Letter from CEA Director

The following is a letter from the Director of CEA which was published in the organization’s newsletter.  To access the original document, go to [email protected]>


The Tragedy of the Commons, a worldwide known economic theory, was first described by William Forster Lloyd in 1833 and then applied to ecology by Garrett Hardin in 1968. Such theory refers to a shared resource by a community. The theory has been associated with specific and current cases where individuals have access to a resource with no restrictions or limitations, who act in their own self-interest for the greatest short-term personal gain and eventually overexploit and/or deplete the shared resource by collective actions. In all cases, personal benefits overwhelmingly outweigh the community benefits, which creates an unfavorable situation to the local community and its residents.

Is Akumal experiencing the Tragedy of the Commons?

On the one hand, there are plenty of reasons to believe so. The very distinctive geomorphological, hydrological and meteorological characteristics of Akumal Bay make it a great site for recreational activities, a great example of biodiversity, and an ideal base camp for field science. Akumal has become famous for its juvenile turtle population and ease of access to the second largest barrier reef in the world, drawing tourists from all corners of the world.

Since Akumal was conceived as one of the first tourist destinations in the Mexican Caribbean its resources have been open to anyone. This has created prosperity not just for the immediate community, but for a wider area. As an example, Akumal nowadays represents approximately the 50% of hotel services and income for the municipality of Tulum and also provides a constant and permanent offer of formal jobs.

With the success of Akumal, people from all over the Riviera Maya, Mexico and the world have seen the opportunity the area holds, including it as an option for an easy source of income, most of it derived from “snorkeling with turtles” tours. The majority of those tour operators do not live in Akumal nor do they contribute to the local economy or share in the responsibility to support community services or infrastructure.

The cumulative detrimental effects of bad in-water practices, pollution, illegal commerce, saturation of tourists (lack of carrying capacity studies), diseases affecting the turtles, coral bleaching, and climate change are still to be determined with certainty. However, from studies and information, it is evident that the negative impacts may have reached a point where resilience is no longer possible.

As in most current day case studies, the “tragedy” of the commons is caused by the lack of the management of the shared resources such as rules, limits and the enforcement of such. Having a standardized governance of the shared resources is the key to achieve the balance between the social, economic and environmental spheres of a shared resource and would prevent the “tragedy” from happening. Yet, developing and employing such regulation or framework is often neglected, undervalued or excluded for political reasons.

In this sense Akumal has not been the exception to the rule.

On the other hand, a wide scope of opportunities have emerged since Akumal was founded. There is no reason a community ought to rely on only one economic activity, namely snorkeling with turtles. Doing so negates sustainability models and the attempt to create a balance between economy and ecology. The more alternatives and variety for business or employment, the better, as it diverts the reliance on and overexploitation of one resource and allows business growth and opportunities for all in different areas. In this regard, as a destination, Akumal must not be considered to have reached a status of failure or a tragedy. It is far from it in contrast with other tourist destinations in Mexico.

On February 15 PROFEPA decided to proceed with an official suspension of the activities related exclusively to snorkeling with turtles. Although this measure has directly affected all other activities (including dive training, coral restoration and turtle photo identification projects) but for the recreational one, it represents a step forward to the official willingness of regulating and managing this overused resource. We must bear in mind that in contrast to an open access activity, snorkeling with turtles requires official permits. Up to now, the federal authorities have made a pause in the activity but will shortly issue new permits. A close coordination between the federal authorities issuing the permits and enforcing them is essential.

It took eight years for the federal authorities to proceed with the decree (March 2016) of the Turtle Refuge since CEA first officially requested it (2008) and it took nine years for the authorities to take action on enforcing the legal aspect of the decree (February 15 2017).

How long will it take for Akumal to reach a more sustainable status?

There is no doubt that Akumal is facing a historic opportunity to improve, to include all local actors into decision-making and be more influential with the development of public policies. The authorities also face a real opportunity to redeem themselves, not as the saviors, but as the ones who can contribute to the collective responsibility for making Akumal a better place for all where everyone abides by the rules; where everyone adds to the local economy; where everyone strives for a more harmonious society; where everyone plays a part in the management and conservation of the environment, and development of Akumal as a sustainable destination.

I am confident we can all contribute to make Akumal a worldwide example of success. It is matter of willingness of all parties.

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