Reporter: Jane Cowan
Cancun is America's Bali. On a drop-dead stretch of Mexico's Caribbean coast, what was just a simple fishing town as late as the 1970s has grown to become one of the world's largest holiday spots that now draws visitors - way beyond the US - all the way from Europe. It's an all-inclusive, all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-do, package-holiday wonderland featuring gargantuan resorts and golf courses as far as the eye can see.
It's loud and brash and party-central.
But under all those stomping feet is the spectacular silence and epic grandeur of the pristine Yucatan Aquifer, described by some as the world's largest underground river.
"I can tell you the very first dive of my life was in one of these places and in 45 minutes it completely changed my life." LUIS LEAL, Cave diver
The aquifer is a vital resource for thirsty Mexico. It also nourishes vast tracts of rainforest, is home to unique flora and fauna and serves an integral role in the function of other ecosystems. Intriguingly, the aquifer also holds a treasure trove of prehistoric skeletons, and bones from the time the Mayan people held sway in this strikingly beautiful part of the world.
Environmentalists are deeply concerned about the future of the aquifer, as resort development continues unabated above. Limestone quarries gouge the filtering bedrock to provide cement for construction while sewerage and run-off threatens to leach into and taint the crystal clear waters.
"This area is so rich in biodiversity that it has become - literally - the beachhead for the fight on sustainability. If this area goes, if the biodiversity is defeated here then the planet is defeated." MICHAEL HALLÉ, Ecotourism manager
On her debut assignment for Foreign Correspondent, reporter Jane Cowan plunges into the seemingly bottomless canyons of the aquifer to learn its secrets and to assess arguments about the scale of the threats to its sanctity, and the economic necessities of the tourism push in Cancun and beyond.
"Maybe in the short term they are gonna make big money but in the medium and long term they are going to pollute this, they are going to pollute this, they are going to destroy this and we are not going to have anything unique anymore. It's going to be lost". LUIS LEAL, Cave diver ___________________________________Further Information
Save the Riviera Maya Luis Leal - Cenotes Cavern and Cave Diving - Dos Ojos Scuba; Dive Cenotes Mexico César Barrios Martinez Rojas - Friends of Sian Ka'an Michael Hallé - Papaya Playa Project Dr Roberto Iglesias-Prieto – National Autonomous University of Mexico Moon Palace Golf and Spa Resorts See Jane's Traveller's Tale ___________________________________Transcript
COWAN: There's something slightly odd about being in the Mexican jungle – the sea nowhere in sight – kitting up in scuba gear. But my guide Luis Leal promises me an underwater adventure like nothing on earth.
LUIS LEAL: "Let's see how you feel, okay? But we're going to start with the shallow area and then let's see".
COWAN: Our plunge point looks like a swimming hole, but around here they call this a cenote and it's a gateway into an ancient labyrinth.
LUIS LEAL: "Just walk on the water".
COWAN: Beneath the surface, it's breathtaking. We're dwarfed by the enormous caverns, immersed in a dazzling natural light show.
LUIS LEAL: [Cave diver] "I can tell you that the very first dive of my life was in one of these places and in 45 minutes it changed completely all my life".
COWAN: This is the largest underground river system in the world. Rainwater filters through the unique limestone geology of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula – flooding an incredible network of caves. They seem to go on forever, all lit from the cenotes, the windows to the sky.
LUIS LEAL: "We are talking about these.... witnessing this perfectly clear water, as clear as air, where you have unlimited visibility. We always say 100 metres visibility and plus. This is unlimited visibility, this is perfect visibility".
COWAN: This aquifer is a vital water supply for Mexicans. The underground rivers nourish vast tracts of jungle above. They flush out the coastal mangroves, feeding the reef and they're teeming with wildlife, extraordinary biodiversity that makes close encounters like this one possible.
LUIS LEAL: "So how you like it?"
COWAN: "It's amazing. How big would you say that crocodile was?"
LUIS LEAL: "I don't know, maybe a metre twenty, maybe a little bit more. It's very young. Maybe, maybe a year, maybe a little bit more. But it's going to grow bigger".
COWAN: "How big will it get?"
LUIS LEAL: "Well I don't know. If it's..... well if it's the species I think it is, maybe if it's a male it will grow for more than three metres, three to four metres. If it's a female, two to three metres. But it's really nice. He looks very healthy - or she looks very healthy".
COWAN: The Yucatan aquifer is a priceless, interconnecting asset for Mexico – the heart of a fragile ecosystem – but for how long? Run away development on the surface is tainting this pristine place. Some of the cenotes are being contaminated with waste water and even sewage.
LUIS LEAL: "Maybe in the short term they are going to make the big money but in the medium term and the long term they are going to pollute this, they are going to destroy this and we are not going to have anything unique anymore. It's going to be lost".
COWAN: This is Cancun, just a quick flight from Miami, it's the number one tourist destination in the Caribbean. In four short decades a small fishing village has been transformed into a mega hotel strip, stretching for twenty kilometres. Huge, all-inclusive resorts serve up everything a sun loving holiday maker could wish for. Waves – whenever you want – dolphins on demand – endless entertainment.
The money these people spend is the main source of revenue for the state government here. Raúl Maruffo represents the tourism department.
"How much bigger can Cancun get?"
RAÚL MARUFFO: "I don't think bigger is better. I believe that Cancun, a little over thirty thousand hotel rooms, is not going to grow much larger".
COWAN: Cancun isn't just overbuilt, it's run out of room and with just about every square metre taken, developers are moving south - keen to carve up the rest of the coastline known as the Riviera Maya, the lid of the Yucatan aquifer.
"Would you want to avoid replicating this level of development further south on the Riviera Maya?
RAÚL MARUFFO: [State Undersecretary for Tourism] "Not necessarily because Cancun as it is today is extremely successful - and not wanting to develop other areas it may just imply that this was not correct".
DR ROBERT IGLESIAS-PRIETO: [Oceanographer] "This is a very destructive model. Their business is to build hotels and for that you need these loans that come from Europe which are very cheap. I mean the cost of money is very cheap... then the cost of labour is also very cheap. So there's not a single incentive for preserving what you have. You keep moving south and that's it. So you think about it.... what we are doing here is we are giving subsidies to bankers in Europe and we are paying the subsidies with our natural capital".
COWAN: To see what's really going on you have to take to the air. Diver Luis Leal is eager to see the area from above. Resort after resort is built where mangroves once were - mangroves that provided a crucial source of nutrients for the marine eco system and protected the beaches in hurricane season.
LUIS LEAL: "They are out of control completely. Look at that design over there, they cannot be modifying that much the wetlands and the aquifer over there".
COWAN: In a place with almost no natural surface water, golf courses glitter with water features. The rooves of the underground rivers have been gouged out to create artificial lagoons.
"How have they created those channels?"
LUIS LEAL: "They are just digging and digging and modifying all where there are the wetlands and the aquifer over there. It is worse than I imagined".
COWAN: But from up here the most dramatic scar on the landscape is a quarry. Forests have been wiped away and the limestone extracted to make cement. In places the developers have dug so deep they've crashed into the aquifer, exposing the previously subterranean rivers, spoiling the water.
LUIS LEAL: "There are square kilometres of these places of the jungle completely destroyed, completely dead. They are just like silly pathetic lagoons... square lagoons in the middle of the jungle. I think that people, investors, the Mexican Government and companies see this place like El Dorado. They want to make a lot of money here and they don't have any boundaries and we need boundaries for this greed".
COWAN: Modern day developers weren't the first to go high rise here. This is where the ancient Maya civilisation did some of its most striking work. The Coba Pyramid is the tallest on the Yucatan Peninsula. It's a long way up. Not a great place to forget your climbing boots - or to discover you might have a fear of heights.
(AT THE TOP OF THE PYRAMID) "This is a spectacular view but at more than forty metres high, it's also kind of terrifying. This is much harder than scuba".
Now there's just the slight problem of getting down. It proves to be a slow, slow process. For the Maya, the Yucatan Coast was prime real estate. They first settled this trading port fifteen hundred years ago.
"This is the ruins of the ancient city of Tulum. Back then all the roads were paved white and the buildings would have been brightly painted and decorated with murals, but even now, all this time later, you can still feel the grandeur of the place and imagine what it must have been like at its height".
Tulum flourished in the 13th century, rising to fill the void as other Maya cities declined and were abandoned. Like prehistoric sentries, iguanas guard what's left. Beneath one ruin, there's a blocked up cenote - once a source of fresh water for the city, now it's salty and undrinkable.
GABRIEL MASÓN: "Well, for us these places are very important. The cenote is the tear of mother earth. For the same reason it's our life".
COWAN: There are thought to be about two and a half million Maya descendants in Mexico today, Gabriel Masón is one of them.
GABRIEL MASÓN: "The only thing that I can say is that if our forebears came back they would die of sadness to see the big cities, the big developments – and the way that we treat the cenotes".
COWAN: For Gabriel's ancestors, cenotes were sacred. He says the spiritual significance of these places has been lost.
GABRIEL MASÓN: "Today it's a nightmare, a real nightmare, because there are government institutions with a lot of ambitions – and big companies which want you to develop these places. We feel under threat".
MICHAEL HALLÉ: Maya teachings, the underworld, is, that's how you enter the underworld is through the cave system and the cenotes.
COWAN: Canadian hotelier Michael Halle is trying to tread lightly, promoting sustainable tourism.
MICHAEL HALLÉ: Cancun at one time looked just like Tulum today. This whole coast was exactly the same ecosystem but what's happened over the years is mass development with no regard to the environment.
COWAN: Tulum is 130 kilometres south of Cancun and about as different as can be. With almost a kilometre of Caribbean beachfront, this property is big enough to be turned into an all-inclusive mega resort and there's commercial, social and political pressure to do it.
MICHAEL HALLÉ: [Papaya Playa Project] "You know the poverty and the unemployment in Mexico are driving people here for tourism jobs and construction jobs so governments keep pushing the big all-inclusive development because it's easy to show, you know, a typical site that's building a five to seven hundred room hotel will employ between seven and twelve thousand labourers. I mean that helps unemployment overnight".
COWAN: Michael Hallé believes mega resorts would be disastrous here, yet he says developers wanting to use greener technologies have sometimes had to break the law to do it.
MICHAEL HALLÉ: "If you apply for a permit at the municipality as an example, they've never heard of this technology for you know, for black water treatment and so then you can't get the approvals. It's impossible. You can't get an approval for something that they don't know about or they don't understand or they've never heard about".
COWAN: To really experience what the Yucatan was like before mass tourism, you have to visit Sian Ka'an. In the glow of a Mexican sunrise, it's easy to see why its name means 'where the sky is born'. Encompassing more than four hundred thousand hectares, these lagoons were declared a UNESCO world heritage site in the late eighties.
CÉSAR BARRIOS MARTINEZ ROJAS: "There's the evidence that this channel was made by the ancient Mayans. That means this channel could be two thousand years old".
COWAN: One hundred thousand people a year come to see this place that epitomises low impact travel. For parts of the trip you don't even need a boat.
CÉSAR BARRIOS MARTINEZ ROJAS: "Let's go downstream in Sian Ka'an style".
COWAN: "So how far do we travel like this then?"
CÉSAR BARRIOS MARTINEZ ROJAS: "We're going to travel one kilometre far, from twelve, that is all this channel. This water comes from the lagoon to the underground rivers to the channel and then goes out to the sea".
COWAN: "It's all connected".
CÉSAR BARRIOS MARTINEZ ROJAS: "It's all connected through water".
COWAN: In places you can even see where the freshwater cenotes open directly into the salty waterway.
CÉSAR BARRIOS MARTINEZ ROJAS: "Look at this cenote. You can see the water coming out from the underground. This makes a unique system in the world".
COWAN: Here at least the environment co-exists with sustainable tourism but you have to wonder if there's much point protecting the lagoons without also protecting the cenotes that flow to them.
CÉSAR BARRIOS MARTINEZ ROJAS: [Friends of the Sian Ka'an] "We have many towns with no water treatment, with no water care. Some of the towns they just throw their water into the cenotes, into the underground rivers - and all those rivers are interconnected, so anything that happens inland with the cenotes and with the underground rivers, it will be affecting the reserve and it will be affecting the reef out there".
COWAN: Mexico is plagued by corruption. Governments have changed land titles to favour large scale development. A few years back, a ban on destroying mangroves around Cancun was lifted long enough to approve a flurry of construction then neatly reinstated.
RAÚL MARUFFO: "To become number one it takes some learning and it is a learning curve just like in anything in life".
COWAN: "Well what are you doing to protect the cenotes?"
RAÚL MARUFFO: [laughs] "I think cenotes are protected. You have the economists who are going to be positioning themselves into growth and making money, and you have the ecologists who have their own viewpoints".
LUIS LEAL: "I don't think they have any idea of what sustainability means. I think the Mexican Government, the Mexican authorities are hopeless, useless, very corrupt and just interested in greed and money".
COWAN: Before he fell in love with this Yucatan underworld, Luis Leal fought against another one – he was a Mexico City lawyer prosecuting crooked cops.
LUIS LEAL: "I know the beast from the inside. Believe me I was part of the beast and being there I can tell you for certain that the government is not going to move if we don't have somebody from outside making it move. I hope we can... we can spread the voice/word".
COWAN: He knows more than most what's at stake. One thousand kilometres of caves have been mapped beneath the Yucatan so far and Luis has been as deep as five or six kilometres inside the maze.
LUIS LEAL: "If you carry six tanks for example.... the longest I have been in a dive was maybe seven hours, something like that".
COWAN: Down here your lifeline is a trail of string - tiny plastic arrows marking the way out.
LUIS LEAL: "And it's really nice, believe me. I could say that I would feel more comfortable two hours inside a cave.... I would feel more comfortable there than in a bar or a discotheque or a football stadium. I wouldn't be there ever".
COWAN: It's highly technical diving. Dangerous too. While we're in Mexico a diver drowns in these tunnels, but for Luis exploring is a kind of meditation.
LUIS LEAL: "Just the experience of being there with yourself with this darkness, in this fantastic environment, being part and navigating in the veins of the planet, the circulatory system of the planet".
COWAN: In these passages divers have discovered human remains dating to the ice age – twelve to fifteen years ago when the caves were dry. Perfectly preserved here are the complete skeletons of animals we can now only imagine. Giant sloths, mammoths and saber tooth cats.
LUIS LEAL: "There are some places where you can see a piece of rock with a skull of a bear on top of the piece of rock surrounded by pieces of charcoal next to a human skeleton, frozen in time".
COWAN: "Whereabouts is the reef?"
DR ROBERTO IGLESIAS-PRIETO: "Where the water is breaking, as you can see.... this is where the reef is".
COWAN: So far the effect of over development is perhaps most pronounced where the Yucatan Aquifer meets the sea, on the idyllic Mexican Caribbean. Not as idyllic as it used to be according to oceanographer Roberto Iglesias-Prieto.
DR ROBERTO IGLESIAS-PRIETO: "In my lifetime I have seen a very dramatic change in the quality of the water and in the conditions of the reef".
COWAN: The Meso-American Reef extends from Mexico to Honduras and is the world's second largest after Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
DR ROBERTO IGLESIAS-PRIETO: "The coverage of coral has been reduced dramatically in the last twenty or thirty years. We used to have 30% coverage and now we have less than 10% coverage. Of course that is very sad to witness in front of your house".
COWAN: Like a doctor taking a patient's vital signs, Roberto measures the impact of mass tourism on the coral and tests have thrown up some unusual results.
DR ROBERTO IGLESIAS-PRIETO: "It can be very bad in terms of the amount of pollutants that we can detect. There's a study that shows for example the presence of these chemicals associated with the use of cocaine residues that are detectable".
COWAN: "So you're talking about metabolites of drugs like cocaine are showing up in the reef?"
DR ROBERTO IGLESIAS-PRIETO: "Well in the water by the reef, yes".
COWAN: "And that's coming from people using drugs where?"
DR ROBERTO IGLESIAS-PRIETO: "In the hotels, yes".
COWAN: The problem is a lack of basic infrastructure.
DR ROBERTO IGLESIAS-PRIETO: "Here in Puerto Morelos we don't have a sewerage system, so we have are septic tanks - and the problem with septic tanks is that they are.... when we have too much water pressure on..... inland, they will be flushed to the reef and that's something that is not sustainable and we need to do something about that".
COWAN: Official standards for sewerage treatment are so lax that hotels can comply perfectly with the law but still be polluting the water.
DR ROBERTO IGLESIAS-PRIETO: "The Mexican laws force the developers to treat the water - just primary treatment which is the removal of solids in suspension, and inject it to 90 metres depth, and polluted freshwater will flow to the ocean with only primary treatment and that can be very dangerous for the reef because it contains large quantities of nitrogen and phosphorus".
COWAN: There's also evidence of reverse flows in the underground rivers, meaning pollutants can drift upstream to contaminate the freshwater aquifer further inland. The hotels have elaborate filtration systems for the tourists. If the water supply is polluted, it's Mexicans who will suffer.
MICHAEL HALLÉ: "This area is so rich in biodiversity that it has become literally the beach head for the fight on sustainability. If this area goes like several other critical ecosystems on the planet..... if this area goes, you know, if the biodiversity is defeated here, then the planet is defeated".
COWAN: Luis Leal's love affair with the cenotes will go on. With only 20% of the underground rivers explored, he plans to be diving for the rest of his life, but he fears without international intervention these oases in the jungle could ultimately vanish.
LUIS LEAL: "The only way that we can make the government react is by telling people outside what is going on here. If you don't tell the world this, if you don't make us responsible for something that should belong to everyone, these places will be lost".