I went cenote diving in Mexico (the Mayan Riviera to be exact) to discover a unique underground system of water-filled caves and caverns. What I hadn’t expected to find was an environmental issue of huge concern that doesn’t seem to have penetrated the world media to much of an extent or concerned protective bodies such as UNESCO. We need to save the cenotes of Mexico before they disappear all together.
THE ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUE
Mexico’s cenotes are a huge draw for snorkellers and scuba divers. Not only are they beautiful and majestic, but they have been the site of important discoveries including the skeletal remains of humans and prehistoric animals.
During my trip to Mexico, I decided to take advantage of my recent certification as an Advanced Open Water Diver by visiting The Pit – a deep dive of almost 40 m – and the Taj Mahal – a cavern dive that requires good buoyancy control. On every other dive I’ve done, my briefing has consisted of site topography and a review of dive techniques. Upon arrival at Dos Ojos Scuba, the site specialized dive facility that works with Dive Cenotes Mexico, local dive expert and cave explorer Luis Leal began with a worrying account of how fragile these cave systems are – caves he refers to as ‘the veins of the earth’.
DAMAGE TO THE CENOTES
Already, around one-third of the 700+ documented cenotes on the Mayan Riviera have been polluted or damaged due to large-scale development – mostly in the name of tourism. Given that the cenotes themselves are such a massive draw for tourists, this seems absurd.
There are over 320 underground fluvial systems in the region, although an estimated 75% remain unexplored. Despite guide lines having been placed along over 1200 km of underground rivers, official maps of the Geographic Institute of the Federal Government (INEGI) represent none of it.
Meanwhile, there are developers who have physically destroyed the roofs of some of these caves and tunnels for aesthetic purposes and, despite this being illegal, none have been prosecuted for it. One of the main culprits is golf course developers. Aside from the associated physical destruction, golf courses also use 3000 to 5000 kg of chemicals per year and 3000 m² of fresh water to keep them running. These chemicals then seep into, and further pollute, the underground river systems.
WHY SAVE THE CENOTES?
The main threat is contamination from garbage and sewage, some of which leaks through the porous limestone into the underground rivers and may also pass out into the Caribbean Sea and damage the coral reefs there.
The Mayan Riviera also has the largest amount of drinking water in the country. In addition, these river systems are home to some impressive findings, including the world’s largest stalactite, at 14 m, and major prehistoric skeletons and fossils such as those of a giant sloth and human remains dated at 12,000 to 14,000 years old.
As well as 41 species of fauna that reside there, there are eight endemic animal species, whose existence relies on the preservation of their habitat.
With good reason, the cenotes and river systems are a massive draw for tourists, who come to swim and dive in crystal-clear waters, to observe ancient cave formations and to experience an alien world of piercing light rays, sulphur deposits, haloclines and mirror-like reflections. If the environment is destroyed to such an extent that the region is no longer desirable to tourists, then what is the the point of building so many new hotels?
WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE TO SAVE THE CENOTES?
It seems obvious that this environment should be protected, and yet the fluvial systems of the Mayan Riviera have not been recognised as a world heritage site by UNESCO, despite them meeting at least four of the qualifying criteria.
For example, there is no doubt that the cenotes and underground rivers are areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance. They also represent major stages of earth’s history, including records of life and significant ongoing geological processes. They have been – and continue to be – significant in the evolution of freshwater communities of plants and animals, and lastly, some of these species exist only in this habitat and would only be conserved if efforts were made to protect the environment in which they live.
The underground river systems of the Mayan Riviera are indisputably unique, and yet they are being threatened by pollution, destruction and irresponsible development. Regardless of which political party has been in power, the laws in Mexico have clearly been either insufficient or unenforced.
It is vital to the survival of the cenotes and river systems that people around the world become aware of their plight and that they are eventually recognised by an international body that can provide protection.
WHAT’S THE HOLDUP?
Sadly, the recognition process is complicated. UNESCO requires that the country in which the site is located has legal protection before its government proceeds with an application for inclusion. Those who want to save the cenotes have already requested that the Mexican government provide legal protection to the underground river system of the Mayan Riviera. The Mexican Federal government has acknowledged the importance of making this happen, but states a lack of budget as the reason why it has not happened yet.
‘We depend on a political will that is mis-informed and that appears to be very far from the interests of conservation,’ says Luis. ‘One thing we know: we need more voices. We need voices from outside of Mexico. We need to be heard. Federal protection for the underground river system and cenotes of the Mayan Riviera must happen soon. Time is running out.’
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