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Cancun Can't Last as Long as Mangroves, Can Humanity Outlive Cancun?

For related articles and more information please visit OCA's Resource Center on Agriculture and Climate.

Cancun, billed as a tropical beach paradise, resembles nothing so much as a waterfront Las Vegas. Casinos, cruise ships and U.S. hotel and restaurant chains have replaced the mangrove forests and threaten to destroy the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, along with the sea life that inhabited these once thriving ecosystems. Cancun is a depressing example of paradise lost.

But it's easy not to notice. In the hotel zone, the memory of mangroves has been wiped clean by asphalt, concrete and irrigated landscaping. It's hard to imagine there was ever anything here but white sands. It's harder still to think there's anything left to lose. Cancun's unsustainable beaches won't last as long as the mangroves did. 80 million dollars worth of sand was recently dredged out from under octopuses to make up for losses caused by hurricanes. For the time being, this relatively small investment preserves billions in revenue from tourism, but, taking the long view, it's difficult to justify the "beach rescues." Inevitably, the sea levels will rise and turn Cancun into Atlantis.

But there is world beyond Cancun and there are things we have yet to lose that are more precious than beach-front property. On the business-as-usual track we're taking now, climate change threatens the very elements of life, soil and water. Our hope of conserving soil and water is linked to whether we can save what's left of the mangroves and the coral reefs.

Mexico is losing 25,000 acres of mangroves annually. The roughly 11,000 acres left around Cancun are shrinking by almost 5 percent each year. The loss of mangroves is one of the reasons deforestation is such a big chunk - about 10 percent - of Mexico's CO2 emissions. The loss of one hectare of mangroves, along with the layers of soil and peat their root systems have accumulated, can release as much as 1,400 tons of carbon.

Along with the mangroves, Mexico could lose the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef to coral bleaching and die-off spurred by rising ocean temperatures and nitrogen pollution. 2010 is the hottest year since 1998 when 16% of the world's coral reefs were destroyed by overheated waters. Making matters worse, the Mesoamerican Reef is being contaminated with human sewage and the run-off from fossil-fuel-fertilized farms, lawns and golf courses. This nitrogen pollution triggers algae blooms that speed up coral bleaching, slow coral growth, and spread coral disease.

Coral reefs only cover 1% or 600,000 square miles of the ocean floor, but they are home to 25% of the ocean's species. The Mesoamerican Reef is the 2nd largest in the world. There are some things that are truly too big to fail.

What can be done to stop the destruction of mangroves and coral reefs? In Cancun, saving the remaining mangrove forests means limiting the expansion of hotel zones and airports. Local environmental laws cap hotel capacity at 30,990 rooms, but there are already nearly 6,000 more than allowed, and officials are seeking bids for an international airport 60 miles south of Cancun where mangroves are still abundant.

The U.S. demand for illegal drugs - and the U.S. supply of handguns banned in Mexico - fuels the Mexican drug war. (Cancun has not been free of its violence. Eight people died in September when a bar of tourists was attacked with Molotov cocktails, presumably a bid by drug gangs to force owners to pay protection.) Likewise, U.S. demand for big hotels on little strips of white sand is what's pushing Mexico to choose "beach rescues" over mangrove and coral preservation. More than half the tourists heading to Mexico each year - 6 million people - choose Cancun and bring 4 billion dollars to the tourism economy.

The best way to curb the development driving mangrove destruction is to curb the tourism driving it. As for the Mesoamerican Reef, it won't survive unless we stop the nitrogen polluting the oceans by replacing fossil-fuel-based fertilizers with organic compost and replacing water-based sewer systems with composting toilets.

Using organic fertilizers and composting toilets would stop the nitrogen pollution damaging the coral, while conserving water. Scientists predict climate change will deprive 3 billion people of access to clean water in this century. Already, nearly 10 percent of the Mexican population lacks access to piped water and about 14 percent are without access to sanitation.

Agricultural irrigation is the main culprit of sinking water tables, responsible for 70 to 80 percent of all groundwater usage worldwide. Buying Mexican produce at a U.S. grocery store, then, has essentially the same effect as flushing a toilet in Cancun.

In addition to conserving water, composting toilets also produce soil-building fertilizer that can be used to increase the capacity of arid agricultural lands to retain moisture and sequester carbon, while drawing greenhouse gas pollution down from the atmosphere. (But, beware of the false solution of "biosolids." "Biosolids" is an industry term for toilet waste that's been through the sewer system, mixed with industrial and hospital waste, and disposed of on farmland, in other words, toxic sewage sludge.)

Organic farming and composting are low-tech, inexpensive tools to build soil and conserve water while restoring and protecting remaining ecosystems here in Cancun and around the world.

The fate of the mangroves, the coral reefs, the soil, the water and humanity depends on our ability to perceive the impact of our decisions beyond our lifetimes and with that insight to make collective and individual decisions to value the long-term health of living systems over short-term monetary gains.


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