Cuzamá Cenote (Photo: Google)

YUCATAN, (Auguat 31, 2021).- Among the dense jungle that extends through the Hydrological Reserve of the Ring of Cenotes in Yucatan, Filiberto Pech makes his way down a dirt road with his ‘mototaxi’.

He takes tourists to see its town, Cuzamá, Yucatan municipality, of just 5,000 inhabitants, and the more than 200 cenotes of extraordinary beauty that are hidden under the subsoil of this Maya community and that at the time were considered sacred by the original peoples. Along the way, he passes billboards with the same message several times: “cenote for sale” —some handmade and others posted by real estate professionals. Pech estimates that there must be 20 for sale in his town, some for the modest price of 500,000 Mexican pesos ($ 24,500). “The townspeople sell them because they don’t have the money to support them or the ability to attract tourism,” explains Pech.

In the Yucatan peninsula, there are no rivers. This paradisiacal enclave, whose east coasts attract more than 25 million tourists a year in the area knows as Riviera Maya, accumulates the heavy rains of the hurricane season underground in a network of underground aquifers that erode the limestone rock. The slow process over the years is capable of forming large caves filled with water, which if they are lucky enough to have an open entrance to the sky is called a cenote, a turquoise freshwater hole that stands out in the greenery from the jungle.

The ancient Maya peoples considered them a sacred channel of connection with the gods where they made offerings and sacrifices. Expert estimates place their number between 7,000 and 8,000 throughout the Peninsula, some near tourist centers such as Tulum or Puerto Morelos, but the vast majority are in the interior near small towns far from large coastal cities.

One of them was owned by Pech’s father. He remember that he sold his cenote next to a piece of land last year for half a million Mexican pesos (24,800 USD) to another neighbor of the town. “We did not have the capital to maintain the ladder or to build a booth to charge the entrance fee of 50 pesos (less than 2.5 dollars),” he says. The tour guide, who has been working in the town for 53 years, assures that it is a good way to attract capital and generate employment for his community.

“If someone with money buys it and has it beautiful, it is good for the people because it generates work,” he says through his sunglasses and with a warm smile framed by the metal of his dental work. This is the case of one of his four daughters, who got a job in the restaurant that a businessman built on a plot of land with a cenote that he bought for a million pesos.

The Angelita cenote, a circular pool just over 60 meters deep and located 17 kilometers from Tulum (Mexico).
The Angelita cenote, a circular pool just over 60 meters deep and located 17 kilometers from Tulum, Quintana Roo. Photo: (Claudio Alvarez)

State regulations do not stipulate any restrictions for the purchase of land that is equipped with a cenote. The Department of Environmental Conservation of the Secretariat for Sustainable Development of Yucatán points out that there is no specific law for the purchase of a plot that contains an entrance to the aquifers, it is simply forbidden for their owners to modify them. In addition, they must commit to keeping it free of contamination —with the risk that any substance may leak into the aquifer network — and if they find Maya archaeological remains, they must report it to the authorities. In practice, anyone with capital can acquire a cenote even if it is in the Reserve of the Rings, although in this case they could not build on it.

Roberto Fuentes, born in Mexico City, bought one that came on land that he used to build a hotel with a restaurant near Homún. Now he is looking to sell it to start a new sustainable cabin business in the town. “When I bought it they were going to use it to make an ice factory, but I bought it to have my house with a cenote. It would not serve to attract tourism because it is small and difficult to access, only for some divers to pay to explore it, ” he explains. Its land has 16,000 square meters and is one of the few that remain for private sale in the area, the rest belong to the ejidatarios, the families – mostly of Maya origin – who own these territories after the agrarian reform of the Mexican Revolution. “In those cases there has to be an assembly of the ejidatarios that make up the ejido to approve the sale, there are like 200 members,” he details. The businessman assures that his offer is very cheap: a first payment of 120,000 pesos and then monthly installments of 50,000 until completing the total price of 1.5 million pesos (slightly less than 75,000 dollars).

The lack of protection of these ecosystems impacted biologist Carolina Aragón on her trip to Tulum. “I have seen how they modify them: they explore the jungle in search of cenote formators —a tree whose long roots penetrate the earth, revealing water deposits—, they find them and sell the ejido land to you because they need the money. They even dynamite the ground to make the entrances ”, she narrates. For this reason, she launched herself to start a collection of signatures on change.org to protect and regulate the aquifers in the area. “The legal situation is super gray, there is a hole there that allows the sale in addition to other activities.

The waters of Mexico are protected by law and no one can be the owner of a river, a lake or a flow ”, explains Aragón, who insists that cenotes are not legally defined as underground rivers. However, her petition did not reach the required minimum number of signatures after more than two years. “There is a great ignorance of the richness and importance of the cenotes, due to their Maya cultural background and natural beauty,” she laments. An example are the hotels with private cenotes, the clandestine parties inside their caves and the garbage that accumulates inside after the passage of visitors. “They are the entrances to the aquifers that are connected to each other and the waste or contamination can affect the entire network. They sustain the life of Yucatan and its jungle ”, she says.

Source: El Pais

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