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Resort plans draw fire in Mexico's Holbox reserve, known for flamingo flocks

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MEXICO CITY - Flamingos gather by the thousands each year in the pristine, shallow waters of Mexico's Holbox Island, a sliver of nearly empty beachfront and lush landscape where eco-tourists also go to watch manatees and whale sharks in a locale unlike the nearby hotspot of Cancun.

But local residents are disturbed by a development plan to dredge their shallow lagoon for a boat channel that would support a new resort on Isla Holbox (HOL'-bosh). Environmentalists say the deeper canal would threaten the flamingos and other wildlife that are a draw for nature-seekers.

This week, a group of local communal landholders blockaded the Holbox town hall to protest the development plans.

Three hotels and an estimated 872 residential units would be built on a spit of land now populated only by mangrove trees and flamingos, which wade ankle-deep in gulf waters as calm as glass. The waters aren't deep enough for the construction barges to build the project, nor the passenger boats the resort would need.

"The fact that the lagoon is so shallow is precisely why the birds come," said Alejandra Serrano, of the Mexican Center for Environmental Law. "They need an area where they can stand up and feed."

The developers, a group of Mexican investors called Peninsula Maya Developments, say they want to keep their impact minimal, building their project on just under 10 hectares (24 acres) of undeveloped land. The resort, tentatively called "La Ensenada," would promote "preservation through sustainable tourism based on nature."

The development group, whose website says its members are citizens of the Yucatan and Mexico City, did not respond to requests for comment.

Project opponents say the area already is preserved and that the small-scale tourism economy built by locals hits the right balance between industry and nature. Residents of Holbox, the village on the western edge of the island, prohibit most motorized vehicles and leave much of the surrounding land untouched. Tour operators at the small hotels use golf carts and boats to carry around visitors wishing to see the flamingos, swim in cenotes or dive with whale sharks. Fishermen catch enough seafood to supply the island's small hotels and tourist kitchens without overfishing.

Daniel Trigo, the 32-year-old owner of the Casa Blat-Ha bed and breakfast, said the planned resort "would have negative impacts on the island's ecosystem and its society."

As it is, only a few shallow-draft tour boats ply the lagoon between the island and the mainland each day. Some worry that more boat traffic with larger vessels could hurt the slow-moving manatees. Developers maintain there are no manatees in the area, but activists say they frequently are seen there. Environmentalists also say Mexican law protects mangrove trees that would need to be cut down for the project.

Holbox Island was declared a nature reserve 20 years ago. But for reasons that are unclear, authorities have yet to create an official management plan to control activities in the area. Officials of the Environment Department could not explain why the management plan is unfinished.

"That's why they (developers) feel they can come to Holbox and do anything they want, because they don't feel they're in a reserve," said Serrano.

The developers bought land rights from enough of the island's original communal landholders to split off their holdings from the rest of the community. Trigo maintains it's the local inhabitants who have claim to the island's natural treasures.

"When a nature reserve is created, the law says the people who should have first rights to benefit from economic activity in the zone are the original inhabitants," he said. "In this case, the developers don't even live on the island."

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