the mangroves clearing was going to expire on February 7 of this year.

According to witnesses, two days after the mangrove clearing started, several people entered and watched living animals such as crocodiles, boas, eagles, herons, frogs, squirrels and iguanas as they fled the area. At that moment, trucks arrived “expecting to refill the mangrove and bury those animals alive,” but Domínguez and other activists stopped them. The environmentalist confirms that she has documentary evidence proving the large scale destruction of the mangrove.

The rescue of flora and fauna is a requirement laid down by the licenses issued for the project, something the activists say did not happen. Photo courtesy of the Save Tajamar Mangrove group.

A contradictory message and an emblematic case

Miguel Ángel Rivas, who is in charge of the oceans campaign at Greenpeace Mexico, condemned the destruction of the Tajamar mangrove in Cancun because “nothing was done in the right way or following the appropriate procedures.”

In an interview with Mongabay, the member of the international organization drew attention to a Mexican government contradiction, since “strangely, the mangroves that predominate there, the red mangrove and the white mangrove, are species protected by the NOM,” Rivas explains. “A short time ago, Mexico was at COP21 talking about the importance of climate change and how people, usually the poorest individuals, are affected by catastrophic environmental events. Mangroves are precisely one of the natural barriers that stop hurricanes.”

Mexico will host the next Conference of the Parties (COP13) in Cancun, Quintana Roo, in December 2016. However, for some environmentalists, the actions carried out with the approval of government agencies in the Tajamar mangrove are in contradiction with the message of environmental protection policies. They have even launched a petition in the website, asking the UN to keep the country from hosting the conference and asking tourists to boycott the zone.

Pictures showing the cleared area spread through social networks. “It is the tip of the iceberg. The species lost outside their habitat, are the beginning of the breaking of the ecosystem —what takes place when a mangrove forest is so abruptly destroyed,” the Greenpeace activist complained.    

For Rivas, this case is emblematic, because Mexico is going through a rampant deforestation process. This isn’t only happening at the mangrove level, he says, but also at tropical rainforests and dry forests.

“If it [the clearing] was approved (as the governor said, everything was legal), it means that the Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat) approved the environmental impact measures, one of which is the relocation of the mangrove. It means that the cleared mangrove has to be relocated to another nearby area. So the question is: where is it going to be relocated? How is the entire lost mangrove going to be compensated?” Rivas asked.

In a a news release, Semarnat confirms that the actions carried out by Fonatur respected the environmental procedures and that “no wild animal species were registered during the clearings, under the authorizations issued by the Semarnat.” The press release added that the presence of diverse species today “corresponds to the daily activities of the ecosystem of the zone.”

According to the international organization Greenpeace, Mexico faces serious deforestation, not only in the mangroves but also in other forest systems such as tropical rainforests and dry forests. Photo courtesy of the Save Tajamar Mangrove group.

The importance of mangroves in Mexico

According to the National Commission for Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity CONABIO, Mexico is one of the countries with the biggest extension of mangroves in the world.

Patricia Santos González, a researcher with the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas, explained that the Nichupté Lagoon System, as almost every coastal lagoon system in Quintana Roo, is a transitional region between the ocean and the continent. She described the area as bodies of water where the sea area and the land merge, and come together with the fresh water aquifer that springs from underground.

Santos González, who has carried out research projects in the Nichupté Mangroves Protection Area, explains that not every wetland that is part of this lagoon system has the same protection category.

The wetlands or mangroves provide many environmental services to the ecosystem, but for the biologist there is a specific one that is fundamental due to its ability to work as a bio filter.

“Mangroves have an underground root system that is strong and that extends several meters under the aerial biomass,” she explains. “These roots enter the swamp where they are home to important populations of bacteria that work as a natural water treatment plant. Someone has called them ‘the planet’s kidneys’ and I think that is a fair comparison.”

From a biological standpoint, mangroves are very important ecosystems. They are important for human safety since they are a natural barrier against hurricanes or strong waves that may increase due to the climate change.

According to data collected in scientific studies, the loss of one hectare of mangrove is equal to the loss of 3.5 to 5 hectares of other forest systems regarding their ability to capture tons of carbon.

The loss of a mangrove is a tragedy for the coastal areas. “When a mangrove is lost, when it dies because of tree felling, clearing, a change in land use or any other reason, all the ecosystem services that it provides are lost: climate control, the coastal line stabilization, the water cycle. Since there is connectivity with the other close ecosystems, little by little the general regional health is being fragmented,” explained Santos González.

One of the legal determinants in Mexico for the clearing of a mangrove is flora and fauna relocation, a measure that must be carried out by specialists in order to mitigate environmental impacts. This should even be done publicly, so as to involve members of society in coastal wetland conservation.

For the time being, construction work in the area is provisionally suspended. But the mangrove has already been destroyed. Cut down mangroves, dead frogs and toads, and the drained swamp with buildings in the background is the current landscape of the Malecón Tajamar project, a place that shows the impacts of the intense real estate pressure in Cancun.

In Mexico, mangroves are cut down for agriculture, aquaculture, stockbreeding or tourism. Photo courtesy of the Save Mangrove group.
Mangroves are home to a huge amount of plants and animals species. Their destruction causes an ecological imbalance. Photo courtesy of the Save Tajamar Mangrove Group.
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