October 2, 2018 / 11:02 AM / 21 days ago

FEATURE-Mexico village struggles to navigate tourism tightrope

JARRETADERAS, Mexico, Oct 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - F rom his rooftop, Luis Vazquez Miramontes has a front-row view of the vast construction site that promises to one day morph into a glittering Cirque du Soleil theme park, but he bets few in his village of Jarretaderas could ever afford tickets.

Billed as a “first-of-its kind immersive experience”, the site being built by Mexico’s Grupo Vidanta is the latest in a series of developments around the village, which locals say is being walled off from the nearby Ameca river and beachfront hotels.

Some worry the development of the surrounding resort areas has altered the river’s flow and could increase the flood risk to the Pacific Coast village, about 10km north of the beach town of Puerto Vallarta.

“This is like a ghetto - we’re here, we can’t see what’s happening on the other side,” said Vazquez, as trucks weighed down with construction materials trundled past his corner cafe.

“We’re not against development, it’s welcome ... but it’s putting us at risk (of flooding from the river).”

Tourism is growing fast in Mexico’s Nayarit state with a number of big-name resorts slated, but campaigners and residents warn some developers are riding roughshod over both the local environment and communities.

Driving along the cobbled streets of Jarretaderas through sprawling pools of stagnant rainwater, local campaigner Librado Consuedra Pascacio pointed out the security guards stopping villagers and fishermen from accessing roads to the river.

Now guards on quad bikes patrol the fences and walls that run along two sides of the village, and the only way to reach the Ameca is through a flood-prone concrete tunnel built by Vidanta, he said.

“Here we’re boxed in .... all we see is fences and fences,” noted Consuedra, who said he was threatened at gunpoint by unidentified men two years ago for speaking out about the impact of the developments.

“The economic benefits don’t filter down to people living in the area.”

Elsewhere in the village, a small farm and a street strung with washing are abruptly truncated by another wall behind which workers scale the skeletons of concrete buildings, and trucks landscape the theme-park site.

“The government is mostly to blame as they permit it. We make complaints but they don’t take any notice. The government has abandoned us,” said Consuedra.

Neither municipal authorities nor the state’s environment ministry responded to requests for comment.

Grupo Vidanta, which owns luxury hotels such as the Grand Mayan between Jarretaderas and the Pacific coast, said it had teamed up with Cirque du Soleil on the theme-park development - which is expected to open in two years and will involve other companies.

It said it was committed to a strong environmental and social policy, and that its developments complied with all environmental legislation.

Cirque du Soleil, the Montreal-based circus and entertainment company, said it could not give details at this stage about the development in the Nuevo Vallarta resort area.

RISING RISKS

Environmentalists say Vidanta has excavated tonnes of stone and gravel from the Ameca river to landscape its hotels and golf courses, altering the riverbed and banks, and increasing the risk it could flood Jarretaderas and nearby areas.

Artificial riverside lakes being carved out near the new theme park site are worsening the problem, said Indalecio Sanchez Rodriguez, coordinator of the local Alianza de la Costa Verde, an environmental group.

Sketching a map he said showed how the mouth of the river has also been narrowed, he explained how a storm surge from the sea could push the river over its banks to flood the village.

“Now the risk of flooding is higher for everyone, it’s created more pressure. The river is going to look for a way out - they (Vidanta) need to build a protection wall,” he said.

Increasing development for tourism has also disturbed the natural habitat for the Ameca’s crocodiles, he said, which have been spotted roaming the streets of Jarretaderas.

In emailed comments, Grupo Vidanta said it works with biologists to measure its environmental impact, and keeps 70-85 percent of the area it develops “intact”.

Using a homemade line to pull small fish out of the rust-coloured Ameca, pensioner Tereso Jauregui said the vast tourism developments had irrevocably altered the area and restricted public access to the river and the beach.

“All of this was beautiful, it was free, you could go to the sea from here but now they (developers) have blocked the streets,” said Jauregui, sitting with his wife on the river bank opposite the wildlife-rich Island of Birds.

“They opened the doors (to the hotels) ... and left them like kings to do whatever they wanted,” he said, batting away mosquitoes.

‘PARADOX’

Activists say tighter restrictions on development and stringent application of environmental law are essential to protect Nayarit’s beaches, estuaries and wildlife, while maintaining public access to its coasts and rivers.

Thirty kilometres north, surfers are campaigning to stop developers blocking access to the popular La Lancha beach, while residents in nearby San Pancho are protesting the Punta Paraiso oceanfront development they say encroaches on the public beach.

“The big investments we’re getting create a lot of social inequality,” said Javier Chavez, owner of surf business WildMex, who is footing the legal costs to try to keep La Lancha open.

“Since people on the outside (of the hotel developments) are poor and unhappy, you have to build a big wall so these people don’t come into your resort because it doesn’t look cool.”

Some hope Mexico’s president-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador - who recently said “disorder” and “anarchy” had characterised the area’s rapid growth - will review the environmental impact on federal concessions granted to developers.

“The paradox is there are great tourist hotels, and communities that don’t have water, drainage, paving, that are abandoned,” Lopez Obrador told a recent event in Nayarit.

Despite worries in Jarretaderas that developers could eventually cut off more roads and encroach further into the village, campaigner Consuedra said locals now want damaged roads rebuilt with better drainage and improved river access.

A handicraft market and river walkway could help lure tourists from their upmarket hotels to the village, home to many migrants from poorer Mexican states such as Chiapas who come to work in often low-paid hotel or construction jobs, he said.

Cafe-owner Vazquez wants tourists visiting nearby developments to better understand how both Jarretaderas and the local environment are being impacted as tourism expands, so they can bring their influence to bear on resort owners.

"They (developers) are the only ones growing, not us. We've got to grow together," said Vazquez. (Editing by Zoe Tabary and Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/)

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