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Neighbors miffed officials fail to enforce order to remove levee at foreign retirement villa

By Agustín del Castillo*

San Pancho Wetland

The destruction of the wetland opens up the area to flooding, especially troublesome now that hurricane season has arrived. (Photo: courtesy of Profepa).

MEXICO CITY

Neighbors of San Francisco, located on the Nayarit Riviera, are protesting the authorities’ lack of action in response to the risk posed by the builder's obstruction of water flow towards the estuary and ocean.

After a year and eight months, the neighbors have achieved only a Pyrrhic victory over San Pancho Builders, whose levee—determined by the administrative authorities to be illegal—has only partially been removed from Arroyo de Los Izotes. The obstruction is still causing a decrease in the amount of water that can flow into the estuary located on the southeast edge of the community.

The situation didn’t look so bad at the beginning of June. The Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection (Profepa) had ordered the physical removal of the levee, put in place at the end of 2014 by developers in order to increase the size of the property on which their new housing development was to be built.

The project is directed at the burgeoning retirement population, especially from the United States.

When machinery arrived on May 31, demolition and removal of the levee began. Profepa released a statement emphasizing that its ruling demanded the complete removal of the levee, and that it was urgent to do so because of the impending arrival of the hurricane season, which necessitated that the river channel be at maximum capacity to handle water flow.

The levee was built in the Federal Zone. Érik Saracho Aguilar, one of the opponents of the levee project, wrote on his Facebook page: “Today, May 31, almost 18 months after complaints were first lodged about these crimes against the human right to a safe environment, we have made a tangible, substantial and real advance. We haven’t won completely. The damaged wetlands still have to be restored and the levee removed.

“There is still much to be done," he adds. "However, these past 18 months of labor today taste of hope and justice, of unity and determination of the people, of solidarity and support, of having won against those who act with impunity and engage in real estate speculation, and of our advances toward a clean and healthy estuary, by and for everyone […].”

Echoing local popular sentiment, Saracho Aguilar continues: “It is true that when the people unite, progress is made. Congratulations to the San Pancho community (#‎todossomossanpancho—we are all San Pancho), it’s great to see them holding their own against #Profepa, with the certainty that the estuary is not for sale (#‎elesteronosevende) and the conviction that we, the defenders of the estuary (#‎elesterosedefiende), begin June 2016 with renewed energy, with a smile going forward, and infinite thanks for all of you.”

In his post, Saracho Aguilar writes that Profepa “confirmed that work had commenced to completely remove the levee and any structures that were part of the Arroyo Los Izotes Flood Control Levee and Wastewater Discharge Pipeline Project, in San Francisco, located in the municipality of Bahía de Banderas.”

“Prior to the actual enforcement (in May 2016) of the Federal Attorney’s original order (issued in April 2015) to remove the construction within a period of no more than 10 working days, the governing board of Ejido San Pancho[1] lodged a Writ of Amparo against the project. The ruling in this additional complaint ordered the halt to any and all work or activity being carried out in the river bed. This favorable ruling was based on the fact that the prior complaint from May 2015 had already been resolved back in September 2015.”

He then adds, “Delays in the enforcement of the order occurred because of the current issue’s inter-institutional nature which necessitated meetings with a variety of authorities to ensure the levee’s removal. After these were concluded, Profepa issued its ruling on May 20, 2016—based on its obligation to guarantee every person the right to a healthy environment for his or her development and well-being (referred to in Article 4 of the Constitution)—that gave the San Pancho real estate developer one business day to carry out the complete removal of the levee and all related facilities (…) with the understanding that if it did not comply, the administrative authority would proceed with its removal, in coordination with the federal, state or municipal authorities involved, and at the expense of the firm in charge of the project.”

That explains why, on May 31, “Profepa inspectors from the Nayarit branch arrived at the site to verify the removal of the levee pursuant to the May-2016 ruling, confirming that the company was indeed taking actions to remove the levee,” and that the work was supposed “to take approximately 15 days.” However, the removal work didn’t end until July 7 and photographs taken by a drone showed that the levee had in fact only been partially removed. Neighbors were angered by the results.

“It seems that Profepa official Omar Cánovas believes he can deny reality. The order was to completely remove the levee, yet it was only done partially, and badly at that. Even in the place where they removed soil, they only leveled the area so it was flush to the water surface and just left all of the landfill in place. On top of that, it seems they are claiming that this material will be used for the wetland restoration,” neighbors pointed out.

Damages to San Pancho wetlands

The removal of the levee was only partial, in breech of Profepa's order. (Photo: courtesy of Profepa).

Nonetheless, Profepa’s national office bought the developer's story that it had complied completely with the original April 2015 judgment. In response, Profepa released a statement, announcing that its Nayarit branch “had verified the complete removal of the barrier and other structures related to the project known as the Arroyo Los Izotes Flood Control Levee and Wastewater Discharge Pipeline Project, in San Francisco, municipality of Bahía de Banderas (…) after having followed up on the work being carried out (...) and that it was done in compliance with the latest ruling issued in May 2016 against the company in charge of the project."

The non-profit Alianza Jaguar, AC sent the Profepa official an email with the following message: “I am attaching photos showing you the loss of surface area of the San Pancho coastal lagoon beginning as of December 10, 2014. Perhaps with the help of these photos, a better criterion can be made for what a TOTAL REMOVAL of the levee actually means, and meanwhile you ask the offending business to stop their sad charade.”

Reclaiming land from a marsh used to be considered a engineering feat, even in this coastal region that today is known pretentiously as the Nayarit Riviera. In times of environmental crisis and climate change, it is one of the worst omens. “The town isn’t going to be able to withstand a flood like the one we had in 2010,” residents added worriedly.

[1] actually, it was Ejido Sayulita

Winner of numerous prizes and awards; among the most recent being: the 2015 National Prize for Investigative Reporting on Sustainability, the Carlos Septién García Prize, the Coca Cola Prize and the Merit of Honor in Environmental Journalism from the Municipality of Guadalajara.