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Vallarta, lesson in environmental justice for Riviera Nayarit

By Kent Paterson*

The coastal megadevelopments like Puerto and Nuevo Vallarta are examples of what can be expected in the future all along the Nayarit coast. Click image to enlarge. (Photo: Courtesy of Fonatur Riviera Nayarit).


Tumbling down from the jungle-canopied hills of the Sierra Madres, the Cuale River cuts through Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, on its way to Banderas Bay. Iguanas, squirrels and aquatic birds find shelter and sustenance in the riparian habitat. One year, this reporter was fortunate to observe two rare river otters frolicking in the river.

Next to the Cuale River stands Colonia Emiliano Zapata, which evolved as a neighborhood of cobblestone streets, tiled roofs and white-walled family homes. In the first months of 2017, however, locals nervously eyed new, multi-story condominiums- designed above traditional height limits- under construction where none had previously existed. Because few Vallartenses can afford condos with starting prices of $115,000 and up, foreigners and/or wealthy Mexicans will constitute the market for the new residences.

Although one new condo project billed ecological living, pumps noisily chugged away day and night extracting water from the construction site and discharging it into the Cuale River.

A proprietor of a small neighborhood stationary store, Rosa Limon said the changes sweeping her city signal nothing less than "the deterioration and destruction of the essence of Puerto Vallarta and its history.”

Besides obstructing views, the condos interrupt ocean breezes, Limon said. "There's no impact study on all this growth. There's growth for a handful but no development for the neighborhood.

Limon, a teacher by profession, filed a complaint in 2016 with the official Jalisco State Human Rights Commission over a new seven-story buildingconsisting of 46 condo units and assorted storefronts located just down the street from her store, alleging a sidewalk was expanded without the proper authorization. In response, Puerto Vallarta Mayor Arturo Davalos sent documents to the state commission attesting to the project’s legality and its conditional approval by a neighborhood association, a grouping Limon contended did not represent all residents or have standing in the matter.

In the bigger picture, Puerto Vallarta and its environs represent a case study in tourism-fueled rapid growth versus environmental sustainability, public interests against the profits of developers, and the privatization of public spaces.

In 1970, the Pacific Coast port was home to 35,911 people, counted 1,310 hotel rooms and received 157,541 visitations, according to a study by José Lués López and José Alfonso Baños contained in the 2012 book Desarollo Local y Turismo, published by the University of Guadalajara.

Nowadays, more than 300,000 people are estimated as residing in Puerto Vallarta. According to the Jalisco State Tourism Secretariat (Secturjal), today’s Vallarta counts 22,000 hotel rooms with another 15,300 in the contiguous Riviera Nayarit, an area extending from the big hotels of Nuevo Vallarta over to the luxurious properties of Punta Mita, up the Pacific coast and into the towns of San Pancho and Sayulita. The Riviera Nayarit’s development was promoted by a Mexican federal agency, Fonatur.

For 2016, Secturjal reported that Puerto Vallarta welcomed 4,000,000 visitors while the Riviera Nayarit captured 2,624,000. What the state tourism agency applauded as the new tourism “bonanza” continued in 2017. True to spirit, a new upscale shopping center, La Isla, has opened in Puerto Vallarta.

As Puerto Vallarta grew, big hotels such as the Fiesta Americana and Holiday Inn, flanked by towering condo developments, were constructed in a special zone removed from Colonia Emiliano Zapata and the historic downtown core. Completed in 1993, the Marina Vallarta chipped away at El Salado wetland, habitat for crocodiles and migratory birds.

In the historic peak year of 2008, international cruise ships ferried 589,000 passengers on 276 ships to Puerto Vallarta’s docks, according to the now defunct New Mexico-based publication Frontera NorteSur.

The midday jam of cruise ship visitors parading through the narrow streets of downtown Vallarta was-and still is- a ritualistic spectacle during the season.

Similar to Acapulco, Cancun and Zihuatanejo, Puerto Vallarta’s economic and population boom times brought with them the proliferation of underdeveloped settlements on the city’s periphery where low-income residents lacked basic utility services and garbage collection and disposal proved troublesome.

Writing in Desarrollo Local y Turismo, Baños, Muñóz and Rodrigo Tovar analyze in detail the official development plans for Puerto Vallarta since 1953, concluding they fell far short. Further, the researchers contend, the de-facto development pattern that emerged facilitated “chaos and disorder”, aggravating the “urban inequality” between tourist and working-class neighborhoods.

Environmental issues have come to the fore in recent years. In 2005 and 2006, activists waged an unsuccessful battle against municipal authorities who transformed four parks largely into private parking garages and concrete plazas. Meanwhile, as condos spread, the Puerto Vallarta Ecology Group’s Ron Walker warned of the "Acapulcoization" of Puerto Vallarta.

In 2007 Greenpeace Mexico reported that discharges from Puerto Vallarta contaminated Banderas Bay with 49,248 cubic meters of wastewater every day, based on numbers from the National Water Commission. Charging that the enterococci detected in the waters of Puerto Vallarta's popular Los Muertos Beach exceeded World Health Organization standards by 16 times, Greenpeace activists briefly closed down the beach that summer in a symbolic protest.

Environmental controversies familiar to Vallartenses have also cropped up in the Riviera Nayarit. For instance, residents of Sayulita protested earlier this year against wastewater contamination, according to local press accounts.

In interviews this year, Limon and a colleague, environmental lawyer Flor Alejandra Arce Romero, outlined other environmental challenges including halting turtle egg poaching, promoting garbage recycling and separation as mandated by Jalisco state law, and protecting the humpback whales that spend every winter breeding and calving in Banderas Bay but encounter hazards from careless whale watching boats and larger, passing vessels such as cruise ships.

Additionally, Arce is concerned about the survival of regional jaguars, climate change resiliency and protecting the lowland jungle hills known as La Montana from developers. "I'm worried about the mountain zone," she said. "If we protect it, we won't lack water here."

Public participation-or the lack thereof- in community planning and development, as well as environmental protection, is a critical component of Puerto Vallarta’s future. Yet, prioritizing the environment while conserving local cultural tradition has been an uphill struggle.

For her part, Rosa Limon is clear about the identity, character and form her city should present. The 43-year resident of Puerto Vallarta recalls visiting Acapulco in addition to meeting people from that city who visited Vallarta and warned her about repeating the history of Mexico’s old international tourist hot spot, a place currently besieged by simultaneous environmental, economic, public safety and social crises.

“The same direction in which the entire Riviera Nayarit is headed if Vallartenses don’t act,” Limon warned. “It’s losing its image and quality and could lose its human warmth, cordiality. There’s still time, and there are authorities who want (to preserve Puerto Vallarta) but effort is lacking...”

*Editor emeritus, Frontera NorteSur