Trial and error in a Mexican beach town

When general store owner Melchor Villanueva leans on his countertop he can see his whole world under his hands. The counter’s glass surface displays photos of his community: young soccer players, teens in their coming-of-age quince años finest, and bandanna-wearing fishermen. Many descend from survivors of Hurricane Janet, which in 1955 killed a third of the population of Xcalak, a beach town on the Mexico-Belize border, and destroyed the town’s coconut plantations. “It left only sand,” Villanueva recalls.

Villanueva had arrived in Xcalak just two months before the hurricane to pick coconuts. Afterwards, he and many fellow survivors turned to the sea for sustenance and commerce.

Meanwhile to the north, Mexico’s federal government encouraged the development of Cancún and a new kind of commerce: mass tourism. Over the next few decades, the people of Xcalak watched as huge hotels around Cancún replaced mangrove forests and let their untreated waste flow onto coral reefs. Larger fishing operations moved in to meet tourist demand.

Xcalakeños began to fear runaway development more than hurricanes.

To manage the impact of these industries, in the late 1990s, the community, including Villanueva, asked for – and received – national park status. Today, local fishermen, tourism workers and even national park officials in Xcalak each tell their own version of what happened next, but they converge on this: just declaring a place a park is not enough to create a resilient community. Generating new sources of income while protecting the underlying natural resources has required the community to experiment, err, revise its plans, and repeat.

Read the rest of this feature in Rethink Magazine: [html] [pdf] or in Spanish in El País [html] [pdf].