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Ownership in Baja

August 6, 2007

Mexico Real Estate

Coastal Areas — the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Frontera NorteSur

Chapter 1: A Mexican Beach Fire Sale?

A senator from Baja California Sur, Mexico, is pushing legislation that would remove constitutional restrictions on direct foreign ownership of lands situated within 50 kilometers [31 miles] of Mexico's coasts. Senator Luis Alberto Coppola Joffroy, a member of President Felipe Calderon's National Action Party (PAN), is expected to introduce the measure in the Mexican Congress in early August. If approved, the constitutional reform will eliminate a long-standing law that was crafted to protect Mexican sovereignty from foreign encroachment.

Presently many coastal properties are owned indirectly by foreigners who purchase through trusts administered by Mexican banks. Arguing that new global economic and political conditions favor the lifting of all ownership restrictions, Senator Coppola contends that friendly legislation would boost economic growth.

"It will open up a new, very profitable opportunity for foreign and national investors, with the goal of creating a more solid market," Senator Coppola said.

An unsuccessful candidate for the governorship of Baja California Sur in 2005, Senator Coppola presides over the Mexican Senate's tourism committee. In his private life, he is an owner of the Coppola Hotel Group and a longtime promoter of tourism to the Baja California peninsula.  

The PAN senator's proposal is sparking sharp polemics in the national press and in high political circles. In the Mexican Congress, the National Front of Rural Sector legislators have come out firmly against a constitutional reform of coastal [property] ownership nationality requirements. 

Citing the creeping loss of coastal ejido lands, and the privatization of beaches in Cancun and elsewhere, the lawmakers’ group views Senator Coppola's proposed reform as an assault on the rights of indigenous Mexicans.

"Hundreds of complaints exist about the surrender of coastal zones to foreigners, and the government has not defended either the national patrimony or indigenous people, who are not allowed to sell their arts and crafts even after being stripped of their lands," said Senator Heladio Elias Ramirez Lopez, president of the rural legislators' group. 
 
Claiming indigenous Mixtec descent, Senator Ramirez is a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party [PRI], a former governor of Oaxaca, and the current leader of the National Campesino Federation.

Ramirez disputed Senator Coppola's position that a constitutional reform would trigger economic development. "It happens," he said, "but in a fragmented and generalized way."

Senator Coppola, who made headlines earlier this year for his vocal opposition to new environmental regulations meant to protect sharks and rays, unveiled his legislative plans during a time of feverish development along Mexico's coasts.

On all coasts, posh luxury resorts, towering new condominiums, breathtaking private villas and giant cruise ship terminals increasingly crowd the landscape. North American, Spanish, Japanese and other investors are betting the beach sands will turn gold. 

Even gritty Acapulco, which was rocked by bouts of narco-violence from 2005 to early 2007, is experiencing an intense pace of real estate and commercial development.

"For the second year in a row, we have achieved first place in private sector investments," Acapulco Mayor Felix Salgado Macedonio told Frontera NorteSur earlier this summer. "There are big developments in Acapulco's Zona Diamante."

From Baja California in the north to Cancun in the south, residential tourist properties constitute a hot spot in the coastal real estate market. A recent market analysis by the CB Richard Ellis firm estimated sales in Mexico’s residential tourist sector reached $5 billion in 2006, a figure stunningly above the $3 billion in sales that were anticipated for last year. According to the company, annual sales of residential properties could soar from an average 5,000 units to 20,000 units in the next five years.

CB Richard Ellis ranked Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, Ensenada-Rosarito, Acapulco, Puerto Peñasco, Los Cabos, and Mazatlan as the most popular residential sales locations. The company's study calculated that 70 percent of the new buyers are foreigners, principally Canadian and US citizens, while only 30 percent are Mexican nationals.

"Mexico offers US citizens the possibility of acquiring the kinds of homes they used to purchase for the same prices and same sizes in the United States, but which have doubled in cost and been reduced in size during recent years," said Manuel Garnacho, director of corporate services for CB Richard Ellis' Latin American and Caribbean division.

Chapter 2: New Ecocides Sweep Mexico's Coasts

Undergoing rapid development, Mexico's coastal zones — and its tourist beaches — face a deepening environmental crisis. Untreated wastewater, boat discharges, discarded plastic bottles and bags, and streams of chemicals transported by rivers increasingly degrade the nation's coastal waters. Massive resort developments, new roads, commercial fish farms, countless condominiums and ubiquitous shantytowns lacking connections to municipal sewerage systems are stripping hillsides of vegetation, threatening mangrove estuaries and contributing to the waste flow into the ocean.

In a statement distributed on the Internet last month, R.C. Walker of the Puerto Vallarta Ecology Group contended that the recent conversion of four city parks into parking garages symbolized a development debacle.  "First the parks. Next the hillsides. Next the mountains," Walker wrote. "Meanwhile, the beaches are being turned into high condominium towers. This is called 'Acapulcoization.'"  

The environmental assault is so widespread that places such as Puerto Vallarta and Cancun, which once enjoyed a "clean" reputation in contrast to "dirty" old Acapulco, are showing increasing signs of contamination.

2007: The Summer of Sewage? 

While veterans of the hippie movement celebrated the 40th anniversary of San Francisco's famed "Summer of Love,” day-trippers who responded to the promotional ads plastered on the hilly city's buses that promised a memorable Mexican vacation might have actually ended up experiencing a bummer south of the border.  

In many places tourists coped with floating garbage, foul odors, and high levels of fecal coliform bacteria that can lead to skin rashes, eye infections, respiratory problems, stomach disorders, and diarrhea. The World Health Organization (WHO) has established a health standard for the enterococcus bacteria of 100 parts per 100 milliliters of water, but Mexico's Health Ministry uses a far more liberal standard for enterococci of 500 parts per 100 milliliters of water in establishing the supposedly safe exposure limit. 

Dozens of e-mails posted on Greenpeace Mexico's website reported pollution pockets across the country. Alejandro Garcia of Matamoros charged that sediment was being dumped directly into the waters of the well-visited Baghdad Beach near the Tamaulipas-Texas border. 

Paval Quiroz, a resident of Playas de Rosarito in Baja California, called the municipal beach a "pig-sty" littered with garbage.  Sonora Architect Julio Cesar Feliz claimed that wastewater discharges into the Sea of Cortez were readily visible on Google’s Internet earth satellite
program.

Drivers who survived the rockslides and potholes that injured the family of singer Miriam last month, which have claimed dozens of lives since 2005 on the treacherous Mexico City-Acapulco Highway of the Sun, could well have returned with less than sexy memories of the romantic port.

"My brother left the water with a sanitary napkin on his head and almost vomited," wrote Ana Maria Palacios. "While he was swimming, my cousin could not see because a bag of Sabritas got stuck on his face." Guadalupe Botello of Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, contended that her daughters turned ill in 2005 and 2006 after Acapulco beach dips. According to Botello, a severe bout of gastroenteritis landed her daughter in the hospital for a five-day stay two years ago. "The doctor explained to me: 'your child swam in (***),’" Botello wrote.

In June, before the summer tourist onslaught, the Ministry of Health reported enterococci levels ranging from 705 to 934 at three Acapulco beaches — Hornos, Suave and Carabali.

In Zihuatanejo, Guerrero, tourists were treated to the spectacle of stinking wastewater entering La Ropa Beach during the high season. According to a local newspaper, municipal water employees took one week to respond to the crisis.

"The smell is unbearable, and the children can't enjoy the water because it is super-polluted," said Yolanda Rodriguez, a tourist from Mexico City. "Don't let Zihuatanejo go downhill, because it is changing from a pretty, clean and safe place to one that gives little
desire of a return visit."

Losing tourists is bad news for places like Zihuatanejo, especially at a time when Mexico has slipped behind Germany to eight place in the World Tourism Organization's ranking of favored world travel destinations.  For the third year in a row, Mexico stagnated in 14th place in the international organization's rating of national incomes derived from tourism, a trend that spells trouble for communities dependent on the industry.

In Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Greenpeace Mexico protested unhealthy waters. Citing recent studies from the National Water Commission, Greenpeace reported that the municipality of Puerto Vallarta contaminates picturesque Banderas Bay with 49,248 cubic meters of wastewater every day. 

Agricultural chemicals, grease and oil that flow into Banderas Bay from the Ameca River, a body of water that passes through the Guadalajara metropolitan area, worsen the water quality.

Charging that the enterococci recently detected in the waters of Puerto Vallarta's Los Muertos Beach exceeded World Health Organization (WHO) standards by 16 times, Greenpeace activists closed down the beach on Wednesday, August 1, in a symbolic protest.

"This discharge is a health risk and is only one example of what is going on along Mexican coasts," said Alejandro Olivera, Greenpeace Mexico's ocean campaign coordinator.

In a previous statement, Greenpeace cautioned that no official information in Mexico exists about the presence of fecal coliforms in sand, an issue that has arisen in scientific studies conducted in the United States, Europe, Israel and New Zealand.  According to Greenpeace, one California study found that a gram of beach sand could contain enterococci levels as high as 10,000 parts per 100 milliliters of water.

An e-mail sent to Greenpeace from Alejandra Rodiles characterized the Mexican pollution as part of a bigger ecocide afflicting the hemisphere: "From Acapulco to Viña del Mar (Chile), the most beautiful beaches of Latin America are becoming inaccessible to bathers due to the contaminating assault from different sources, above all from discharges of used water into the sea."

Nonetheless, dirty beaches are not an untidy product unique to the "developing" world south of the US-Mexico border. In California, the non-profit Heal the Bay group maintains a "beach bummer" list of the state's polluted beaches on its website.  Local authorities are investigating the sources of contamination at places like Capistrano Beach in northern California, which has been permanently labeled by the San Mateo County Environmental Health Department as a potential health hazard. 

Possible explanations for a "Third World" pollution phenomenon in a state long viewed as the trendsetter for much of the modern world include bird excrement and aging, leaking sewage pipes.

Mexican Authorities Respond

The Mexican pollution problems reported by Greenpeace certainly are not new. For the most part neither are the responses of the authorities. Although ocean waters are part of the national patrimony, municipal and state governments are responsible for building and maintaining wastewater plants. Consequently, efforts at reducing the fecal flow have been scattershot, varying in investment, magnitude and commitment from place to place. Often, cash-strapped municipalities lack the budgets to replace obsolete plants or implement wastewater-recycling programs.

Some observers attribute the lack of progress to the chaotic nature of Mexico's municipal political system in which administrations and their personnel change every three years. Turnover, cronyism and reinventing the wheel define numerous political transitions.

In the fast-developing Nayarit Riviera north of Puerto Vallarta, sharp stenches and visible trickles of raw sewage into the waters of the internationally known Sayulita surfing beach have welcomed tourists this year. In January, when snowbirds were flocking to the tropical beach even as an old wastewater treatment plant was sputtering its last breaths, staggering levels of 3,968 enterococci were registered at Sayulita, according to Mexico's Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat). No health warnings were posted on the beach at the time.

Nayarit's state government, which is working hard to lure more California tourists, has embarked on a wastewater treatment expansion project. Last month, Greenpeace held a meeting with Nayarit Governor Ney Gonzalez Sanchez and state Environment Secretary Edwin Hernandez Quintero to discuss the pollution problem. According to the environmental group, Governor Gonzalez agreed that a clean up is in order.

"If the governor meets these commitments, Nayarit will become an example," said Greenpeace activist Olivera. 

In a recent interview with Frontera NorteSur, Acapulco Mayor Felix Salgado Macedonio mentioned environmental clean up as one of the priorities of his administration. The flamboyant mayor, who made headlines this summer for personally filling in potholes on the Highway of the Sun to goad the federal government into fixing the deadly road, said that Acapulco's good credit rating renders the city eligible for international bank loans needed for infrastructure development. 

"We're deserving of credit, and it seems to me all we need is the support of the state congress," Mayor Salgado said. "We haven't applied yet, but (loans) could be an element of interest to Acapulco Bay."

Politicians and tourist industry leaders have frequently reacted to the coastal eco-crisis by denying that one exists. In 2002, while under the leadership of Victor Lichtinger, Semarnat launched its own "Clean Beaches" campaign. The federal agency began posting fecal coliform test results on the Internet so tourists could judge the health risks they faced at particular vacation getaways for themselves. Moreover, Semarnat attempted to post health advisories on dirty beaches.

The federal actions elicited howls of protest from state politicians and tourist industry leaders who accused Semarnat of trying to undermine local economies. To make their point, the governors of Veracruz and Guerrero splashed around in their state's ocean waters to show the public that all was supposedly safe. Semarnat's signs were stolen from beaches, and Lichtinger was soon out of a job.

Semarnat's critics accused the agency of complicity in a still mysterious conspiracy to promote Cancun at the expense of other beach destinations, a charge that still surfaces from time-to-time. Reacting to last week’s Greenpeace beach protest, Puerto Vallarta Mayor Javier Carbajal accused the green activists of trying to damage his city.

Since Lichtinger's departure, water quality sampling results reported to the public have been periodic. During the summer 2007 tourist season, when sun-seekers risked illnesses from swimming in potentially contaminated waters, Semarnat did not post current water quality data for the public to view on the Internet.  

In 2006, Semarnat initiated a program of voluntary certification for Mexican beaches. In order to be certified as clean, beaches have to comply with the stricter WHO water quality standards. Officials have so far submitted certification applications for about ten of the nation's 275 tourist beaches. The candidates for certification include beaches located in Baja California Sur, Sonora and Veracruz.

Meanwhile, Greenpeace Mexico demands that all Mexican beaches be required to obtain certification under the WHO standards. The group also calls for regular water quality sampling; the posting of health warning signs; appropriating special wastewater treatment funds for municipal budgets; and improving wastewater treatment technology.

"Mandatory certification would bring the efficient treatment of wastewater to beach destinations and generate the conditions for making beaches truly clean and safe," Greenpeace's Olivera said.

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Chapter 1 additional sources: La Jornada, July 27 and 30, 2007. Articles by Andrea Becerril, Ivan Restrepo and editorial staff. El Sur/Agencia Reforma, July 30, 2007. Article by Karla Ramirez. Senado.gob.mx

Chapter 2 additional sources:  El Despertar de la Costa (Zihuatanejo), July 24, 2007. Article by Juan Francisco Garcia. La Jornada, July 16 and 20, 2007; August 2, 2007. Articles by Ivan Restrepo, Javier Santos and editorial staff.  El Sur, July 2 and 29, 2007. Articles by  Mario Lopez, Ezequiel Flores Contreras and Agencia Reforma. Daily Journal (San Mateo), July 30, 2007. Article by Michele Durand. Greenpeace.org.mx. Healthebay.org. Semarnat.gob.mx

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Frontera NorteSur (FNS)
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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(Reprinted with authorization from Frontera NorteSur, a free, on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news source.  FNS can be found at http://frontera.nmsu.edu/)

Translation FNS

Published Friday, August 10, 2007 8:19 AM by Laura Tierney

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