Environmental law and the Dragon Mart project

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On January 31, I had the opportunity to interview Gustavo Alanís Ortega, founder and president of CEMDA (Mexican Center for Environmental Law). CEMDA is an independent organization dedicated to sustainable growth and development that respects environmental legislation.


They have been vocal about their concerns that the proposed Dragon Mart mega-project south of Cancún has not met all federal environmental analysis requirements and that there has been a lack of transparency regarding the developers’ plans. As I reported in a January 17th post, representatives of the developers of Dragon Mart had threatened to sue CEMDA for defamation.

Public opposition to the project has continued to grow. On February 10, El Universal reported that over one hundred people drove in a caravan to the development site to protest and symbolically “shut down” the project. The “hacktivist” group Anonymous also began a campaign protesting Dragon Mart. They hacked the project’s website and also targeted Quintana Roo’s government websites. Anonymous tweeted on February 4: “Good day DRAGONMART, we have in our power a database of all your clients, we don’t want to be rude but GET OUT OF MEXICO!!!”

Interview with Gustavo Alanís Ortega


Why did CEMDA decide to get involved in the Dragon Mart case?


First of all, the objective of our organization is that things in this country be done in adherence to environmental law and respecting nature. If this is possible, then we say go ahead with the building and development. In other words, we don’t oppose things just because we don’t like them or don’t want them to happen. We are very firm believers in investment and development, but obviously, not at the cost of nature. But we are brought a lot of cases involving projects that are not necessarily sustainable.

In this case, we are talking about a very, very large project with implications for tourism, for commerce, etc. They plan more than 3000 commercial spaces, 722 residences, and they are going to have a water desalinization plant. The property is located in a coastal region which is very close to a protected area called Puerto Morelos reefs. This is also an internationally Ramsar convention-protected wetland. We think this has to be evaluated at a federal environmental level, not just local as has been done. Yes they presented this to the government of Quintana Roo, who gave them the authorization and then they think that’s that. One of the things we are asking for is a federal environmental impact study.


What do you hope to achieve with the lawsuit you have filed?

[CEMDA is seeking the annulment of the Environmental Impact Analysis approved by the government of Quintana Roo.]


Well, several things. As I said, we are not interested in stopping projects just to stop them, but if the projects can be done in a way that is environmentally viable, then that is how they should be done. They should respect the law, respect nature, respect zoning regulations. That is our objective; that there be legality, a rule of law. This isn’t about stopping the project, that could be a secondary issue. If at the end of the day, projects like this comply with all that is required, then we won’t get in their way.

Part of what we are challenging at the local level is that they did not follow the state regulations for environmental impact. For example, they did not do the public inquiry, they were supposed to publish in the state’s official periodical that the project was under consideration for its environmental impact and they did it one month late. There has not been much clarity or transparency. And there hasn’t been any public participation, because…well, they don’t want it.


In other projects similar to this one, is there usually more citizen participation?


Federal environmental law allows for the possibility of public inquiries during the environmental impact study process. That means that once the project has been presented to the proper authorities, any person from the affected community can request a public inquiry and a public informational meeting. This opens up a space for people, the public, to make their comments, observations and share their viewpoints. To say why they are for a project or against it. And the authorities should take this into consideration when doing the environmental impact study. So, the mechanism is there – it’s not used much or known about in Mexico, but there it is and we should take advantage of it. We [CEMDA] always are in favor of it, regardless of the project, we always ask that there be public inquiries to assure that projects are environmentally sound.


According to Juan Carlos Lopez [representative of the developers of Dragon Mart] there is no need for federal authorization because the project is an exhibition center. Is this true?


No, that does not matter – as long as there can be an affect or damage to the ecological balance, it has to be submitted for the procedure of a federal environmental impact study. And I’ll explain why – in Article 28 of the Federal Environmental Law, there is reference to hydraulic works, which applies to the projected desalinization plant, also there is reference to real estate developments that affect coastal ecosystems, changing the zoning of forested areas, all of this is at a federal level and it all applies to this project. And in Article Five, in the section regarding environmental impact, it says that anyone who undertakes the following construction projects requires prior authorization from SEMARNAT (Department of the Environment and Natural Resources), and in that list under hydraulics, they mention desalinization plants. It is very clear. There are many reasons we believe that they should be subjected to federal inspection.


What are the differences between the Dragon Mart project and other mega projects in Mexico, like Cabo Pulmo?


Cabo Pulmo also ended up in litigation; it ended with a decision by President Calderón to say this project isn’t going to happen. The situation was very similar. In the case of Cabo Pulmo, a project to develop something like another Cancun was approved without having done all the environmental studies. In other words, there were studies missing, but they approved it anyway. This is what we were fighting, that there wasn’t enough information to approve the project. There was also a problem with water self-sufficiency because according to environmental regulations the developers have to have this, but the National Water Commission gave them permission to extract 4.5 million cubic meters of water. And that water extraction wasn’t subject to the environmental impact study, they hadn’t presented it. So in 2008 the legal challenges started, there were annulment lawsuits, requests for legal protection, etc to try to stop it. But you have to understand, there are a lot of interests, particularly economic ones, and people say if I’m going to invest $500 million dollars, why not destroy plants or animals or mangroves. We’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I hope that in another 20 years, things are different.


According to Dragon Mart’s website, they do not intend to use Puerto Morelos [a very small port with a delicate reef system] but Puerto Progreso for their operations. Do you think this is true?


There is a lot of confusion, which is one of the reasons we think this should be analyzed at a federal level. We think that way there can be more objectivity, less bias. This project is being openly promoted by the government of Quintana Roo and at the same time, they are the ones who are supposed to give them the local environmental impact approval which clearly generates a conflict of interest. It has to be SEMARNAT that tells us what is going on, and if there is something to contest or challenge, that’s what the law is there for.


The press has mentioned that representatives of Dragon Mart were threatening to sue CEMDA for defamation. Have they proceeded with any legal action?


Not that we know of, we have not been informed of it. But we will be ready to defend ourselves with the best professional defense available. We have even had law firms offer to work for us pro bono. We had five or six calls offering support, which was very gratifying.


In other projects like this, have you ever been threatened with a lawsuit?


No, never. This is the first time. We understand they’re angry, and they want to take it out on someone – but we don’t have any issue if they act within the law.


According to Dragon Mart representatives, the extraction of stone material from the land began in 2000, it’s not something new. They also deny having begun the clearing of the property since they are waiting for their construction permit. Is this true?


One of their claims is that they didn’t do it [extraction of stone] and that it was the previous owners. This is exactly why we are asking for the authorities to intervene, so that it’s not them or us saying what is or is not happening, but the experts tell us and decide whether there should be a fine or sanction.

You know, these problems like Dragon Mart or Cabo Pulmo, are happening all over the country. They are everywhere so it is a constant battle, and this is very worrying – it has made us open offices in Cancun, La Paz, Valle de Bravo and other cities to assure that these projects are done correctly. They keep asking us to open other offices, quite insistently actually. What I’d like to have is a 10 million dollar grant because there is a lot of demand.


Are there enough people trained for this kind of work?


There aren’t many in Mexico. It’s a relatively new area, but there are an increasing number of students. I have been teaching environmental law at the Universidad Iberoamericana for 19 years, but where before it was an elective, it is now a required subject for everyone who studies for a law degree. So there are an increasing number of trained people, interested people. Most end up going into corporate law firms, not into areas of law in the public’s interest.