Changing Planet

Cozumel 2013

By Michele WestmorlandFounding Fellow of The International League of Conservation Photographers

From the tourist center of the tiny island of Cozumel, I could see the rising skyline of an ever-developing shoreline of Cancun. It’s a mass of humanity and mega resorts that are spreading like a virus to its little island neighbor: Cozumel. Cozumel has its own shoreline resort and hotel development on the western side of the island. But on the eastern shore, it is still pristine and beautiful. How long will it last before the hungry developers begin to consume this quiet side of Cozumel?

Mangrove area at the northern tip of Isla Cozumel. Over under water shot of mangrove trees and roots.

In 2009, ILCP conducted a RAVE (Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition) in Yucatan. ILCP photographers, Roy Toft and I, along with Our World-Underwater Rolex Scholarship winner Myfanwy Rowlands were assigned to look at environmental issues impacting the island of Cozumel. While Myfanwy and I worked together on marine life areas, Roy Toft covered the terrestrial wildlife that flourishes on the island. What we encountered was both inspiring and disturbing.

A few key residents of Cozumel are particularly and laudably involved in conserving its marine resources. Cozumel’s National Park researchers carefully monitor the health of the reefs and community members are assigned to protect the turtle habitats. As one of their duties, these dedicated individuals are charged with educating the younger generation about the importance of saving their delicate environment. Since the RAVE, I have been back to the island twice. Despite Cozumel conservationists’ best efforts, my visits have only intensified my concerns for protecting the last pure areas of the island.

Southern stingray (Dasyatis americana) . Micro atolls in the far north east part of Isla Cozumel. These are algae based reefs and not formed from limestone skeleton base of coral structures.

The rumors and discussions between the locals are increasing and heated. Residents want to know: will a proposed development named Punta Arrecifes be approved, and will it destroy the beautiful northeast corner of the island where birds nest and delicate reefs known as micro-atolls exist? These micro-atolls represent a micro ecosystem that occurs only rarely worldwide, and nowhere else in the Western Caribbean. Such limited and specialized systems usually occur within very narrow survival parameters. Even minute changes can bring about irreversible damage.

Inland from these atolls exist wetlands and lagoons that host a large population of birds – all there to nest and coexist with other land animals. The lagoons and mangroves are full of juvenile fish species waiting to mature and populate the open reef areas surrounding the island. This area is all that is left of Cozumel to be considered a true wilderness. Exactly what is to be approved for the Punta Arrecifes development is shrouded in mystery. As of September 2011, the plan incorporated a marina, golf course, private air strip and 600 hotel rooms. According to reports, some 12 kilometers of virgin beaches on the northeast corner of the island, all owned by the Barbachano family, is the target. Also involved in the development, according to these reports, is the son of real estate mogul, Donald Trump. But trying to get confirmation is difficult – the Trump name is being kept out of the discussions. The Trump Organization has refused to respond to any questions, let alone whether they are in partnership with the Barbachano family to pursue the large-scale development. One important question rises to the surface – “Where are the environmental studies and what has been concluded as to the impact on these significant habitats?” To date, no environmental studies have been presented to the residents of Cozumel.

(Pecari tajacu nanus), Endemic, Cozumel, Mexico

The project claims to add employment opportunities. While this may be true, it’s difficult to understand the benefit to the economy when so many of the existing resorts and hotels are struggling to fill rooms. What loss to the environment and uniqueness of this island would this development initiate? More and more world travelers are seeking these pristine environments and are willing to pay a premium to visit them as such. Any development on this untouched portion of Cozumel could potentially take away this opportunity for future generations.

In addition to the large-scale project, a wind farm has been proposed. This is a clear vehicle for “greenwashing” the real impact of the development. Although establishing a carbon offset in the form of a wind farm sounds admirable, just a few of these big mills in the nesting and migratory bird areas could cause these species to seek other places in their delicate natural cycles.

In October, 2011, I had the opportunity to hear President Calderon address attendees of a travel summit in Chiapas, Mexico. In his speech, President Calderon made a commitment to sustainability and conservation along with economic growth. My immediate reaction was to praise his words in the belief that he will make his last year in office one that will label him as a protector of environmentally sensitive lands in Mexico. That is an honorable legacy to leave for his country. But as politics in our own country has shown, words and promises have failed us.

(Chlorostilbon forticatus), Endemic, Cozumel, Mexico

I am acutely aware of the right any country and its people have to development and economic growth. We all want our people healthy, happy and prosperous. However, it is also our responsibility to be good stewards of our lands. Leaving pristine natural habitats for our children is an honorable charge, and pays social, economic, health and political dividends in the end.

The views expressed in this guest blog post are those of the International League of Conservation Photographers and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Readers are welcome to exchange ideas or comments, but National Geographic reserves the right to edit or delete abusive or objectionable content.

Myfanwy Rowlands exploring the micro atolls in the far north east part of Isla Cosumel. These are algae based reefs and not formed from limestone skeleton base of coral structures.

About Michele

Michele is passionate about conservation and is proud to be a Founding Fellow of International League of Conservation Photographers. Her underwater and cultural photography has gained international recognition. Michele understands the need to tell a visual story, whether it covers exotic holiday locations or the wonders of the natural world.

Join Michele in her fight to save Cozumel by signing a petition to hold President Calderon to his environmental promises on


The mission of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) is to further environmental and cultural conservation through photography. iLCP is a Fellowship of more than 100 photographers from all around the globe. As a project based organization, iLCP coordinates Conservation Photography Expeditions to get world-renowned photographers in the field teamed with scientists, writers, videographers and conservation groups to gather visual assets that are used to create conservation communications campaigns to foment conservation successes. iLCP is a 501 (c) (3) organization. Support our work at this link.
  • Michael Lewis

    thanks for the great report. Island residents, visitors and those concerned about conservation issues should not rermain silent.

  • Dario melendez c.

    Si podriamos balorar lo que tenemos, no lo mal usaramos de esa forma.
    Felisiaes el que este hasiendo esta protesta para protejer esta isla.

  • Melody Burkhead

    we have only begun to Cozumel in the last 8 years. We come back every fall, simply because it is to beautiful and peaceful. Please leave the wild side alone. It is the reason that we come back.

  • Rosie Toscano



  • Dave Allen

    Great story. Have spend some time on the northeast side of the island and it is amazing. Would love to try and help preserve it. There are already plenty of hotels.

  • Joe Gieseking

    The phrase pristine wildlife area says it all. I imagine there is opportunity within the areas that are currently developed. It is wonderful to venture to the quiet rugged side of the island and decompress. Please don’t take that away, the Islands balance is a huge part of it’s allure..

  • Duane Poehls

    TRUMP and environment don’t go together. TRUMP or any developer only care about the money, despite B.S. claims
    of “Green”!

  • ginger

    Great reporting. I have been going to Cozumel to visit and dive since 1985. It is my home away from home. We that love Cozumel and dive there have been very concerned already with all the cruise ships and what they are doing to the enviroment. I truly hope this developement does not go forward.

  • […] ICLP Yucatan RAVE that brought this issue to the limelight is featured here by Nat Geo Newswatch and Huffington Post.  You can also learn more by reading this excerpt from the petition put […]

  • Charley CUNNINGHAM

    It is imperative that we take care of the environmental issues, greed and over development can destroy all that is Cozumel. Know this and speak out to prevent it. Thank you for this report.

  • Colette K

    Preventing Urban Sprawl on this Island Sanctuary will prevent Mexico from making a critical error in expanding Economic growth… People vacation in Cozumel instead of Cancun for its superior reefs and natural parks. There is nothing like Cozumel in the Caribbean. I have been to most Islands and several Mexican locations… the people, culture and lifestyle is second to none. Please keep it that way…

  • Tia Wilke

    I read this article last month and have to agree. We see firsthand what developers are doing to the island and it is awful. Granted, things are not going to stay the same, and change is inevitable but the amount of greed and political corruption there will be it’s undoing. Not only that, but the exploitation of the people and animals for the privileged few is about more than I can stomach. Sorry, but it’s the truth.

  • Cozumelgallery

    Let¨s support reef protection!

  • Galo Ramirez

    Stop the hell of greed !!

  • […] tip of the island. There is a good article written on this in the natinonal geograhic newswatach…8/cozumel-2013/ The petition is for the President Calderon of Mexico. thanks. […]

  • Halcones Dorados

    Todos vamos juntos, a apoyar en la conservación de nuestra Isla, de todo el entorno, para hacer de esta bella Isla, un rincón único del mundo! Pongamos de nuestra parte siempre, juntos podemos!

  • alfonso

    Excelent report, is very clear is amazing those who call themselves so proud cozumelians haven t done nathing about it , the new generation so called “juniors ” of the clan of wealthy families , has such a lack of knowlege and love for the land of the Maya who give shelter to their grandparents as inmigrants came and make their wealt here and now they want more? Please stop those guys, !!! lets get together and block some higway in order to call attention! spread it in facebook etc.

  • Mke & Marie Richardson

    Like most of the concerned folks above we have been spending time in Cozumel each year for about a dozen years now. We have helped Pantera and his gang dig the turtle nests and have spent quite a bit of time on the East side. This Trump rumor has been hanging like a dark ominous cloud and after reading this I guess it isore real than I ever wanted to believe ! I have little faith that any kind of environmental accessment will ever be done if they are truly going to to follow thru with this project. The only hope would be international pressure put on by folks like us…. Please spread the word and let’s try to keep each other posted…Cozumel 4 U is my only source…

  • Daniel Sosa

    We don’t need more rooms in cozumel.
    There are plenty of hotel rooms right now that are not being filled. Leave that part of the island as it is.
    Don’t destroy it.


    I have visited Cozumel on several occasions since 1998 the water and beaches are beautiful and the fishing is great, the Island needs to be preserved as is, they don’t need anymore large hotels taking up the prestine land.
    Cozumel is a beautiful island.

  • […] and pass it on. More information- Cozumel 2013 – News Watch Thank […]

  • ivan lira

    Lo que quieren lograr con su ” idea de desarrollo” es algo que no va con la realidad ni con las necesidades reales de la poblacion. es un plan de desarrollo pero de las arcas de los ricos involucrados! Voto por “No mas explotacion de los recursos naturales de Cozumel”

  • Cancun Tours -ist

    While Cozumel is one of my favorite places to visit in the Mexican, Caribbean, I agree that the island definitely needs protection. I think over-tourism, especially on a small island, will have a negative outcome. I also like some of the other islands in the area, which don’t get as much tourists. WHen we took a tour from Cancun, we visited a small island called Isla Contoy and another one known as Isla Mujeres. Both are very different from one another, but Isla Mujeres is definitely like a smaller version of Cozumel. One thing that both of those islands have in common however, and something that Cozumel doesn’t apply as well, is the Isla Mujeres authorities really go out of their way to protect the area from over-development. This in my opinion has helped the area retain its natural appeal, and nature shows much better for it.

  • […] of on Cozumel. There actually was an article in the National Geographic News letter about this area…8/cozumel-2013/ So if you like the please sign the petition. […]

  • C. L. Panter

    I had been to Cozumel in 1986 and not again until 2011. I was impressed by many of the developments, but so disappointed to see a Sam’s Club on “my” tiny island. I was also saddened to see the amount of trash that is either left on or washed up on the east side of the island, where there was none before. Maybe a volunteer group can form to clean up those beaches on at least a semi-annual basis so they might look as fresh as when the explorers first saw them.

  • John A.

    This is a very great report. I would like to give some credit though because we have lived on the island for over 15 years and have seen the development and we have to say that Cozumel government has done a great job keeping most the island from being over developed. Cozumel still has most of its gorgeous pristine land to account for. People thinking they are going to come in and start building super hotels have another thing coming, because Cozumel is very cautious about its environment. They want to keep the island as natural as possible, because thats what attracts people to the island most.

    John A.

  • […] ambientalistas e investigadores se opusieron al desarrollo de Punta Arrecifes Resort y en 2012 la zona fue decretada área natural protegida, ya […]

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