Habitat Under Pressure: The Mesoamerican Reef

The Mesoamerican Reef extends more than 400 miles from the tip of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula to Belize, Guatemala, and the Bay Islands off Honduras. The governments of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras have agreed to protect the Reef and its tremendous biodiversity. ELAW is working with grassroots attorneys in these four countries to strengthen and enforce laws that protect the Reef and coastal watersheds.

Cheryl provided a Trip Report and agreed to share excerpts from her diary:

orange fish
As a longtime supporter of ELAW, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what ELAW does, but the trip to Honduras turned out to be inspiring and eye-opening.

Continental provides special training for pilots landing in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. As expected, the landing was thrilling. Lori and I emerged, and were greeted with hugs from ELAW partner Clarisa Vega, a passionate, articulate Honduran attorney.

Rutted roads, horns blaring, young men in uniforms with guns guarding stores, motorcycles blasting in between cars, bougainvillea and bright yellow birds. Our minibus with courteous driver winds its way through impossibly narrow streets, missing collisions at every turn. McDonalds and Dunkin' Doughnuts are everywhere. Weather is steamy, with low clouds hanging over mountains that ring the city.
Lori and I joined five attorneys: Clarisa (Honduras), Jeanette (Guatemala), Candy and Rondine (Belize), and Patricio (Mexico). Over the next four days we would spend ten to 12 hours a day with each other. We would meet with five different government officials, have multiple television and radio interviews, and make presentations to Honduran lawyers about the important role that lawyers all over the world play in enforcing environmental laws.

Our meetings with ministers and agency heads have been fascinating. The contrast is stunning. Nothing demonstrates it better than their offices and private bathrooms. The Minister of Tourism has a lovely office. Her bathroom has running water and toilet paper. The minister of the agency that reviews permits for development is housed in a crumbling building. Her bathroom is falling apart.

Patricio Martin, CEMDA
Patricio Martin runs the Cancun office of Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental (CEMDA).

We would learn some discouraging facts. Roatan, a sleepy island just two years ago, is under tremendous pressure from developers. This is Honduras's closest point to the Mesoamerican Reef. The government is under-staffed and environmental assessments of proposed projects are not checked carefully. During our meeting with the permitting agency we learned that there are only five government employees who review development permits for all of Honduras.

ELAW Mesoamerican Legal Strategy Group
Rondine Twist and Candy Gonzalez (Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy), Lori Maddox (ELAW), Jeanette de Noack (Guatemala’s Center for Environmental, Legal & Social Action), Cheryl Coon and Clarisa Vega (Environmental Law Institute of Honduras).

When Lori and I traveled to Roatan my fears were confirmed. Everywhere you look, land is for sale. The construction practices are haphazard, with fill being dumped in the ocean near the Reef. Reefs that are accessible from shore, such as in Roatan, are no longer pristine. We saw evidence of damage, from bleaching to broken corals. There are signs warning tourists not to damage the coral, but hordes of cruise ship visitors (and plans for increased cruise ship traffic) means the Reef is under severe pressure.

After our presentation at the Honduran Bar Association, we joined participants for lunch. I was peppered with questions and received many warm hugs. Several government attorneys and prosecutors thanked me for supporting them in their work, and for offering new concrete ideas. I know from my own experience as a former government attorney in environmental enforcement how important it can be to get that kind of support. The Mesoamerican Reef is one of the world's great treasures of marine biodiversity. My visit to Honduras and seeing the Reef firsthand has left a haunting impression and a determination to protect this treasure.


Cheryl Coon has served as Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Conservation, U.S. Virgin Islands; Chief Counsel and Staff Director of the House Investigations Subcommittee of the Committee on Science, Technology and Space; Legal Counsel to the Ocean Policy Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee; and Senior Assistant Attorney General in the Natural Resources Section, Oregon. She holds a J.D. from Boston University School of Law and an L.L.M. in Marine Law from the University of Washington School of Law. She is now collaborating on efforts to establish marine reserves in Oregon.

Alejandra Sobenes Garcia
Alejandra Sobenes Garcia, IDEADS

Alejandra Sobenes Garcia, founder of the Environmental Law and Sustainable Development Institute (IDEADS) of Guatemala and long-time ELAW partner, has been named Vice Minister for Natural Resources in Guatemala. Alejandra pioneered public interest environmental law in Guatemala in the early 1990s and built a coalition of advocates throughout Central America. She has been a professor of environmental law and is a strong advocate for Guatemala's spectacular natural resources. We wish her the very best in her new position!




ELAW Impact

The ELAW Mesoamerican Legal Strategy Group works to protect marine life and coastal watersheds connected to the Mesoamerican Reef. The Group's recent gains include:

  • Winning a court order sending a bad mining law in Honduras back to the legislative drawing board;
  • Protecting Guatemalan citizens' right to participate in decisions about proposed developments;
  • Advocating for indigenous peoples before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights;
  • Negotiating a settlement that will bring ecologically-sound forest management to a Honduran watershed;
  • Helping citizens file ten complaints against poorly-planned developments on Utila and Guanaja, in the Bay Islands;
  • Filing suit against the Department of Environment in Belize for failing to follow its own Environmental Compliance Plan;
  • Forging an alliance between government agencies and NGOs to work toward comprehensive ocean-coastal zone planning in Guatemala;
  • Investigating the disbursement of funds intended for coastal Garifuna tourism development that never reach Garifuna hands in Honduras;
  • Filing a court challenge against an illegal natural gas terminal in Tela Bay; and
  • Promoting watershed-based conservation strategies throughout the region.
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ELAW Associate Director Lori Maddox traveled with environmental attorney and longtime ELAW supporter Cheryl Coon to Honduras in February to help ELAW partners in the region protect the Mesoamerican Reef. The Mesoamerican Reef extends more than 400 miles from the tip of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula to Belize, Guatemala, and the Bay Islands off Honduras. The governments of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras have agreed to protect the Reef and its tremendous biodiversity.