Thursday, June 5, 2014

Where is the management plan for Isla Holbox, Mexico? An ecological reserve in the midst of social and political controversy

At the northeastern corner of the Yucatán Peninsula, the small island of Holbox (43km long and 2km wide) is separated from the Mexican mainland by a shallow saltwater lagoon. The 6th of June 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the Yum Balam ecological reserve, of which Holbox forms part. I arrived on this island a week ago in the early hours of the morning of Thursday 29th May. The quiet sandy streets gave no hint of the social unrest that was to erupt a few days later.

At about 4pm on Sunday 1 June, as I was sitting in a café on Holbox plaza, chatting to a local, the church bell started to ring insistently. After taking a call on his mobile, the local said that a meeting of Holbox landowners earlier that day in Kantunilikin (a small town on the mainland) had not gone well and that the bell was calling local people to the plaza to protest. As people gathered in front of the steps of the town hall, someone speaking into a megaphone called for the old mayor to step down and for a new one to be appointed. A police car, appropriated by the locals (the police had left the island earlier that day) was parked in front of the town hall and the sound of its siren mingled intermittently with the pealing of the church bell. 

The megaphone speaker apologised to tourists for the disturbance. I moved over to a doorway where three old women were gathered, watching the drama unfold. I asked them what was going on. One woman lifted a handful of sand from the street and, letting the grains trickle through her fingers, explained that it was all about the land, land that had been stolen by rich people from locals who never read the small print on the contracts they signed. An hour later, as I wandered back through the plaza, I noticed that graffiti adorned the sign in the centre of the plaza which up to then had been celebrating the ‘DIA DE LA MARINA’ on 1 June. It now read ‘NUEVO MUNICIPIO HOLBOX. 1 DE JUNIO 2014. DIA DE USOS Y COSTUMBRES’ – the 'day of the mariners' had become the 'day of traditions and customs', under a proclaimed new (self-elected) town council. Local people occupied the plaza for the rest of that day, through the night, and the following day too. As I left the island in the early hours of the morning on the 3rd of June, I noticed that the plaza was strangely empty. But the graffiti remained.

For the sake of clarity, this article separates the conflict on Holbox into 3 separate issues:
1.     The intentional sale of waterfront plots of land in La Ensenada (an undeveloped part of Holbox uninhabited by humans) by 70 Holbox ejidatarios and the unwitting sale of these ejidatarios’ rights to the ejidales of Holbox (italicised terms explained below)
2.     The major touristic development planned by the development company Peninsula Maya Developments in La Ensenada
3.     The (shelved) management plan for the Yum Balam ecological reserve (of which Holbox forms a part)

1. The sale of plots of land in La Ensenada

On Thursday 29 May (the day I arrived on Holbox), a petition appeared on Avaaz, asking signatories to “Save Holbox Island! …if you care about the environment, life and the people living on Holbox island, which is part of the Yum Balam Biosphere Reserve.” The petition (which is quite lengthy, and in Spanish) stated that:

On Sunday 1 June 2014, an assembly of ejidatarios will vote to approve the sale of land on Holbox to the company Peninsula Maya Developments who wish to build 875 villas and condominiums, three hotels, a shopping complex, access channels and a harbour.”

The gist of the petition was that these new ejidatarios had illegally obtained their ejidales rights and that these rights must be restored to their original owners in order to stop a major tourist development, by non-local developers, going ahead on Holbox against the wishes of the Holbox community (approximately 2000 people).

In Mexico, ejidatarios are owners of common land (ejidales) and agrarian rights of distribution related to that land. The areas of common land (ejidales) remain commonly owned by the ejidatarios unless and until the ejido (a body which administers the ejidales from a headquarters where it carries out transactions and holds assemblies) decides to divide up all or part of the commonly owned land into plots which are then individually owned by each ejidatario. Together, the commonly owned ejidales make up one ejido, which, as well as being an administrative body, also refers to the entirety of the common land. So, for example, the ejido (the entirety of the common land) might be divided into different parcels (ejidales) of commonly held land, distinguished by name and geographical location. Originally, when the Mexican government granted this common land to qualifying Holboceños (Holbox natives), none of the land could be sold (either individually allocated plots of land or the land held in common) – it could only be inherited by the descendants of the ejidatarios. The law was modified during the nineties allowing the individually owned plots to be sold to Mexican nationals and to national or non-national companies. It is one thing for an ejidatario to sell his/her individual plots of land. It is quite another to sell his/her rights to the commonly owned ejido/ejidales. The difference is that even if a plot of land is sold by an ejidatario, he/she is still entitled to receive distributions akin to dividends from the ejido (for example property taxes are paid to the ejido on the sale of any plots of land and these taxes (less administration fees) are eventually distributed equally as dividends between all of the ejidatarios belonging to that ejido. In addition, if the ejido decides to divide up more of the land into individual plots, the ejidatario stands to gain more land which he/she then owns individually and can sell on). These rights are valuable – they represent a potential income stream and also the right to a defined asset at some point in the future (allocated plots of land). Those who possess these rights are legally obliged to be living in the same state as the relevant ejido (in the case of Holbox, the state is Quintana Roo) or to maintain a presence there with periodic visits to the ejido or to already own property in the ejido.

Back to the situation in Holbox. In 2004, 70 out of the 117 ejidatarios on Holbox accepted an offer from the company Peninsula Maya Developments of 5 million pesos (approx. GBP£250,000) for each waterfront plot of land (which they each owned individually as this land had been allocated by the ejido). They received payment for the sale in 2008. The other 47 ejidatarios refused to sell their plots in that area (which is known as La Ensenada). According to a local source, this has led to a huge conflict within the ejidatario community, with those refusing to sell being henceforth referred to as Los Talibanes (the Taliban). A local protest group, YDH (Yo Defiendo a Holbox – I Defend Holbox), made up of ejidatarios, claim that the waterfront plots of land were actually worth 99 million pesos (approx. GBP£5 million) each and that since they did not realise that at the time, they were cheated by the buyer Peninsula Maya Developments.

What the 70 ejidatarios more recently realised is that they appear to have sold not only their waterfront plots of land in La Ensenada to Peninsula Maya Developments, but also their related common rights to all the common land/ejidales/ejido on Holbox. Talking to locals, the consensus seems to be that the ejidatarios had been hoodwinked by rich people and hadn’t read the small print in the contracts which they signed when selling their land. In the meantime, a local rumour is that the 47 ejidatarios who previously refused to sell, have been in closed negotiations with Peninsula Maya Developments and have been offered 15 million pesos for each of their waterfront plots of land in La Ensenada. It is unclear how many of these 47 ejidatarios are simply waiting for a better price to sell their land and how many are not interested in selling at all.

The Avaaz petition presents the 70 ejidatarios calling for a restitution of their common rights to the ejidales in order to stop the major tourist development planned by Peninsula Maya Developments. The group YDH points out that that the new ejidatarios are businessmen/women from the state of Yucatan, who do not live in the state of Quintana Roo. However, the petition conflates 2 separate issues. The ejidatarios want their rights to the common land of Holbox returned to them, because, understandably, they feel that they have been swindled, having never intended to sell these rights. However, when they sold their plots of land, they must have understood that these lands would be subject to development as they were selling them to a development company – Peninsula Maya Developments.

2. Peninsula Maya Developments

Heading up Peninsula Maya Developments is Fernando Ponce García and his son-in-law Ermilo Castilla Roche. Ponce García owns Bepensa which is the company used by Coca Cola to bottle its product for the Yucatan Peninsula. The Ponce family (generally referred to as los Ponces) are well known as a wealthy, powerful and well-connected Mexican family. YDH contend that 11 or 12 years ago, Ponce, the head of Peninsula Maya Developments suggested that the ejido of Holbox should form a company in order to ‘help’ Holbox with a major tourist development. Subsequently, Peninsula Maya Developments was formed by businessmen Ponce and Castilo together with the property developer Ara and the ejido for Holbox.

I checked the website of Peninsula Maya Developments to see what kind of development they are planning for La Ensenada on Holbox. The front page of the website presents an ecologically friendly image – it states that the company will only develop 10% of La Ensenada and will ensure that the rest of this pristine habitat is protected. They will employ experts in their field to design the tourist complex and the concentration of the land in the hands of one owner (Peninsula Maya Developments) rather than a multitude of ejidatarios will protect it from badly planned future ad hoc development.

“The PMD Project promotes preservation through sustainable, nature-based tourism. This concept utilizes a fraction of the land (10%) as the base for travelers and investors who want to visit Isla Holbox because of its intrinsic natural environment. This can only be accomplished applying appropriate planning and development guidelines on most or the entire island. One owner with a single vision can plan this. A sub-divided island with multiple owners who have different interests cannot.
In order to help insure that PMD property is appropriately planned to help protect all of Holbox, PMD will infuse into the Master Plan many protective measures…”

The website provides a link to a presentation with more detail on the project – I had to register with my name and email address to gain access.

The first half of the 41-slide presentation (in English) was not hugely interesting or informative in terms of the kind of development planned. It was only on reaching slide 16, that the language started to reveal the intentions of the developers, and, in particular, the exclusive tone of the planned development.

At Peninsula Maya Developments, real estate becomes a part of the attraction of the resort. By clustering three different 50-75 room boutique hotels around a single, large ‘outdoor living room’, the three become a pivotal chapter in the story of this magical island. Each appeals to the guest seeking a specific experience – oceanic adventure, culinary arts, and wellness/life extension.”

Ironically, most of the existing hotels on Holbox (owned by locals) have between 10 and 29 rooms, with one 'large' hotel which has 68 rooms. So, ‘boutique’ hotels already exist on Holbox (in the inhabited part of the island), and many of them are pretty upmarket (see for example the eco-friendly Casa Las Tortugas). 875 private villas and condominiums are also planned as part of the PMD development which would bring an estimated 6,000 people to this currently uninhabited part of the island.

The PMD presentation goes on to describe its three boutique hotels as follows:

The three share the spectacular deck, which is organized so it serves as a dramatic entry, a signature restaurant, a pool area and a collection of quaint shops for each hotel…. They draw strength from one another and from the uniqueness of the living-room-as-a-small-village concept.”

Many small local shops, owned and run by people who live on Holbox, and selling their own goods, already exist on Holbox – in the inhabited part of the island.

The PMD hyperbole continues:

The outdoor living room is the social hub of the resort where guests and residents alike gather in a near-theatrical setting that reflects their cultural interests and casts them as players in a performance that unfolds each day and night. With the two and three storey high porticos of the three hotels as backdrops and palms and tropical shrubs and flowers as set pieces, this splendid stage provides a strong emotional connection to both the land and the sea. The 25,000 square foot living room…is its own destination within a destination.”

At this point, have a look at the video ‘130 seconds of Isla Holbox, Mexico’ which provides a good sense of what real life on Holbox is like - and how far removed the vision of PMD is from the local culture and community. The slightly longer video, Sin Holbox no hay Paraiso (Without Holbox there is no Paradise) was made by locals on Holbox about 18 months ago, seeking international help to protect their island. Locals are currently working on another video which will be released soon.

Coming back to the PMD development: according to the presentation, it will provide an ‘attractive destination for celebrity musicians’ because, amongst other things, the planned development includes a state of the art recording studio and an outdoor amphitheatre. Yet, the presentation insists, “the resort engages the Holboceños as partners in the future of the island. They are among the resorts’ decision makers.” This quietly ignores the question of whether the local people want the resort in the first place. Some may welcome it (in the hope of gaining employment and more tourist trade) but, from the conversations I had over the last few days, it seems that most locals do not want this development to go ahead. The exclusive tone of the language describing the planned development in the PMD presentation suggests that it will be anything but inclusive of the local community. The presentation’s reference (towards the end) to “community input and participation” in the development is highly dubious. What is more revealing is PMD’s description in the presentation of the project phasing:

Development will follow market demand.

Future permitted phases will remain natural environments until or unless there is demand.”

The Peninsula Maya Developments website and presentation claim that Holbox needs to be protected from unplanned and unmanaged development, and that they are best placed to do this, having an array of outside experts at their fingertips. Nowhere does the presentation (dated 2014) refer to a shelved, community-driven management plan whereby the locals of Holbox wish to regulate, on their terms, the development, and protection, of their island.

3. The management plan for the Yum Balam ecological reserve (which includes Isla Holbox)

More recently, another petition has appeared calling for the Mexican government to ‘draw up’ a management plan for the Yum Balam ecological reserve. Once again, the wording of this petition is misleading in that it suggests that a management plan does not exist. From my conversations with locals on Holbox over the last few days, I learnt that during the summer of 2011, several workshops were held on Holbox with various stakeholders (fishermen, service providers (eg hotels and tour operators), local business owners) who reached agreement (described by one local as a ‘compromise’) with the government bodies CONANP and SEMERNAT on what the Yum Balam management plan should contain in relation to Holbox. Crucially, I was told that all parties agreed that the area known as La Ensenada should be untouched – ie protected from development in the future. CONANP (Comision Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas) is the Mexican Commission for Protected Areas and SEMERNAT (Secretaria de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales) is the Mexican Secretariat for the Environment and Natural Resources. A local who attended the workshops told me that CONANP and SEMERNAT promised that the Yum Balam management plan would be circulated by November 2011 at the latest. There is still no sign of the management plan. When stakeholders have called to find out where it is, they have received various responses: it has been drafted, finalised, printed, it is just about ready to send out…but still no management plan has appeared.

If the Yum Balam management plan were released, assuming that it restricts any development of La Ensenada, this would of course pose a problem for the major tourist development planned by Peninsula Maya Developments. Draw your own conclusions.

The Yum Balam management plan is urgently needed on Holbox for other reasons too. While I was on the island, a police patrol boat carried out a night-raid on the lagoon separating Holbox from the Mexican mainland. They seized two fishing boats with 42 illegal nets between them. There may have been other illegal nets in the water which the patrol boat could not get to. Illegal fishing in the lagoon is causing huge problems for the local fishermen on Holbox (it is a fishing community) who have noticed their stocks dwindling as the illegal nets catch more and more juveniles.

Holbox is known for its whale shark tours from May to September when whale sharks congregate in the waters off its coast. There are about 10 whale shark tour operators on Holbox. When I asked one of the operators about a code of conduct, I was told that one existed between the operators but it was not written down. Despite this verbal understanding between tour operators, not all of them abide by the same rules. For example some boats will chase after just one whale shark in the hope of fulfilling their promise to the tourists on board of being able to snorkel with these magnificent creatures. Other operators don’t join this chase and prefer to wait longer and approach the whale sharks more calmly and sensitively. Some operators had posters of rules outside their shops – but even here there were discrepancies with some listing the required distance between a snorkeller and a whale shark as a minimum of 5metres, others as a minimum of 2 metres.

There seems to be general agreement though that the captains of the boats are extremely vigilant in stopping tourists trying to touch the whale sharks. A management plan could include a written code of conduct which regulates these activities – this would then help to counter the claims of outside developers such as PMD that the ecology of Holbox is not adequately protected.

What does the future hold for Isla Holbox?

In 2005 after Hurricane Wilma, foreign aid flowed into Holbox to help with the devastation. In 2008 the 70 ejidatarios (finally) received payment from Peninsula Maya Developments for the sale of their waterfront plots of land. Locals described to me how the island has changed a lot since these two injections of cash, pointing to the increase of golf cars on the island (some families own more than one car per family) and the construction of 2 storey concrete houses compared to the traditional one storey palapas (thatched with palm fronds). It is undeniable that local development on Holbox is happening and that the island is changing.

At the start of this article I described how locals had gathered in the main square of Holbox on 1 June to protest at the outcome of a meeting in the mainland town of Kantunilkin. This meeting was an assembly of the Holbox ejido with the new ejidatarios to approve the division of Holbox into four ejidos (Peninsula Holbox, Isla Holbox, Holbox and Punta Holbox). Outside the meeting, while the new division of Holbox was approved by 70 out of 117 ejidatarios, the police prevented the former (disenfranchised) ejidatarios from entering the assembly. The injury of an elderly ejidatario after the meeting (when the car of the director of public security for local government ran over the elderly gentleman’s foot and then continued without stopping) prompted the crowd to attack the vehicle with stones. The police responded by firing tear gas at the crowd. This was the prequel to the church bell ringing in the plaza of Holbox a few hours later and the locals' occupation of the town hall – in an attempt to force the government to talk to them about their grievances. On 2 June, a delegation of the former ejidatarios travelled to Cancun to talk to the Secretary for the government of the state of Quintana Roo. On the return of this delegation, later that evening, they surrendered the town hall and disbanded the occupiers, on the basis (and in the hope) that the 1 June assembly may be declared void.

This conflict raises difficult questions. For example, if the rights to the common land of Holbox were returned to the 70 old ejidatarios, would they still be calling for protection of Holbox against a major tourist development or would they sell these rights (which they now know are worth a lot of money) to the next bidder? They were prepared to sell their plots of land to a developer in 2004. Where was their concern for protecting the environment of Holbox, and their children’s heritage, then? Or have they realised that the money from the sale of their lands has not improved their quality of life as much as they imagined and has cost them a lot more in terms of loss of heritage, and perhaps even identity?

Can the community on Holbox come together despite the divisions which exist between the former ejidatarios and Los Talibanes, the ejidatarios who would not sell, and some or all of whom who may have now agreed to sell via closed discussions with PMD? Can the community, which consists of native Holboceños and incomers who have developed local businesses there (such as the beachfront hotels) and who mainly work in the tourist industry, agree on a vision for the island whereby the island’s culture and ecology is managed by the people who live there?

Perhaps the only thing that is clear from the tangled conflict on Holbox is that self-management via a government-supported and resourced management plan, by a local community who live on and know their island, is preferable to 'management' by outside property developers who claim to have the best interests of the island’s ecology, culture and its community of 2000 people at its corporate heart.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting, Ruth, but is just one of many similar incidents. I do not blame the developers, opportunists are ever-present, but greedy owners and ineffective/corrupt government. D.