Editor’s note: Juan Bezaury Creel, author of the following perspective piece, is an environmental policy associate for The Nature Conservancy – Mexico, an NGO. In this piece, he describes an innovative effort in Mexico to protect the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve from the effects of uncontrolled shoreline development. Underlying the site’s protection is an environmental zoning plan (EZP), published in May 2002. In Mexico, EZPs are the legal instrument allowing for integrated coastal management.

By Juan E. Bezaury Creel

In the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico, along the Meso-American Reef, lies the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. A World Heritage Site, the reserve covers 1.6 million acres (6500 km2) of coastal and marine habitats, from tropical rainforest to mangroves and coral reefs. Recognized worldwide for its biodiversity, the site contains some areas that have been zoned off-limits to humans under the reserve’s management plan, which controls land use and activities in public properties and waters.

However, several businesses and private coastal properties remain within the reserve from before its designation in 1986. Under Mexican law, land tenure within a protected area is not necessarily altered when the area is designated. Until this past May, there was no plan to mitigate environmental effects from uncontrolled development of these private parcels in Sian Ka’an, the single-most important threat to the biological integrity of the site.

Upon its publication on May 24, 2002, the environmental zoning plan (EZP) for the reserve became the legal instrument that controls land use over the private properties within the site. Representing a 10-year, joint governmental and NGO effort, the Sian Ka’an EZP features a system of “transferable development easements”. These easements allow for limited development transferability by property owners. In contrast to “transferable development rights” – with which planners have experimented in other areas of the world – the easements are not as freely marketable, allowing for easier enforcement.

As it does for all islands in the reserve, the EZP bans development along a total of 35.5 km, or 28%, of the reserve’s coastline. These areas contain the most ecologically important coastal ecosystems and a representative system of the area’s coastal vegetation assemblages. The development potential of any private parcels on these lands can be transferred to less ecologically sensitive coastal properties within the reserve.

Over the remaining 102 km of coastline without total protection, limited development may occur. One vacation home is permitted on each existing lot, and further subdivisions to lots with less than a 100-m sea frontage are prohibited. The most-likely “balanced development” scenario could include a mixture of vacation homes and hotels for a total of around 450 homes (average 4.41 houses per km of coastline) and around 750 hotel rooms (average 8.9 rooms per km of coastline). Under the EZP, basic hotel densities within the reserve’s 1,580 hectares (15.8 km2) of private coastal property range from 0.35-0.5 hotel rooms per hectare. These densities could be increased somewhat as incentives for owners of large parcels to not subdivide their property, or for owners within the no-development zones when they transfer their rights to less sensitive areas.

Allowed development, even if planned at a very low level of intensity, will certainly increase pressures on the resources of the Sian Ka’an coast. Depending on the balance reached between vacation homes and hotels, the average daily number of tourists in the reserve could fluctuate from 3,000 to 4,200 and the resident population of the reserve – now close to 1,000 – could fluctuate between 4,500 and 5,700. The balanced scenario described above would result in 8,400 m3/day of water that would need to be pumped out from a very limited aquifer, captured from rainfall or trucked in. After use, the 6,200 m3/day of waste water would need to be treated. Garbage generated could add up to 2,160 metric tons per year, and additional fisheries pressure from the local population for home consumption could represent demand for 415 metric tons of extra fish products per year.

Nevertheless the most important challenge is the establishment of procedures, systems and controls that allow for adequate monitoring and enforcement of the EZP. EZPs are still relatively weak tools, mainly due to the lack of human and financial resources for enforcement. As a result, enforcement comes mainly from public outcry and pressure. The concept of “environmental white guards” – being developed by Amigos de Sian Ka’an for an adjacent portion of the coast – might prove to be a model that provides the Sian Ka’an EZP with a good set of teeth. This model integrates a non-official operative network of NGOs, interested individuals and government officials. When a network participant observes an act of noncompliance, he coordinates with other participants to inform the government agency in charge of solving the noncompliance problem. Capacity allowing for public broadcasting efforts, and/or direct legal action to resolve the noncompliance issue, is also created within the network.

The Sian Ka’an EZP does not represent by itself a magic solution but – used in conjunction with the site’s management plan, administrative capacity and a good measure of strategic social support – it can become an innovative way to mitigate the effects of uncontrolled coastal development.

For more information:
Juan Bezaury Creel, Mexico Operative Unit, The Nature Conservancy, 4245 North Fairfax Drive, Suite 100, Arlington, VA 22203-1606, USA. Tel +1 703 841 4881; E-mail: jbezaury@tnc.org