Protecting the Mesoamerican Reef

Reef fish
Photo: Lisa Carne

The biologically rich Mesoamerican Barrier Reef faces unprecedented threats from the shrimp industry, tourism, mega-resort hotels, cruise ships, domestic and industrial pollutants, and global warming. E-LAW U.S. is working with grassroots advocates in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras to strengthen legal protections for this valuable marine resource. In late September, E-LAW U.S. Associate Director Lori Maddox brought together advocates from all four countries for a workshop in Cancun, Mexico, to learn about the ecology of the Reef and to share legal strategies for protecting the Reef. A highlight of the workshop was a presentation by Dr. Eric Jordan Dahlgren, a research scientist specializing in the ecology of coral communities at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) in Puerto Morelos. Dr. Jordan helped workshop participants understand the interconnectedness of ocean ecosystems in the Caribbean and the impacts of climate change on the Mesoamerican Reef.

CALAS logo

Jeanette de Noack of the Centro de Accion Legal-Ambiental y Social (CALAS) in Guatemala spoke to workshop participants about CALAS’s work representing communities and organizations seeking to protect Punta de Manabique and the Motagua River watershed. The Motagua flows into the Gulf of Honduras at Puerto Barrios, Guatemala. Pollution in this watershed is having a profound impact on the Reef and CALAS is working to hold polluters accountable. Recently, CALAS was successful in shutting down an oil operation that was polluting the watershed. CALAS is also working with indigenous and rural communities to promote stewardship of natural resources in the states of Peten and Izabal. CALAS recently published a comparative analysis (in Spanish and several indigenous languages) of indigenous norms and Guatemalan federal law related to the use of natural resources. (For more information, visit: Following the workshop, E-LAW U.S. and the Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental (CEMDA) co-hosted an event to educate the citizens of Playa del Carmen about how to exercise their legal rights to protect Mexico’s natural heritage. Dr. Jordan spoke about the impacts of global warming and unsustainable tourism on the Reef. Gustavo Alanis Ortega and Patricio Martin Sanchez of CEMDA spoke about CEMDA’s work using legal tools to protect ocean and coastal resources in the state of Quintana Roo, and opportunities for citizens to use law to safeguard Mexico’s natural heritage.

Playa Del Carmen pier
The permit to operate this pier in Playa Del Carmen was cancelled. Ferry traffic from the pier to Cozumel island would have damaged the Mesoamerican Reef and other marine habitat.

CEMDA has a strong record of protecting the environment through law in Mexico. We reported last year that CEMDA won a preliminary victory restricting ferry traffic from a proposed pier in Playa del Carmen to service Cozumel. Traffic from the pier would have damaged the Reef and other marine habitat. The permit to operate the pier has since been cancelled. CEMDA’s victory sends a message to developers that they must obey Mexican law, evaluate environmental impacts, and protect marine resources. For more information about CEMDA’s pioneering work, visit: E-LAW advocates in Belize are also working to protect the Mesoamerican Reef. Following the workshop, advocates at the Belize Institute for Environmental Law and Policy (BELPO) drew support from the E-LAW network and filed a petition with the UNESCO World Heritage Commission in Paris to elevate the status of World Heritage Sites on the Reef to sites "In Danger." E-LAW U.S. thanks the Summit Foundation for supporting this work in the Mesoamerican Reef Ecoregion.

The Effects of Climate Change on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef
1. Bleaching and increased incidence of infectious diseases
2. Increased intensity of storm systems, especially during El Nino/Southern Oscillation phenomenon (ENSO)
3. Rise in sea level
4. Reduced calcification due to increased CO2
Source: Dr. Eric Jordan Dahlgren, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico
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E-LAW U.S. is working with grassroots advocates in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras to strengthen legal protections for this biologically rich marine resource.