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Mexico Should Heed Lush Lesson of Costa Rica

This month, I had the very good fortune to visit Costa Rica, home to some of greatest biodiversity in the world. In this tiny nation, plants and animals from temperate North America and from tropical South America mingle in habitats at different altitudes (including active volcanoes and rain forests at the beach)! I marveled at hundreds of leaping dolphins, huge rain forest trees with rich canopy life, miraculous birds, sloths and anteaters.

Not surprisingly, Costa Rica is an increasingly popular travel destination, especially for nature-oriented visitors. Of course, rampant tourism can ruin natural landscapes and in so doing, wreak havoc with local communities that depend on those landscapes, which is why early on many Costa Ricans made sustainability a primary focus. The country has been preparing itself for two generations, establishing and protecting national parks and other preserves, training young people as scientists and guides, and developing a sustainable travel ethic. It's a model that Mexico could follow, instead of proceeding on a path of destroying some of its most remarkable ecological treasures for short-term gain.

Costa Rica's decision to preserve and protect the area’s astonishing natural resources and to develop in a way that benefits local communities has paid off both economically and environmentally. I was enormously impressed with the number of young Costa Ricans making careers out of environmental education, nature guiding, sustainable travel and natural resource protection, supported by government policy and motivated by their own deep appreciation for the beauty of their homeland. Indeed, the country actually ranks first in the entire world on an index from the New Economics Foundation, which compares countries’ average life expectancy, ecological footprint and feeling of well-being. Thank you, Costa Rica!

Unfortunately, Costa Rica’s model has not inspired all countries to a similar path. Almost 3,000 miles northwest of the tiny Central American country, another ecologically stunning region in the Gulf of California is under threat from Mexico’s government, which is ignoring its own environmental laws by authorizing massive development projects near fragile marine ecosystems.

Aerial view of Cabo Pulmo, at the tip of Baja California.  (Sidartha Velázquez)
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The Gulf, bordering Baja California and also known as the “Sea of Cortés,” teems with humpback whales, sea lions, devil rays, giant conches and leatherback sea turtles. It also supports hundreds of fish species in numbers so robust that schools have been known to blot out the sun above divers.

Mexican communities along the Baja coastline depend on these natural treasures as a cultural, economic and recreational resource, yet despite their significance, Mexico’s government is allowing developers to plan Cancun-style tourism that would have devastating impacts. One such proposal is the Cabo Cortés—an enormous hotel and golf complex that would have been built next to Cabo Pulmo reef, the largest living coral reef in western North America and the jewel of the Gulf of California. Only a strong grassroots campaign, millions of petitioners and organizations like our partner organization, Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), convinced Mexico’s president to reject the Cabo Cortés project.

But numerous similar projects wait in the wings.

Two projects—Paraíso del Mar and Entre Mares—are planned adjacent to each other on a fragile sandbar in the Bay of La Paz, just north of Cabo Pulmo. Another, Playa Espíritu, would be built in the Marismas Nacionales, an internationally recognized wetland that supports 20 percent of the remaining mangrove forests in Mexico. Such expanded tourism will exhaust water resources in this desert region, overwhelm the sparsely populated area with tourists and pollute the sensitive marine environment.

A diver, at Cabo Pulmo.  (Carlos Aguilera)
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The scale and concentration of these threats has required an escalation in the fight to the international level. Earthjustice and AIDA, representing local and international environmental organizations, have petitioned the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation, an organization created by the North American Free Trade Agreement. The petition asks the commission to investigate Mexico’s failure to enforce its own environmental regulations by repeatedly permitting unsustainable projects.

Mexico’s short-sighted plans to overdevelop the country’s own resources threaten not only these rare and pristine ecosystems. Mexico’s people—present and future—will be robbed of the economic and social benefits that come from the type of long-term sustainability planning that other countries like Costa Rica have wholeheartedly embraced.

Please join us and our allies in Mexico are calling on Mexico to enforce its own environmental laws to ensure that these precious resources are protected and sustainably managed so that everyone can enjoy them for years to come.