Thursday, October 19, 2006

Back in business

Away from the fancy hotels and the tourist zone, Cozumel is a sleepy place. In the hot sweat of the night on the south side of town, you may glance through an open door a poodle sleeping on kitchen table next to some lime green plastic beakers, or fat men dozing in hammocks strung across a cramped purple room, or two little girls playing with a pink plastic tricycle. But if you go along the ritzy seafront past the tax free jewellers competing to throw air-conditioned chill out into the street and keep heading north, you soon come to giant hotels with names like Coral Princess and Playa Azul: temples for barrel-shaped North American pilgrims in the cult of luxury.

And it is to one of these hotels, the Cozumeleno, that leading scientists and marine managers from around the world have come for something called ITMEMS, a powwow on management of tropical marine life.

Almost exactly a year after Hurricane Wilma wreaked havoc on Cozumel for three days, the island is emphatically “back in business” to use the phrase chosen by Richard Kenchington, ITMEMS co-chair. And one of the most high profile events of the week so far has been a meeting with local government leaders from countries around the tropics, hosted by Cozumel’s own mayor, Gustavo Ortega Joaquín. It hit all the right notes, but will some of them ring hollow here in Cozumel?

The star of the show was Jeremy Harris, mayor of Honolulu from 1994 to 2004, who argued that the fate of the world’s coral reefs is in the hands of local government, and that the only way to save reefs was to build sustainable cities.

His theme will be music to the ears of organisers ICRAN and to the World Bank’s Global Environmental Facility, whose Coral Reef Targeted Research Programme is guided by Edgardo Gomez and his colleagues.

The scale of the problem described by Harris in his presentation will be familiar to many. The majority of people of the world’s people now live in cities, and sixty million more are joining them every year. Most of those are on the coast. “That’s equivalent to a new municipality the size of the San Francisco Bay Area every five days” said Harris.

Harris said the behaviour of the US government on climate change had been “shameless”. But, he said, it didn't mater what the national policies were because "it’s the cities that can sort this out”. And cities in developing countries should not repeat the mistakes already made in rich countries.

Harris covered the bases on what cities need to do in transport, energy, water management, waste management and planning. “People say it is too late not to build cities around automobiles. But half of the urban areas of 2030 have not been built yet. We have to build cities for people not cars, and we have to start now”. More than half of greenhouse gas emissions came from buildings, he said; cities could do much more to improve energy efficiency, and develop distributed and renewable energy generation. Challenges for water management included building better drainage systems, improved control point source pollution, recycling, waste reduction and other measures to protect natural systems such as the world’ mangroves, half of which had already been destroyed. And so on with planning, construction. Etc

The key question, of course, was how to build political will? First, Harris took a bash at his own previous profession. Most politicians don’t like to lead, he said. They like to find “a parade” that is already moving and then step out in front of it. “If you build a movement you will find politicians fighting each other to get in front of it. You have to build the parade”.

But then Harris took scientists, perhaps a majority at ITMEMS, to task. Most people, he said, were under the impression that political decisions are based on facts. “No, they are based on politics, not facts. If you think you have done your job by presenting facts you are sadly mistaken. Information is a vital first step but it is not enough. You have to be part of the political process”.

Harris focussed on ways to create political incentives for government to take action, largely centering on community involvement and motivation: “the only thing that trumps [corrupt] politics-as-usual is people power”.

By most accounts, Harris speaks on the base of an extraordinary track record during his time as mayor, which included 21st Century Oahu: A Shared Vision for the Future. This was a “community-based visioning program where neighborhoods would be given some control over their own community development, urban planning and beautification projects”. But in the meeting he focused on examples from some of the cities represented by his fellow mayor-panelists (who made further presentations during the course of the morning).

Harris had one more bitter pill for the scientists: they needed to be better prepared to listen to information coming the other way, from the politicians. Sometimes, he said, local government needed to get scientists to research particular issues, but had hard time convincing them to do this.

The context was sobering. Total expenditure for coral reef research and protection was “pitiful”, he said: “more money is spent [by the US] in one day in Iraq than ten years of coral reef research”. But then came the sweet note: “Local government can be [the scientists' and conservation managers'] champion in the search for [new sources of] funding”.

So what to make of this? Harris’s commitment to sustainability and justice is for real, I think, and so seems to be that several of the mayors at ITMEMS. Not everyone agrees about the situation on Cozumel itself. There was at least one hardball question thrown to the Mayor Ortega, whose uncle is said to own the Cozumeleno, about corruption on the island. And some environmentalists say the destruction continues. It is alleged, for example, that just up the coast a project to extract very large amounts of sand to replenish hotel beaches will inflict substantial damage on some of the island’s best coral and mangroves, which largely escaped the impact of Wilma. It starts "Monday", or at any rate very soon. Further south, plans for new dolphin pens, a new marina and poor waste management look set to have a heavy impact. I plan to investigate a little more over the next few days to see what substance there may or may not be behind such allegations (see also Tourism, water quality and reef heatlh, which links to filmed evidence of the situation in 2003).

There may be a bright future. Or the future may be further destruction of natural wonders that sustain the island’s fertility, legendary from pre-Columbian times. Will the beauty that survived the most recent (semi) natural disaster be crushed by worse and more lasting impact at the hands of human greed?


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