By Serge Dedina, Ph.D., Executive Director, WILDCOAST
With the endless parade of giant swells raining down on Oaxaca, Mexico, the eyes of surfers around the world have been fixated on the elevator drops and deep barrels at Puerto Escondido.
Located on Mexico’s southern Pacific coast and arguably one of the world’s most beautiful and pristine, wave-filled destinations, coastal Oaxaca also contains globally important coastal ecosystems, a myriad of unique wildlife species, and vibrant indigenous communities.
The combination of perfect waves, gorgeous beaches, friendly people and nature in abundance attracts visitors from around the world to Oaxaca. The undeveloped state of this wave-rich zone (with the exception of Puerto Escondido) and its unaltered watersheds and coastline contribute to the exceptional quality and diversity of point waves. That, in turn, fuels the rare ecological conditions that result in wildlife and vibrant ecosystems seen in few other locations in coastal Mexico.
Coastal Oaxaca is influenced by the Isthmus of Tehuantepec whose Tejuano winds and other biogeographic features have produced rare coastal dunes that abut patches of tropical forest and produce the upwelling in the Gulf of Tehuantepec that results in an amazing abundance and diversity of ocean life. It is these contrasts that make its protection vital, not only for surfing, but for the health of the oceans worldwide.
This also includes the continued well-being of its residents, especially the indigenous communities who depend on its natural resources, many of whom still deeply feel the sting of the loss of their villages as a result of the development of the coastal resort city of Huatulco.
WILDCOAST, thanks to the support of the SIMA Environmental Fund, has been working to conserve some of the most threatened and ecologically important ecosystems and wildlife species in Oaxaca over the past two decades. With an office in Huatulco and a dedicated staff of conservationists, our team is committed to protecting the iconic natural resources of this magical coastline in southern Mexico.
So here are five reasons why we must continue to protect and preserve the miraculous and stunning coastal and ocean resources of one of North America’s most unique regions.
Connected and Undeveloped Coastlines and Watersheds
The coast of Oaxaca offers up what is increasingly rare in a tropical Pacific Mexico that has been hammered by urbanization, coastal tourism development, and deforestation (especially in the states of Michoacan and Guerrero): undeveloped coastal ecosystems that connect coastal mangrove wetlands to watersheds and tropical forests.
Looking southeastward from Barra de la Cruz, endless green mountain vistas of the Sierra Madre del Sur fill the view and culminate in the 12,200 foot Cerro Nube at its southerly edge. Just down the beach from Huatulco is the mouth of the Copalita River that offers up river rafting and hundreds of thousands of acres of tropical forests, home to some of Mexico’s most important watersheds, now referred to as “water reserves.”
While Huatulco is obviously a tourist resort, its development included the formation of the 29,400-acre Huatulco National Park and the preservation of local coral reefs and coastal wetlands and forests. That forward-thinking conservation is unique among Mexico’s heavily developed coastal resort cities.
Coral bleaching is a threat to coral reefs worldwide. But somehow the corals of Mexico’s Pacific have not seen the type of damage faced by Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The coral ecosystems of Huatulco National Park are the southernmost in Pacific Mexico and home to a wide variety of wildlife species. Unfortunately they have been impacted from the overuse by tourists, which is why WILDCOAST is working with Mexico’s National Protected Area Commission to train outfitters in best management practices and place mooring buoys around the most fragile reefs to prevent damage from anchor drops.
Sea Turtle Nesting Beaches
Starting in the summer months, Oaxaca’s beaches, especially Escobilla and Morro Ayuta, are the sites of massive arribadas, in which tens of thousands of olive ridley sea turtles arrive to lay their eggs. In Barra de la Cruz, the protected beach and RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance play host to the most important remaining population of nesting leatherback sea turtles in Mexico. These marine reptile leviathans that face extinction due to threats caused by industrial and commercial fishing, only leave the ocean to lay their eggs (and only the females).
The sea turtle activity in Oaxaca is remarkable given that the now hipster tourist village of Mazunte down the coast from Puerto Escondido was once the site of Mexico’s notorious legal sea turtle slaughterhouse. Sea turtles have come back thanks to government protection, the cooperation of local communities who benefit from sea turtle conservation, and the preservation programs of the Mexican Sea Turtle Center at Mazunte as well as WILDCOAST.
Blue and Green Carbon Ecosystems
The mangrove wetland and tropical forest ecosystems found widely in Oaxaca help to store vast amounts of carbon and help to adapt to and mitigate climate change. “By preserving natural ecosystems, the carbon they have already sequestered remains stored in the ground. When these blue and green carbon ecosystems are destroyed, they end up releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, worsening the climate crisis,” affirms WILDCOAST Mexico Director Monica Franco. “So we need not only to protect every inch of Oaxaca’s treasured natural ecosystems for the sake of the people and wildlife that thrive there,” says Franco, “But for the sake of preserving our planet.”
These ecosystems are also home to humpback whales off the coast, along with jaguarundi, jaguars, anteaters, resident and migratory birds, deer, iguanas and rare and threatened amphibians.
Globally Unique Surf Spots
Thanks to organizations such as Save the Waves, there is increasing recognition of the need to safeguard globally unique surfing sites as protected areas and World Surfing Reserves. The sand bottom breaks of Oaxaca, which include Punta Conejo, now threatened by the proposed expansion of the port in Salina Cruz as well as continuous oil spills from a nearby PEMEX port, are more than worthy of permanent protection.
They are rare and treasured ecological features, coastal and marine ecosystems, wildlife habitats and recreational and economic resources that help to drive an important part of the local economy in Oaxaca. WILDCOAST is collaborating with Save the Waves and other local organizations and activists to protect Punta Conejo. We are also working with CONANP to preserve sea turtle nesting beaches that also include surf breaks.
Without more formal conservation protections, Oaxaca will fall prey to the same forces that have ravaged coastlines and natural ecosystems around the world. There is still time to make sure that this magical coastline retains its extraordinary resources and raw beauty so local communities and surfers continue to benefit from and enjoy Oaxaca’s natural wonders.
Serge Dedina is the Executive Director of WILDCOAST and first visited Oaxaca back in 1974. He received SIMA’s “Environmentalist of the Year” Award in 2003. A version of this article was originally published in The Inertia.
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