By Anne de Carbuccia for Made in Grazia
Gods, humans and animals have coexisted in the Yucatán Peninsula since the night of time. The centre of the world for some, the tip of the planet for others, and a refuge for most. The Yucatán’s extraordinary biodiversity has always been coveted by its neighbors. The Cenotes, or sinkholes, are probably the main reason for the presence of both humans and deities since time immemorial. These flooded chambers connect to each other to create one of the largest cave systems in the world. They were once considered gateways to the afterlife, sacred waters filtered by the earth. They make this ethereal world so clear and pure that you can see straight through them, up into the sky, a mystical experience. A symphony of fresh water in the underworld that has carved its way through the Peninsula and the Quintana Roo region, all the way to the turquoise ocean. The crib of the Mayans civilization, their source of power, the secret to their colonization of the Meso-American coast. The pyramids are there to confirm it. Gigantic and mysterious, a towering memory above the green carpet of the endless forest. A reminder of how far a great civilization can reach and how fast and sudden can be its demise.
The Cenotes connect the human world to the essence of everything. Here fresh and salt water meet and become one, here all life is born, the womb of Mother Earth. In the Yucatán Peninsula there is a world above and a dimension below. They run hand in hand and one cannot exist without the other. The wealth of its biodiversity, the beauty of its coast, protected by the second barrier reef in the world, the magnitude of its archeological sites and the unique presence of the Cenotes, have kept the Yucatán peninsula at the center of our planet. It is considered a pinnacle of modern tourism and soon becoming one of the top vacation destinations in the world.
Cancún was developed in the 70’s and quickly expanded its reign all the way down the coast. Today Playa del Carmen is considered the fastest growing city in Latin America, and the eco-chic lounge mood of Tulum is a source of inspiration and restoration for millions. The Riviera Maya creates wonderful holiday memories to a very diverse range of tourists, and the region provides thousands of jobs for Mexicans.
Today each and every type of development faces the same environmental challenges. Reefs and mangrove forests, vital to the reproduction of sea life, are our strongest allies against violent storms, sea-level rise and shoreline erosion. But even New Age Tulum has been struggling to preserve them in its eco-development boom. It is difficult to build even the loveliest of hotels without touching the mangroves and avoid running on diesel fuel. Even yoga retreats are caught dumping black water into the ground!
So what future lays ahead for the Yucatán Peninsula? How can the region keep up this extraordinary economical growth without destroying the very biosphere which attracts and brings joy to so many visitors?
Meeting pregnant bull sharks
For a long time, I have been dreaming of collaborating with sharks for my One Planet One Future art project. Every week the data released about this key species gets worse. We fish over 11,000 sharks per hour just for their fins. When Lili Rodriguez Cortés, my friend, ally and dedicated Ocean protector told me about the shark migration in Quintana Roo, I jumped on the opportunity. The great female bull sharks have come here since the beginning of times to give birth in peace inside the forest mangroves and turquoise lagoons of the region. Their regular presence has, of course, also become an extraordinary attraction for divers. A unique way to get close and personal, connect with them and rid ourselves of our ancestral fears. The ocean was really rough that day. The current was so strong that the dive would have been impossible without the help of a stable rope. When I reached the bottom, 30m below, these incredible creatures almost immediately came to greet me, inquisitively. The largest one must have been around 3m long and very very pregnant. You could tell they were used to human presence and had accepted it. We collaborated for 50 minutes in the blue silence. The five of them circled my installation, their presence constant and respectful. They could hear my heart beat, and I could feel their curiosity. I captured the image I have always wished for, and so much more.
The experience was of course enhancing and enlightening. Certain purists will probably shutter at my words, believing that these sentient beings should be left alone. But can that really be possible in the future? Our planet is becoming smaller and smaller, with less and less space between us and other species. Encounters are bound to happen and in that case why not make them a constructive experience? Most of the front-liners and experts that I met in the Quintana Roo region agree that getting used to cohabitation is necessary today and will be even more so in the future. Knowing more and experiencing this species up close could be helpful to our coexistence, and it could also be the only hope for its survival in the future.
Xcalak a new beginning
We drove five hours from Playa del Carmen to Xcalak, a charming fisherman town, on the border with Belize. The biodiversity here is as unique as Cancún’s, with generous reefs on one side and sumptuous wetlands, lagoons and mangrove forests on the other. A few years ago, this community made a very important choice and became a case study for eco-tourism. Over the years, most fishing villages got hit by the decline of resources due to local and regional overfishing. While the fishermen were spending more time catching less fish, especially lobster and conch, the main staple of their diet, the “Costa Maya” a large-scale regional development plan for tourism was being implemented by the state government. The plan was for high impact development, similar to Cancún. The community was not consulted and was concerned about its consequences on their livelihoods. Many Xcalak residents expressed interest in ecotourism as an economic alternative to fishing; however, they wanted to ensure that tourism gains would benefit not only developers, but also the local population. With the support of the National Ecology Institute and a few NGOs, the community created a “tourist reserve” where fishermen could pursue productive activities compatible with conservation, like sports fishing and ecological tours. Early on, people in the community identified the protection of coastal resources mainly to guarantee economic benefits. They did not have a particularly strong conservation ethic but they became interested in a National Park to achieve their goals and keep their own identity.
Ten years ago thanks to the National Commission of Protective Areas (CONANP) they established “Jóvenes por Xcalak”, their first educational project dedicated to the youth of the community that has created a new generation of Ocean protectors with a decade long experience. Ruben, Mimi, Daniel, Panchita and Eduardo, started out with the project ten years ago and are all in their twenties today. They are similar to so many of the Latin American youth I have crossed paths with in my travels. They have cell phones, listen to Latino rap, probably drink too much Coca-Cola, mark their bodies with tattoos and have a secondary school education. For the last ten years, twice a month they have volunteered to be stewards for nature. From turtle monitoring, to elk coral restoration, to conch shell conservancy and community science. CONANP and NGO’s support their training so they can continue restoration and conservation on their own and pass on their knowledge to future generations. They are the first trained eco-leaders of this community, and they are already role models for the younger generations. They speak of their community with great pride and have a strong vision for the future for their part of the planet. They know that by preserving, monitoring and embracing the natural habitat which surrounds them it will give them back what they need to live and potentially bring a type of tourism which could improve their assets rather than tarnish them. What makes them stand out is how much they believe in their future, they embrace their responsibilities towards the natural world as an option for hope and vision. They feel like they know where they are going, and it makes them happy. They carry a serene joy at the bottom of their smiles. They are, and they will be. Their children are already the second generation of Ocean protectors. Thanks to the example of their parent’s cohabitation with the natural world, it is already ingrained in them in a natural way. They are ready for the future. Xcalak lives at the rhythm of the wind, the beat of the rain, the light of its beaches, the hope of the ocean. Nature is noisy in a quiet way here. Its inhabitants have chosen to keep it a quiet, happy place, preserving their most precious treasure for the future; a healthy ocean to live with in peace.
Sargassum seaweed: the global invasion
But that peace is threatened by the sargassum seaweed invasion, which has affected the entire Caribbean region in the last few years. It has come all the way down to their shores, violating a part of their blue waters, killing sea turtles and fish, shocking the mangroves and suffocating the reefs. They know why the “red death” has arrived; this algal bloom grows because of two things humans keep putting into the ocean: nitrogen and heat. The nitrogen comes from the agricultural runoffs and unsustainable sewage systems elsewhere, from the Caribbean coast and from rivers thousands of miles away — the Amazon, the Mississippi and even the Congo. There is a lot more to come and they will have to live with it, as they do with the hurricanes that get stronger every year.
They help me create an installation on top of a mound of sargassum, we place the skull of a sperm whale which suffocated from too much plastic. In the background the ocean is even more turquoise next to the red tide. They know that we can only resolve the growing challenges of the future by working together and never against each other. They also gather data and share local knowledge with the scientific community, thus becoming an active part of a new chain system for advancement. They have learnedthat progress comes at a cost. The history of the Yucatán tourism development allowed them to choose a different path. Making things evolve is part of our human impulse; I consider it resilience, and it is our hope for the future.