A closer look at the issues of unsustainable development faced by the region of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.
By Melissa Douglas of Mexico Travel Secrets
All Photography by Melissa Douglas
Virtually everyone that has travelled to Mexico or has considered doing so has heard of the Mexican Yucatan, although most people that care to venture to the area tend to stick to the tourist hubs around its fringes. Destinations like Tulum, Playa Del Carmen and Cancun are among Mexico’s most notable travel destinations, though mention places like Rio Lagartos and Mani and people will likely draw a blank.
An Introduction to the Yucatán Peninsula
The Yucatan peninsula, in southeastern Mexico is a sprawling area of 76,300 square miles. The tristate area contains the Mexican states of Campeche, Quintana Roo and the Yucatan state within its grasp.
Much of this region is covered by lush, dense jungle home to a unique and special biodiversity of animals, flora and fauna quite unlike what you will find anywhere else in the world. Here, big cats like the jaguarundi, the ocelot, the puma and the solitary jaguar stalk their prey through the Chamaedorea oblongata trees and hundreds of species of mariposas (butterflies), birds, insects, animals and lizards call the area their home, many of which are endangered or native to the region.
But with a substantial increase in tourism and of retirees, expats and foreigners relocating to the region in recent years, and the subsequent surge in demand for housing developments, the destruction of their habitats is being accelerated at a rate that is far too fast for activists to be able to respond or react accordingly.
Unsustainable Development in the Yucatán
One of the major topics of conversation and controversy across the Yucatan and wider Mexico in recent years has been the construction of the Maya train. The train, one of the main initiatives taken by president AMLO (Andrés Manuel López Obrado) since his presidency started in 2018, aims to provide better public transport links within the region.
Interestingly, despite the cultural and historical importance of the area, and the abundance of archeological sites like world famous Chichen Itza, Coba and Uxmal ruins, public transport links in Southern Mexico leave a lot to be desired – at times acting as a deterrent for a wider exploration of the area. Some places are virtually inaccessible without renting a car and driving through Mexico independently, and others require taking multiple buses that run on infrequent schedules.
To encourage and aid tourism interest, the tracks will extend across 1,554 km of the peninsula, also reaching out to Boca del Cerro and the UNESCO protected Mayan city of Palenque in Chiapas state too. Construction no doubt disrupts and disturbs the natural habitats of many animals in the region but it is interesting to note the way in which many people have selective outrage about the project.
This is selective outrage in the sense that, social media “activists” and the general public have become infuriated about the train project off the back of snippets of information they have seen on TikTok reels and Insta feeds, while being blissfully unawares of the countless other construction projects and environmentally damaging practices in the region.
Unsustainable real estate developments in the Yucatán
Giant housing developments and real estate projects have sprouted up around the Yucatan at an alarming rate in the past few years. One only has to look up new build addresses in Tulum and Merida to note that some new neighbourhoods are not even registered on Google Maps yet, and a street view simply shows swathes of now destroyed jungle.
Studies in 2019 indicated that deforestation had destroyed 40% of the Yucatan jungle, and that illegal logging in the region had become so widespread that the peninsula has lost more than 60 to 70% of its biodiversity in the last century.
Just four short years have passed since those studies were completed but with the recent and scheduled construction projects in the region, it looks like deforestation is being accelerated at an alarming rate. Yet nobody is speaking up.
During the global pandemic, Mexico became a hotspot for Americans, Canadians, and other international travelers to work remotely from, owing to its lax entry requirements at a time of a global health crisis.
During their time in Mexico, those that ventured here quickly learned that the “dangerous” stereotypes of Mexico were not warranted in the Yucatan. Drawn by the lower cost of living, better weather and ease of relocation, many have decided to stay in the area permanently, and have spread the word of how wonderful the Yucatan is far and wide, encouraging other interested parties to also make the move.
At present, there are actually more Americans relocating south of the border to Mexico, than Mexicans moving in the opposite direction. Interesting, given all of the prior outrage about the need to “build a great wall”.
A lack of protected zones in the Yucatán
There are currently 25 protected zones in the Yucatan, including the UNESCO protected Ría Celestún Biosphere Reserve and the Rio Lagartos Reserve. These are protected at a federal level but they only make up a small percentage of the 76,300 square mile area which the Yucatan occupies.
Everything else is considered fair game to build upon and when labor costs are cheap and foreign investors have deep pockets, few people will turn down the promise of money in favor of the environment – particularly since locals often live at or below the poverty line.
You could argue that the key areas of importance for conservation purposes have already been designated as such, and the remaining areas are not home to the same delicate ecosystems. But if in ten years from now, the Yucatan is filled with condos and urban sprawl and only a handful of small pockets of greenery and jungle here and there, will it really be the same Yucatan?
Will migratory birds like the American flamingo and the Reddish Egret still migrate here every winter when they have to weave between towering hotel complexes and luxe apartment buildings and there is a greater human presence?
Will the already endangered big cats of the Yucatan continue to survive and procreate if they are pushed into smaller and smaller habitats? Do we really want the rural Yucatan to become another over developed Riviera Maya?
Poor ecological practices
Unfortunately, deforestation and construction are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the amount of damage that an increased human presence is doing to the Yucatan. A recent study found that as much as 25% of water waste from Yucatan peninsula households was pumped untreated and contaminated into nearby cenotes and natural bodies of water.
Many travellers that are attracted to the Mexican Carribean magic town of Tulum are drawn to its “eco chic” message and the romantic idea of sipping green juice and tucking into refreshing and healthy acai bowls in environmentally friendly eco resorts by the sea. However if these people took the time to do their due diligence and research, they would quickly note that a lot of this is “greenwashing” and false marketing.
In fact, most of the resorts here are not even neutral to the environment, let alone environmentally friendly. Many of these properties often pump their waste directly into the Carribean Sea, use excessive amounts of plastic and do not correctly dispose of their garbage.
Sadly very few of the people who travel to this region take the time to research and clarify whether these “eco resorts” are actually legitimate.
Properties that make the bare minimum amount of effort not to disrupt the animals and lifeforms that have been living in the area for millenia are hailed as eco heroes when they should have thought twice about constructing touristic businesses in the area in the first place.
Approach Going Forward
When developments and behaviours are as destructive as the unsustainable development in the Yucatan, it is easy to start pointing fingers and pushing blame. Blame is pushed upon the communities of Yucatec Mayans selling their ejido land to flashy investors promising them great wealth in exchange for their farmlands, and blame is pushed upon the “priveleged” foreigners seeking a more relaxed pace of life in Mexico.
In reality, we should be pushing for better regulations from the Mexican government. As individuals, we can and should think ethically about the societal and environmental impact of our decisions but the reality is that some people are simply misinformed and unawares of how damaging the situation is.
A foreign retiree searching for the perfect home in rural Mexico after the passing of a spouse may be blinded by the excitement of a new adventure in culturally-rich Mexico, completely unaware of the natural habitats that were destroyed to clear land for their house.
As tourism and the number of people relocating to Mexico both increase, the government needs to regulate urban planning and not allow a free-for-all where people build whatever they want, wherever they want. The environmental issues are just one of several ethical concerns for Mexico with the recent influx of people relocating here, along with the fact that rent prices and Airbnb rates are also not regulated.
Hopefully these are just teething problems that will be ironed out in the future as Mexico comes to grips with this heightened demand and new reality. However the sad reality is that while so many people are getting rich from development in this region, many officials and regulatory bodies seem happy to turn a blind eye.
Final Thoughts on Unsustainable Development in the Yucatán
For now, the Yucatan peninsula, remains a beautiful part of North America, with miles upon miles of pristine undisturbed coastline, gorgeous beaches, and remote Mayan ruins that require journeying along remote jungle roads with zero phone service to get to. But things are changing rapidly and who can say for how much longer the magic here will remain.
People are always commenting that 15 years ago Tulum was little more than just a sleepy fishing village, built around the sunbleached remnants of the Mayan settlement of Zama. Today it is the epitome of gentrification.
Other quiet villages like El Cuyo, Chuburna and San Crisanto are reminiscent of a Tulum from decades ago, but for how much longer?
Will people take action before it is too late, or will talk of unsustainable development and environmental concerns in the Yucatan become just another topic of armchair trivia and passing commentary – much like comments that the ice caps are melting, or Antarctica is getting warmer – with no real intention to take action and a sense of detachment from the problem?
About the Author
Melissa Douglas is a British Travel Writer based in Merida, Mexico. She runs the Mexico focused travel blog www.mexicotravelsecrets.com which aims to encourage people to travel off the beaten path in Mexico.