Kids halt $900 million Cancun development over mangrove damage

Photo: Malecon Tajamar development in Cancun.

CANCUN, Q. Roo — A group of kids in Cancún, one of Mexico’s hottest resort towns, has stopped the razing of dozens of hectares of mangrove forest for a massive residential/commercial development—for now.

On Nov. 4, a judge granted the children’s request to permanently suspend the 69-hectare (170 acres) mixed-use project, but ruled that the children should pay a bond of 21 million pesos (about USD$1.2 million) to offset developers’ losses. The kids’ attorneys are trying to convince the court that the bond should not apply to minors.

The Malecón Tajamar is a USD$900 million commercial and residential development in the central zone of Cancún, overlooking the Nichupté lagoon. It would include 50,000 square meters of office and commercial space, 3,600 homes, condominium towers and a Catholic church.

The project, which was started by FONATUR, Mexico’s tourism development agency, has been in the works for more than two decades. Local environmentalists have been fighting it just as long.

But after bulldozers started felling trees and chasing crocodiles out of mangrove-covered land to make way for homes, shops, and a grandiose promenade this summer, many more Cancún residents jumped into action.

In September, 113 of their children filed a complaint asking a judge to halt the project’s construction, arguing that they have the constitutional right to a healthy environment.

“If we cut everything down then we’re going to die,” Ana, a four-year-old plaintiff, told “Trees help us breathe.”

Photo: Malecon Tajamar development impacts mangroves in Cancun.
Malecon Tajamar development impacts mangroves in Cancun.

The tourism development agency did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but a spokesman told Mexican newspaper El Economista that canceling the project will result in the loss of some USD$900 million in investment.

The recent suit is the first filed in Mexico advocating for the collective rights of kids over corporate interests in order to protect the environment, said Carla Gil, the group’s lawyer, in an interview with Quartz. (Earlier this year, a group of children in the US filed a case using similar arguments to force the Obama administration to act on climate change.)

Antonella Vazquez, the mother of a plaintiff, says it’s important for children to raise their voices, even at the age of five, like her daughter did. For generations, Mexicans have had the defeatist attitude of “What for? Nothing is going to happen,” she tells Quartz.

Given the pace of development in Cancún, if her daughter doesn’t speak up, “there’s going to be nothing left for her,” she adds.
Mexico has more mangrove-covered surface than most countries, according to its own National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity. But over the past three decades, it’s lost 10% of it, data from the commission shows.

As Cancún and the nearby Mayan Riviera become more popular with tourists, the dense, swampy forest that acts as a hurricane buffer is being replaced by hotels and resorts.

“For the Cancún community, protecting the mangroves is a matter of survival,” said Araceli Dominguez, an environmentalist with Grupo Gema, a local group. “It’s not just the romanticism of wanting to protect little plants.”