Final Report – RV

Sargassum on Vacation: Algal Blooms as an Impetus for Social and Environmental Change on the Mexican Caribbean

I sunbathed mid-morning beside a college friend amongst a heaping mass of lounge chairs in March of 2015 in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. As I sat enjoying the warm sun, I was struck by the immensity of this tourist location. Thousands of the familiar white and blue vinyl strap pool chaise lounges lined the sprawling beach that seemed to go on for miles in either direction. Hundreds of workers doted on every tourist’s indulgent need. Female housekeepers labored to maintain the interior of dozens of beach resorts twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Male garden and operation crews toiled in hot temperatures to prune and augment the fabricated luxurious landscaping and facilities. But, it was one final observation that seemed to most strongly smack me in the face. As I lay facing the water, relaxing in my chair, I looked around and noticed a crew of male workers racking seaweed into piles to be placed in black plastic bags for removal from the beach.

I chuckled at what felt like the ridiculous nature of this scene. Isn’t part of being on the beach about existing within the coastal environment, seaweed and all? Was the nature of tourism so drastic that there was an inherent need to dedicate paid employees to pick up seaweed from the beaches? What’s next? Racking the sand down to hard soil so vacationers don’t have to deal with sand sticking to their bodies?  I had been on a number of family vacations to the Caribbean before, but never to such a popular location. The mass scale of Punta Cana and the amount of work being done around me, forced me to ask questions about paradise vacationing. I began to wonder about the toll that the development of tourism has on the environment and on a prescriptive gendered working class. 

What I didn’t know then was that the issue of seaweed was really much more significant than anything I could have imagined. Starting in 2011, Caribbean islands and resort towns on the shores of the Mexican Caribbean began seeing massive inundations of free-floating varieties of the seaweed Sargassum land on their beaches. The scale of these algal blooms has raised many serious concerns regarding both the seaweed’s impact on tourism and even the environment itself. As I dove more and more into the news about the Sargassum, I realized that the severity of the seaweed situation seemed to be inspiring action toward solving the social and environmental problems caused by a mass tourist industry. The Sargassum also surprisingly raised questions regarding the gendered nature of work and its relationship to the environment in the Caribbean.  The essay that follows therefore, examines the intersections between tourism, nature, and gender.

 However, the Caribbean itself is much too large of an area to properly capture in this essay.  Therefore, to narrow down the scope of this project, I have chosen to focus specifically on the Mexican-Caribbean coast in the state of Quintana Roo along the Yucatán Peninsula between an approximately 80-mile strip from Cancún in the North and Tulum in the South (Figure 1). This area is sometimes referred to as the Mexican Riviera or Riviera Maya. The region is specifically fruitful for investigation because of its important role in the Mexican economy. The Mexican Caribbean also has a large and important indigenous Mayan and Mestizo labor force that is highly implicated in social and environmental inequalities created by tourism. Finally, the scope and size of Mexico and its government in relation to other Caribbean destinations has ultimately made Mexico a leader in communicating the problems associated with Sargassum and in tackling the mitigation of the problem.

Figure 1

Scholars have studied this region in a number of different fields. This paper will be in discussion with the history of tourism, environmental history, and scholarship about Latin American feminism. Historians of tourism have succeeded in showcasing the spatial inequalities created by the development of tourism between the white dominated tourist industry and Mayan and Mestizo laborers. Tourism has created segregated housing for working communities who do not receive proper social services. [i] These scholars, along with environmental historians, have also exposed the relationship between development and environmental degradation on the Mexican Caribbean coast. Tourism has created a slew of major environmental problems on a coastline that was once comprised of many important coastal and oceanic ecosystems. [ii] Feminist scholars have further showcased the connections between Latin American feminism and the history of environmental destruction in the face of capitalist development. As capitalism has grown in Latin America, so has environmental destruction. Women now connect their activism to environmental issues brought on by capitalist development. [iii] This essay however, intervenes in the research as it connects these seemingly disconnected research inquires together. To study the Sargassum is to study the connections between tourism, nature, and gender on the Mexican Caribbean. [iv]

In order showcase and anaylze these connections this paper is an exploration of the Mexican Caribbean before Sargassum and after Sargassum. I will use the above studies to analyze the social and environmental setting of the Mexican Riviera before the Sargassum. I will then use the seaweed itself to illuminate how this vegetation exposes the relevancy and veracity of environmental degradation on the Mexican Caribbean. The paper will show that the Sargassum inundations found on the coasts of the Mexican Riviera create the space for scholars, developers, and government officials alike to explore and take seriously the spatial inequalities brought about by tourism, the deep connections between capitalism and environmental degradation, and the connection between women, nature, and the very capitalist structure which has generated the massive coastal tourist industry on the Mexican Caribbean.

In order to accomplish these ends I will use a variety of source materials. I will use historical studies of tourism, the environment, and feminism on the Mexican Caribbean to establish the social and environmental setting of the coast before Sargassum. To examine the intersections of tourism, the environment, and gender after the Sargassum,I will dive deep into news articles and governmental policy. These sources will help to showcase the response after the Sargassum. I will then analyze these responses to showcase how the Mexican Caribbean community is affecting massive change and further the role that women play in that change.

To understand how Sargassum altered how municipalities, the government of Mexico, and industry stakeholders attended to environmental concerns, one must begin by exploring the Mexican Caribbean before the Sargassum inundations. I will firstly uncover the spatial inequalities created by tourism. I will lay out the relationship between capitalism and environmental degradation on the Mexican Caribbean. I will ultimately showcase how these social and environmental injustices before Sargassum, though all the while known and acknowledged, were largely ignored by the tourist industry and government entities on both the local and state levels. Once the scene is set, one must account for the events that occurred after the Sargasssum arrived. In doing so, I will showcase how Sargassum created an opportunity for stakeholders to tend to the social and environmental issues that have always been present along the Mexican Riviera. What I hope to show is that the impacts of Sargassum have played an integral role in inciting environmental action that both acknowledges the labor of Mayan and Mestizo people and includes the voices of Mexican women.

PART I: BEFORE THE SARGASSUM

My spring break on the beach in Punta Cana back in 2015 made me wonder about how such a large tourist destination was ever created. Most pressing in my mind was a question about whether in fact this paradise vacation model created social inequalities. How did the indigenous people working around the clock at the resorts end up in these roles? What were their lives like? Did they receive civil protections like regulations on their working conditions and hours? My love for the ocean made me further concerned about the environment. Could something of this scale sitting right on the coast remarkably not impact the ocean and the land in negative ways? An exploration of tourism on the Mexican Caribbean before Sargassum helps to showcase how in fact this region was inundated with both social and environmental inequalities that, while went unnoticed by vacationers, were known and acknowledged by the government. Yet, these issues were little tended to.

The tourist industry developed on the Mexican Caribbean between the 1970s and 80s primarily for the purpose of economic prosperity. The Mexican Caribbean prior to the tourism industry was a vastly empty space. An area that had once serviced a large logging industry for rubber trees was now void of mass infrastructure or social programs for those living there. The area was populated with primarily an indigenous community whose labor had been exploited by colonizers as early as 1526 and up until the turn-of-the-nineteenth century when synthetic rubber was created. But, by the post-war era, this region was largely empty and ready for capitalist exploitation [v] Studies of tourism in various towns on the Mexican Caribbean have shown that these sites often developed in similar ways.[vi]  In the post-war era as commercial air-travel and international tourism boomed, private businesses, supported by the Mexican government, grew interested in making Mexico a tourist locale. It was during this time that Mexico created its first tourism council and tourism development plan. For Mexican stakeholders the coastline of Quintana Roo, with its beautiful beaches and coral reefs, adjoining untouched jungles, and mysterious cenotes (deep, round-edged reservoirs that lead to underground rivers that end in the ocean) seemed to be a prime vacation destination.

However, the way that development occurred did not tend to the needs of marginalized groups. In the late 1960s, the Bank of Mexico created a fund for tourism known in English as the Fund for the Promotion of Tourism Infrastructure (INFRATUR). This fund completed research to determine if investment in tourism was the proper choice. When it was determined to be so, this fund was succeeded by FONATUR (The National Tourism Promotion Fund), which was comprised of extra funds from global investors and the federal government. FONATUR was used to quietly purchase ejido (communal farm land supported by the state) and privately owned land for low prices. This land was added to property already owned by the federal government, which had previously been dispossessed from Mayan communities. FONATUR then began building hotels. The fund however, did not properly plan for the massive work force of both Mayan people and Mestizo immigrants that would move to the coast. [vii]

This became most apparent because there was no proper housing created for this marginalized workforce. Instead, in many locations FONATUR or private development companies paid to build worker housing that was separated from the resorts by either geographic partitions, like a lagoon, or by infrastructural partitions, like a highway. In doing so, the Mayan and Mestizo work force was physically separated from the white dominated tourist locales. They were not given access to beach real estate for habitation and further lacked quick and easy access to the beach for recreational purposes. [viii]

Housing inequalities continued as more and more laborers came to the coast and housing became more and more sparse. In some locations, such as Cancún, thousands of workers began to settle in squatter villages. Worker housing and squatter villages separate from the resorts still flourish. They lack proper sewer and electrical systems. These communities additionally face higher rates of crime. The result being that the Mayan and Mestizo workers were and still are forced to live in areas that firstly provide them unequal access to valued spaces such as beaches, and secondly, necessitate that they live in areas with insufficient infrastructure for both healthy and safe living. [ix]

The spatial separation between laborers and tourists not only creates social inequalities but also hides these social inequalities from the average tourist. What remains unknown to tourists is the very basic income that workers earn and the basic standard of living that they are therefore able to afford. Mexican workers earn anywhere from 6,000 to 15,000 pesos a month which is around 300 to 775 U.S. dollars. These wages, earned over an average six-day workweek, only allow workers to pay for single room rented apartment spaces. After paying rent, cell phone bills, transportation, and other living expenses, very little is left over for extra spending or savings. While federal worker laws protect Mexican laborers, resort businesses get around having to provide benefits to their employees by staffing their workforce through third party businesses. This workforce is further racially divided. In Mexico, workers with Mayan or Mestizo heritage are most often employed for hard labor jobs like housekeeping, construction, and landscaping. On the other hand, people with stronger white Spanish heritage hold positions that have more interface with the tourist community like, serving as wait staff or as front desk associates. [x]

The nature of work on the Mexican Caribbean is also gendered. This fact is undisputable, as even advertisements created by employers will specify whether they are looking for a male or female worker.  Mostly, women tend to hold service jobs and almost exclusively are the only people to serve as housekeepers, while men tend to act as landscapers or members of operational staff. The roles that women take on are further the ones that pay the least. The average monthly pay of housekeepers is on the lowest end of the pay scale. And yet, vacationers enjoy their beach vacations with very little awareness of the social conditions that tourism has created. Because the daily life of Mexican workers occurs off of the resort, tourists are disassociated from those that serve them. As a result they know little about the income, standard of living, or racial and gender divisions that Mexican laborers experience.[xi]

As tourism created larger social divides it also made lasting impacts on the environment. Firstly, tourism has impacted the coastal ecology by necessitated the filling of coastal lagoons and mangroves. Lagoons, mangroves, and other estuarine ecosystems serve as important sites of biodiversity that act as buffers for protecting against storm surges and that absorb carbon dioxide and other pollutants. According to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Mexico has one of the largest systems of mangroves in the world.[xii] Yet, Mexico’s mangroves are disappearing at faster rates than many places around the globe. In fact, it is estimated that in twenty-five years close to fifty percent of Mexico’s mangroves will have been lost.[xiii] This loss is directly related to the tourist industry. In order to extend beach resorts, create more beach space, and in some cases build golf courses, these mangroves and estuaries have been filled. As a result, Mexico is losing important ecological habitat vital for its fisheries and for coastal protection against hurricanes.[xiv]

Tourism has also created massive problems regarding wastewater and sewage treatment. Resorts require sound and sophisticated sewer systems that do not currently exist on the Mexican-Caribbean coast en masse. [xv] For example, in the highly frequented beach resort town of Tulum, less than ten percent of the town is connected to the municipal sewer system. Specifically, many of the beach resorts and newer developments are not connected at all. Instead, most businesses invest in their own septic tanks. And yet, the majority of wastewater ends up in the ground in Tulum. This wastewater ultimately leeches into the groundwater below and eventually ends up in the ocean or in inland cenotes connected to the coast through underground rivers. In fact 80% of the Mexican Riviera cenotes are contaminated.[xvi]

This contamination has greatly impacted the nearby coral reef systems. When wastewater contaminates the water table it puts excess nutrients into the water allowing for higher rates of vegetative growth. This vegetative growth blocks the coral from absorbing the vital sunlight it needs to survive. Wastewater, of course, is also comprised of toxic substances that when absorbed by coral, results in bleaching as well. Reef systems are further damaged by boat traffic, as SCUBA and snorkeling are frequent tourist activities. Other tourist activities such as swimming have also impacted the reefs. Shade from swim platforms and sun-block toxic to coral that likely inhibits its reproduction have further increased the rate of bleaching. Like mangroves and estuaries, coral reefs are important sites of biodiversity that also act as a buffer for protecting against storm surges and that absorb carbon dioxide.  As a result, just like with the major loss of mangroves, the Mexican Caribbean is losing an important resource for its fisheries, tourist industry, and for its protection against natural disasters with this massive depletion of coral reef. [xvii]

What is quite striking about environmental degradation and the social inequalities created on the Mexican Caribbean because of tourism is that they have long been known, but rarely adequately addressed. When it came to the marginalization of Mayan and Mestizo people, one of the expressed goals of developing tourism was to address unemployment and the need for social services in Riviera Maya. Just as Mexico was looking to globalize their economy in the 1960s, in Quintana Roo, unemployment was high and the area lacked basic social services. Bringing the tourist industry to this region therefore was understood as a way to economically advance the people living there while also globalizing Mexico’s economy. In 1974, the Federal Law for Development of Tourism highlighted both the need to diversify the economy while also addressing local inequalities and marginalized communities that inhabited the region. However, Mayan and Mestizo people still inhabit under-resourced housing communities that separate them from the coast and from tourists who lack an awareness of their life circumstances.[xviii]

Further, Murray notes that the Mexican federal government and the government of Quintana Roo have noted environmental changes since the 1990s and acknowledged a need to regulate development. Mexico created its own environmental ministry, built policies restricting filling in coastal zones for development, protected certain coastal areas in Quintana Roo, and has consistently created a goal to tend to environmental concerns in their State Development Plan since 1993.  However, today on the Mexican Caribbean coast, builders continue to fill mangroves. Protected reefs continue to be frequented by tourist boats. Large resort towns like Tulum continue to lack proper sewage systems. The environmental actions taken by the Mexican government and the measures to secure those actions have not done enough to mitigate the continuous degradation of the Mexican Caribbean.[xix] Ultimately, tourism in Riviera Maya has created profound social inequalities that are invisible to tourists and it has created environmental degradation. The Mexican government has long acknowledged these issues, but little action has been done to amend these problems. 

PART II: AFTER THE SARGASSUM

When the Sargassum arrived in 2011, so too arrived the possibility for this all to change. My own dumbfoundedness about the mass of seaweed and the labor required to clear it from the beaches on my trip to Punta Cana in 2015, was certainly not a unique response. What follows is a narrative concerning the ways in which Sargassum has finally forced the Mexican government and tourist businesses to tend to environmental degradation and social inequalities. It is also a narrative about how Sargassum might perhaps be opening a door for women to take the lead in solving the problem. 

Sargassum has air-filled sacs that allow it to float on the surface of the water in large mats that can go on for miles and miles. The seaweed itself serves important ecological roles as it is home to many macro and microorganisms that use the floating mass of vegetation as a site for habitat, sustenance, and reproduction. When the seaweed washes ashore it can also serve an important role in restoring structure to eroding beaches. This seaweed is most well known to accumulate in the Sargasso Sea an area within and defined by the North Atlantic gyre and that rests more than 1,500 miles from the Mexican Caribbean (Figure 2).

Figure 2

When the seaweed arrived in the Caribbean in 2011 there were, therefore, many questions about how the Sargassum got there.  Themassive nature of the blooms additionally raised many concerns. Since 2011, the Caribbean has witnessed history’s largest ever-recorded bloom of a macroalgae.[xx] The scale of these inundations is truly unprecedented for resort towns on Riviera Maya. The largest bloom yet, occurred in 2018. This algal bloom spanned the 5,500 miles of the Central Atlantic from the west coast of Africa to the Gulf of Mexico (Figure 3). It is estimated that the bloom contained more than 44 million pounds of Sargassum biomass.[xxi]  In 2015, fifty miles of Quintana Roo coastline was covered in Sargassum. In 2018, Sargassum inundated a coastline three to four times that amount.[xxii] Municipalities in that year recorded that on some days more than 400,000 pounds of Sargassum were collected.[xxiii]

Figure 3: Brian Barnes, et. al, “The great Atlantic Sargassum belt,” Science 365 no. 6447. (July 5, 2019): 83-87.

The scale of Sargassum inundations is causing social problems. The Sargassum invades the beaches in such quantities that the white sand beaches of hotel resorts are completely covered over (Figure 4). As the seaweed rests on the sand and dries in the sun, it releases an unpleasant odor marking the decomposition of the vegetation and the macro and microorganisms that reside within it. The seaweed itself and the odor it releases impede tourists from enjoying their time on the beach. Alas, laborers, many of whom are of Mayan and Mestizo descent, have been the ones tasked with clearing the shores of the seaweed for the white tourist clientele. In some locations it has been cited that in one season more than 80,000 man-hours have been dedicated to this undertaking.[xxiv] Or In Cancùn for example, 112 municipal workers, organized into fourteen crews of eight members each were working two shifts a day, seven days a week during the 2018 calendar year.[xxv]

Figure 4

The Sargassum is also raising environmental concerns. For one thing, it has been suggested by studies completed by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) that Sargassum contains high levels of arsenic and heavy metalsthat are being emitted into the air as the seaweed decomposes.[xxvi] The decaying seaweed also releases sulfuric acid, which scientists have found is killing sea grasses, which are both a food source for sea turtles and structural support for beaches that erode more quickly without their presence. [xxvii] The sulfuric acid is also believed to harm coral reefs. Additionally, large mats of Sargassum block coral from absorbing sunlight, which is needed for their survival. As a result, Sargassum inundations are exacerbating the problem of coral depletion on the Mexican Caribbean that already existed.[xxviii] Finally, there are concerns about the impact of Sargassum inundations on sea turtles. While out at sea these floating mats serve as sites for reproduction and habitat for sea turtles. But, when the seaweed lands on the beach, it is believed to perhaps have a negative impact on the sea turtle nesting grounds. The fear is that the amount of seaweed would both impede turtles from laying their eggs in the sand and halt hatchlings from emerging from their shells and squirming down to the water once they have hatched.[xxix]

The scientific community has been profoundly important in efforts to remediate these environmental concerns. Research groups have joined at various academic and scientific institutions both within Mexico and outside of Mexico to firstly track and predict Sargassum algal blooms, but also to establish sustainable measures for removing Sargassum from the beaches. Scientists from the University of South Florida, Florida Atlantic University, and Georgia Institute of Technology have been working since 2015 to understand the causes for these blooms. In the spring of 2019 the group published a paper that more definitively supposes that the Sargassum in the Caribbean is caused by nutrient run-off from the Amazon River and rivers in West Africa. Additionally, there have been more frequent occurrences of upwelling in the central Atlantic. Upwelling brings nutrients to the sea surface and encouraged an originally small seed population that already existed in the Caribbean to bloom at massive rates. The scientists were able to make their determinations by tracking sea surface temperature, ocean circulation models, and satellite images. In conducting this research, the group has not only generated the most feasible reasons for the blooms, but it has also created a system for tracking and predicting current and future invasions.[xxx] This system is employed by both the state government and an independent commission called the Sargazo Cancùn Monitoring Network. These groups communicate to stakeholders when to anticipate algal inundations.[xxxi]  But, scientists working with the Gulf and Caribbean Research Institute have also worked diligently to study the possible ecological importance of the seaweed when it lands on the beaches. This group created a management plan in 2016 that communicated the proper methods required for removing the seaweed from the beaches in order to protect the rest of the beach environment as much as possible. This management plan, which has also been translated into a quick-read graphic pamphlet, has been distributed and used by resorts, municipalities, and state governments throughout the Caribbean. [xxxii]  The scientific research and communication being completed by these various institutions and government groups has been an initiating force in rallying groups to best address the Sargassum invasions.

In beach towns in Quintana Roo, communities and private business people have been involved in organized and funded cleanup efforts, impromptu and volunteer efforts, and entrepreneurial endeavors for remediating the problems associated with the Sargassum. These individual and community actions showcase determination the smallest scale along the Mexican Caribbean coast. Groups in different towns have organized beach clean-ups. For example, in Puerto Progreso in 2019, villagers, merchants, and even tourists gathered the Sargassum from the beach and buried it.[xxxiii] Similarly, in Tulum, civilian volunteers, students, and tourists extracted around 2,000 cubic feet of Sargassum from an archeological zone.[xxxiv]  

Just as volunteer groups work to clean up the beaches, business investors have begun inventing new ways to use the abundance of Sargassum to create products for purchase. One company is working on developing a shoe made out of the seaweed while others develop machinery and devices to collect seaweed from the water before it even lands on shore and contract their services to resorts, municipalities, and the state and federal government. Some of these companies then transport the Sargassum to processing plants where it is turned into a fertile compost for purchase. [xxxv] One man even started a business that is working to build homes entirely out of Sargassum. Omar Sanches Vazquez and his company Blue Green Mexico is turning the seaweed into a thermal and functional construction material that costs fifty percent less than adobe and is hard enough to meet hurricane resistant standards. The company finished building their first house in September of 2018 (Figure 5).[xxxvi]  Scientists at the Technological University of Cancùn are attempting to use Sargassum asa possible renewable energy by transforming itfrom a solid to a gaseous state in order to generate methane gas, charcoal, or electricity in a 100% sustainable way without generation of waste.[xxxvii] These various business ventures attempt to not only find a purpose for the Sargassum,but also to fix current concerns regarding waste and unsustainable products generated all around the world. Therefore, as communities organize cleanup efforts among civilian residents and small business owners reimagine how the Sargassum can be repurposed, the Mexican people are showing great interest, involvement, and environmental consciousness in attempting to solve the problems created by the inundations.

Figure 5: “First House Entirely Made of Sargassum Build By Mexican Inventor in Quintana Roo,” The Yucatan Times. Sept. 21, 2018. https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2018/09/first-house-entirely-made-of-sargassum-built-by-mexican-inventor-in-quintana-roo/

Tourist resorts have also jumped into action. They have taken it upon themselves to fund the clean up of the beaches and further discover inventive ways for hindering the Sargassum from landing on the beaches in the first place. For example, Bahia Principe Hotels & Resorts has come up with a comprehensive coastal management plan of their own. The resort has paid to put in place a non-invasive barrier system that was installed by a team of marine biologists, oceanographers, engineers and divers that trapped the seaweed before it even lands on shore. These efforts were orchestrated to match the resort’s coastal management plan, which they drafted as a business to help restore the ecology of their beach real estate. [xxxviii]  As such, the resort is not only working to rid its beaches of the seaweed, but they are also intending to make sound environmental choices.

These individual community members and tourist businesses that have made efforts to tend to the Sargassum inundations have also propelled forward governmental action on the municipal level. City governments have firstly stepped up to provide support and aid to individual communities and tourist businesses. In fact, these small local governments have been quite successful in protecting their tourist industry while also serving the environment well. In Puerto Morelos, the municipality orchestrated the collaboration of community employees from different sectors to join together in order to amend the issues they were facing with Sargassum inundations. Mayor Laura Fernández Piña explained that they fought the Sargassum with support of their municipal employees. She said “Everybody…from general managers to secretaries, police and firefighters joined the efforts to pick up the seaweed.” She added that students, taxi drivers, and fishermen joined in on the efforts.[xxxix] The municipality of Puerto Morelos in conjunction with the business sector and environmental experts has further crafted protocols like those of the Bahia Principe Hotels & Resorts to respond to future Sargassum invasions in ways that both protect the beach and the tourism industry.[xl]  These efforts combine both a need to protect human business endeavors while also facilitating the restoration of the environment.

The state government of Quintana Roo has additionally tasked itself with aiding in the relief of this environmental invasion. In 2018, Quintana Roo in fact pledged that it would invest $200 million to help pay for the diversion of the seaweed. The state paid for mesh netting to be placed off the coast to act as a barrier for collecting the Sargassum. The seaweed would then be collected out on the water. The state further hired a company to build seven separate Sargassum processing plants. These plants are where the seaweed is transported to and where it is processed into compost. When the state invested in these measures they were further careful to make sound environmental choices and worked with state environmental employees for guidance. For example, Quintana Roo’s Ecology and Environment Secretary noted that the net that was chosen for Sargassum collection would not harm the fauna as they would be able to swim beneath it without issue. [xli] Later in that season, the state government additionally provided $7.9 million to invest in actions that would attract more tourism. This effort was made as an attempt to overcome, among other things, the negative effects brought about by the Sargassum invasions.[xlii] Ultimately, by the summer of 2019, Quintana Roo showed its genuine concern about the issue by declaring that season’s impending Sargassum invasion an “imminent natural disaster.” The governor of Quintana Roo, Carlos Jaoquin Gonzalez, hoped to generate around $31.6 dollars to address the inundations. In making this declaration the state recognized that the issue should be tackled to both protect the natural environment and human health. [xliii] Quintana Roo is therefore jumping in to solve the issue, but is additionally making important environmental considerations. 

The federal government of Mexico is also stepping in to provide support to communities as they take on the Sargassum. As early as 2015, Mexico’s government placed one thousand feet of mesh fencing in the water in hopes of blocking the seaweed from landing on the beach.[xliv] At this time, Mexico’s government had additionally already stepped in and allocated $9.1 million and hired 4,600 temporary workers to provide aid to Quintana Roo in their efforts to clean up the beaches.[xlv] By the summer of 2019, the federal government had stepped in full force when it was determined that the Navy would be the group to collect the seaweed out on the water. Separate contractors would no longer be hired to gather the seaweed. [xlvi] Money would be used to build four processing plants, purchasing an oceanic sweeper for collecting the seaweed, installing retention barriers, and implementing mechanisms for gauging the roughness and wind levels along the shore.[xlvii] The great efforts taken by the Mexican government, Quintana Roo, and municipalities to determine the best practices for removing the seaweed has made the country a vital resource in global discussions about this phenomena. In fact, in the summer of 2019, Mexico held an important international summit on Sargassum that included scientists and leaders from all around the Caribbean.[xlviii] As the inundations on the Mexican Caribbean have grown worse since 2011, the Mexican federal government has recognized the need to support a location that provides vital business for the country. As a result, the Sargassum inundations have forced the federal government to once again provide aid to a region that it had once long ago developed and then forgotten.

Just as the Sargassum invasions are forcing individuals and governments to act and develop critical remediation plans, this environmental occurrence also seems to be opening a door for female leadership and action. For example, the Mayor of Puerto Morelos, Laura Fernández Piña, has led the successful orchestration of beach cleanups and the extraction of Sargassum from the water in environmentally conscious ways. The Mayor’s platform and guiding principles rests upon sustainable goals.[xlix] In this municipality alone, three of the most important scientists supporting the Mayor’s goals, who are associated with three different institutions, are each women. In Puerto Morelos, which has been awarded for its sustainable actions, women seem to be empowered to take on these major environmental problems.

Currently, there seems to be precedent for this kind of female empowerment in Latin America and specifically it is connected to environmental issues. Research suggests that Latin American feminist activism has grown substantially since 2015. This activism is often tied to the spoils of capitalism. Feminist and Marxist theory connects females to the exploitation of labor, as their bodies are required for the creation of the work force. This labor force, working within growing capitalist economies in Latin America, has been used to develop the land, which in turn has exploited the environment. As a result, feminists in Latin America are drawing upon a connection between themselves and the environment. [l]

This connection is inherently bound up in the Sargassum invasions. The difficult thing to negotiate with Sargassum is that it is a “life raft” for many species that live and reproduce in it and yet it is inundating the Mexican Caribbean in such quantities that those “life rafts” cannot all be left untouched. Within this dilemma is a tension between the reproductive quality of nature and the need for human economic and social systems to remain. It feels as though one cannot exist alongside the other. Similar to Sargassum, women generate life—life that becomes the labor force. They are in that sense connected to the natural world. As a result, perhaps women on the Mexican Caribbean are better stationed to address the environmental concerns of Sargassum in a way that also tends to the needs of the labor force that they first created.

The social and environmental implications of the Sargassum have caused scientific organizations, individual community members, tourist businesses, municipal governments, the state government of Quintana Roo, and the federal government to work in tandem to clear the beaches of the seaweed in environmentally conscious ways. This conglomerate of people and institutions working to solve the problems associated with Sargassum suggests that the seaweed invasions are forcing the people and governments of th Mexican Caribbean and the nation to finally take on the impacts of tourism and environmental degradation with real might and seriousness. It also suggests that the Sargassum is opening doors for female action and inclusion. As one newspaper article described, the invasions have created a “collective culture of sargassum control dynamics” — and what an appropriate description to give it. [li]

CONCLUSION

Artist Spencer Tunick captured the environmental and social realities of the Mexican Caribbean by photographing the Sargassum in August of 2018. Tunick, an artistic photographer, who shoots scenes around the world of nude crowds, frequently vacations in Tulum. On this particular summer trip, a dinner event at a restaurant on the beach resulted in a conversation about the Sargassum problem. Tunick’s friend and dinner host encouraged him to take photographs of the Sargassum (Figure 6). He obliged feeling inspired by his friend and by at the immensity of the issue. Tunick chose to photograph the scene to show “the imminent situation [that is] disastrous for the environment and the tourist economy of the coasts of Quintana Roo” and to inspire people to “suggest possible solutions in an immediate term.” [lii]

Figure 6: “Spencer Tunick Finds Artistic Inspiration in Sargassum,” The Yucatan Times. Aug. 11, 2018. https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2018/08/spencer-tunick-finds-artistic-inspiration-in-sargassum/

The resulting image pictures a coastline engulfed in an environmental disaster.  Tunick illuminates the immensity of the Sargassum problem, its connection with human impacts on the environment and with tourism, and the racial divisions of the Mexican Caribbean Coast. By using the artistic tool of one-point perspective[liii]  Tunick first opens our eyes to the scene of strewn-about people and then focuses our attention on the mass of seaweed that seems to endlessly go on beyond them. The Sargassum consumes most of the frame that the seaweed is taking over. Tunick further suggests that this environmental occurrence is tied to and a part of the people that dwell on its beaches. The bodies mold and form to the undulations and waves created by the Sargassum resting upon the sand. The humans become a part of the seaweed and its expansion over the space. The composition of the figures also points to how humans are being impacted by this environmental phenomenon. Tunick arranged his subjects as if they are sunbathers lying out on the beach. Their bodies lie at an angle almost as though they are following the sun. However, instead of resting on white sands, their bodies are molding to and around aging Sargassum. Here, Tunick seems to be showcasing how the Sargassum intercedes in allowing beachgoers to lie upon the white clean beaches of the Mexican Caribbean coast. This nod to the tourism industry is further highlighted by the racial make-up of Tunick’s image. Tunick chooses fair skinned people for his figures. These starkly white bodies tell us what kinds of people won’t be able to enjoy the beach in the face of Sargassum. But, this image also invites us to think about who is not in the frame. While fair skinned vacationers sit on the beach, who is doing the labor that facilitates their presence there?

Spencer Tunick’s photograph of the Sargassum highlights many of the known circumstances brought about by tourist development, but it shows how the Sargassum inundations are creating a new circumstance in Riviera Maya. The image reveals a scene of a mass environmental concern. It suggests the role that people may play in that environmental concern. And, it ultimately highlights a social and racial divide that exists between tourists and laborers on the Mexican Caribbean. In doing so, Tunick’s image, does not tell us anything new about the impacts of the development of tourism. Instead, his expressed goal of raising awareness and inciting action is what illuminates a new scenario. The Sargassum is actually pushing stakeholders to address the social and environmental problems created by the development of tourism on the Mexican Caribbean that have long been ignored. A strong community made up of individuals, businesses, municipalities, the state of Quintana Roo, and the Mexican federal government is working diligently to address the problems of Sargassum by spreading out the burden of labor and making sound environmental choices.

The success of these actions is at times hard to quantify as masses of seaweed still wash ashore and the Mexican Caribbean must continue to fight the invasions. But the might of these efforts becomes clear when analyzing the response of ocean conservationists who are working to protect the Sargasso Sea—that sea that is 1,500 miles away from the Mexican Caribbean. The Sargasso Sea as it is comprised of thousands of miles of Sargassum in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean serves as an important site for biodiversity, habitat, and reproduction. As a result, a number of ocean conservation organizations including Mission Blue, the Ocean Foundation, and the Sargasso Sea Commission are advocating to make the Sargasso Sea a Marine Protected Area where fisheries and boat traffic would be heavily regulated.

These organizations, though totally disconnected from the issues with Sargassum inundations in the Caribbean, have stepped forward to make statements about the situation. In doing so, they seem to be attempting to raise awareness of their cause rather than the issues in the Caribbean. Dr. Mark Spalding, the President of the Ocean Foundation, for example, attended a panel discussion at the Dominican Republic Environmental Film Festival in 2019. During that discussion, Spalding asserted the possible beneficial impacts of Sargassum in reversing beach erosion. He warned that “…if we remove everything for the intent of saving tourism, we may make some mistakes.”[liv] Similarly, Dr. Sylvia Earle, the Founder of Mission Blue, has stepped forward as both a writer and an interviewee with parallel statements. Her articles along with the advocacy of Dr. Spalding are in direct response to the Sargassum invasions in the Caribbean.[lv] These conservationists, who see such importance in protecting the Sargasso Sea of the North Atlantic, now seem to be concerned by the affective quality of the fight against Sargassum in the Caribbean which they seem to feel detracts from their own cause. This fear, while at odds with the efforts of those on the Mexican Caribbean, does indeed speak to the true strength of those efforts.

It is important to take note both of the success of the actions along the Mexican Caribbean and the response from groups who feel threatened by those actions because Riviera Maya will likely continue to face these inundations for years to come.[lvi] Discussions concerning how the tourist industry might need to change have already begun. The Mexican government has long planned the building of a “Maya Train” which would bring tourists around the Yucatán to visit important Mayan historic sites. This project is coming to fruition while municipalities in Quintana Roo have started to encourage tourists to wander inland for their traveling experiences to see Mayan ruins and explore the cenotes rather than sit on the beaches.[lvii] One must wonder however about this looming change in the market. What will this mean for Mayan communities and their ancestral lands? The efforts taken to remediate the Sargassum invasionsmust be continuously reviewed and studied. For while Sargassum invasions are currently building community around environmental and social concerns, they could bring the same destruction that capitalist development bore on the Mexican Caribbean before the seaweed arrived.

TAGS: gender, global, oceans, race, tourism, water, women


[i] David Manuel-Navarrete, “Entanglements of Power and Spatial Inequalities in Tourism in the Mexican Caribbean,” desiguALdades.net,Working Paper Series No.17, 2012. Grant Murray, “Constructing Paradise: The Impacts of Big Tourism in the Mexican Coastal Zone,” Coastal Management 35, 2007: 339-355.

[ii] Murray.

[iii] Verónica Schild, “Feminisms, the Environment and Capitalism: On the Necessary Ecological Dimension of a Critical Latin American Feminsim,” Journal of International Women’s Studies. 20.6, June 2019: 23-43.

[iv] This paper has limitations in that I do not live on the Mexican Caribbean and do not speak the language. I have used the research of scholars who are intimately familiar with the region, but my own access the place is limited to the sources I found.

[v] Manuel-Navarette, 13-18.

[vi] Among these studies, in particular Manuel-Navarrete explores the town of Akumal and Murray studies Cancún.

[vii] Manuel-Navarette, 9, 18-25 and Murray 341-349.

[viii] Manuel-Navarette 21-25 and Murray 348.

[ix] Manuel-Navarette, 9, 18-25 and Murray 341-349.

[x] “The Secret Life of the Mexican Worker,” Everything Playa Del Carmen. https://everythingplayadelcarmen.com/the-secret-life-of-the-mexican-worker/

[xi] Ibid and Murray 345-349.

[xii] Madeline Andersen, “Loss of Mexico’s Valuable Mangrove Forests,” Scripps Institution of Oceanography, May, 2018. https://scripps.ucsd.edu/centers/cmbc/2018/05/15/loss-of-mexicos-valuable-mangrove-forests/ and Murray 349.

[xiii] The Mangroves of Mexico- By Numbers,” National Geographic. https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2015/02/03/the-mangroves-of-mexico-by-numbers/.

[xiv] “The Mangroves of Mexico- By Numbers,”and Murray 349.

[xv] Murray, 349.

[xvi] Reeves Wiedeman, “Who Killed Tulum? Greed, gringoes, diesel, drugs, shamans, seaweed, and a disco ball in the jungle.” The Cut. Feb 20, 2019. https://www.thecut.com/2019/02/who-killed-tulum.html

[xvii] Murray, 350.

[xviii] Murray, 349-351.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Nicola Davis. “Wide Sargasso seaweed: 5,500 mile algae belt keeps on growing:

‘Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt’ now appears almost every year, forming largest record bloom,” The Guardian. July 4, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jul/04/sargasso-seaweed-5500-mile-algae-belt-keeps-on-growing.

[xxi] Brian Barnes, et al.“The great Atlantic Sargassum belt,” Science. 365, no. 6448 (July 5, 2019): 83.

[xxii] “Sargassum Will Continue Invading the Beaches of Quintana Roo,” The Yucatan Times, July 20, 2018. https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2018/07/sargassum-will-continue-invading-the-beaches-of-quintana-roo/

[xxiii] “Most Beaches in Quintana Roo Are Now Sargassum Free,” The Yucatan Times, Oct. 26, 2018. https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2018/10/most-beaches-in-quintana-roo-are-now-sargassum-free/

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] “Municipal Crews Work 24/7 to Keep Sargassum off the Beach in Cancun,” The Yucatan Times. July 19, 2018. https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2019/05/quintana-roo-beaches-threatened-by-smelly-seaweed-invasion/

[xxvi] “State of Quintana Roo Prepares Detailed Plans to Aggressively Address Sargasso Issues,” The Yucatan Times. June 20, 2019. https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2019/06/state-of-quintana-roo-prepares-detailed-plans-to-aggressively-address-sargasso-issues/.

[xxvii] Many articles from May 2019 to July of 2019 cover this topic. Many of them quote scientists and locals who are making observations. One helpful article was, “Sargasso is not Only Threatening the Tourism Industry, but Wildlife Too,” The Yucatan Times, https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2019/06/sargasso-is-not-only-threatening-the-tourism-industry-but-wildlife-too/.

[xxviii] Davis.

[xxix] “Quintana Roo Beaches Threatened by Smelly Seaweed Invasion,” The Yucatan Times. May 18, 2019. https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2019/05/quintana-roo-beaches-threatened-by-smelly-seaweed-invasion/.

[xxx] Barnes, 83-87.

[xxxi] “ ‘Early Warning’for Sargasso Arrival in Playa del Carmen,” The Yucatan Times. Apr. 17, 2019. https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2019/04/early-warning-for-sargasso-arrival-in-playa-del-carmen/ and “Massive Arrival of Sargassum Expected for Southern Quintana Roo,” The Yucatan Times. Apr. 24, 2019. https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2019/04/massive-arrival-of-sargassum-expected-for-southern-quintana-roo/

[xxxii] Adrian Cashman, Janice Cumberbatch, Emma Doyle, Frederique Fardin, Catrina Hinds, and Hazel Oxenford, “Golden Tides: Management Best Practices for Influxes of Sargassum in the Caribbean with a Focus on Clean-up,” Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute, 2016,file:///Users/veronicavesnaver/Downloads/Sargassum_Management_Brief_2016_08_24%20(1).pdf.   Visit https://www.gcfi.org/sargassum-influx/ for more resources.

[xxxiii] “Tons of Sargassum to Invade Yucatan and Quintana Roo Beaches in 2019,” The Yucatan Times. Jan. 15, 2019. https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2019/01/tons-of-sargassum-to-invade-yucatan-and-quintana-roo-beaches-in-2019/.

[xxxiv] “Tulum Works Overtime to Clean the Sargassum off its Beaches,” The Yucatan Times. Aug. 15, 2019. https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2019/08/tulum-works-overtime-to-clean-the-sargassum-off-its-beaches/

[xxxv] “Mexican Company Manufactures Shoes Using Sargassum” The Yucatan Times. Apr. 8, 2019. https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2019/04/mexican-company-manufactures-shoes-using-sargassum/ and “Finally…Mexico Will Pick Up Sargassum at High Seas,” The Yucatan Times. Aug. 5 2019. https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2019/08/finally-mexico-will-pick-up-sargassum-at-high-seas/

[xxxvi] “First House Entirely Made of Sargassum Built by Mexican Inventor In Quintana Roo,” The Yucatan Times. Sept. 21, 2018. https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2018/09/first-house-entirely-made-of-sargassum-built-by-mexican-inventor-in-quintana-roo/

[xxxvii] “Sargassum: A Plague or a Business Opportunity for the State of Quintana Roo?” The Yucatan Times. Aug. 22, 2018.  https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2018/08/sargassum-a-plague-or-a-business-opportunity-for-the-state-of-quintana-roo/.

[xxxviii] “Bahia Principe Hotels & Resorts Comes up with a Comprehensive Coastal Management Plan of Their Own,” The Yucatan Times. July 26, 2019. https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2019/07/bahia-principe-howtels-resorts-comes-up-with-comprehensive-coastal-management-plan-of-their-own/

[xxxix] “Most Beaches in Quintana Roo are Now Sargassum Free.”

[xl] Ibid.

[xli] “Quintana Roo to Spend 200 Million Pesos to Fight Against Sargassum,” The Yucatan Times. Aug. 8, 2018. https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2018/08/81281/.

[xlii] “Quintana Roo to Invest 150 Million Pesos to Attract More Tourism,” The Yucatan Times, Aug. 29, 2018. https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2018/08/quintana-roo-to-invest-150-million-pesos-to-attract-more-tourism/

[xliii] “State of Quintana Roo Prepares Detailed Plans to Aggressively Address Sargasso Issues,” The Yucatan Times. June 20, 2019. https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2019/06/state-of-quintana-roo-prepares-detailed-plans-to-aggressively-address-sargasso-issues/.

[xliv] Miguel Bravo, “Mexican Authorities Finding Permanent Solution to Sargasso Problem,” Riviera Maya News. Aug. 5, 2015. https://www.riviera-maya-news.com/mexican-authorities-finding-permanent-solution-to-sargasso-problem/2015.html.

[xlv] “Mexico to Spend $9.1 Million on Seaweed Clean Up,” Travel Agent Central. July 30, 2015. https://www.travelagentcentral.com/mexico-to-spend-9-1-million-seaweed-cleanup

[xlvi] “AMLO Says Mexican Navy will be the Institution in Charge of Sargassum Clean-Up Operation,” The Yucatan Times. May 9, 2019. https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2019/05/amlo-says-mexican-navy-will-be-the-institution-in-charge-of-sargassum-clean-up-operation/.

[xlvii] “52 Million Pesos Enough to Address the Sargasso Issue in Quintana Roo?” The Yucatan Times, June 25, 2019. https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2019/06/are-52-million-pesos-enough-to-address-the-sargasso-issue-in-quintana-roo/.

[xlviii] “25 Countries Confirmed to Attend “Sargasso Summit” in Cancun,” The Yucatan Times. May 24, 2019. https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2019/05/25-countries-confirmed-to-attend-sargasso-summit-in-cancun/

[xlix] PUERTO MORELOS HA ALCANZADO UNA AUTONOMÍA FINANCIERA SOSTENIBLE: LAURA FERNÁNDEZ,” Puerto Morelos. Sept. 12, 2019.https://puertomorelos.gob.mx/comunicacionsocial/boletines/puerto-morelos-ha-alcanzado-una-autonomia-financiera-sostenible-laura-fernandez/

[l] Schilde, 23-43.

[li] “Innocative System to Control the Arrival of Sargassum to the Coasts of Quintana Roo,” The Yucatan Times. Oct. 12, 2018. https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2018/10/innovative-system-to-control-the-arrival-of-sargassum-to-the-coasts-of-quintana-roo/

[lii] “Spencer Tunick Finds Artistic Inspiration in Sargassum,” The Yucatan Times. Aug. 11, 2018. https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2018/08/spencer-tunick-finds-artistic-inspiration-in-sargassum/

[liii] One point perspective is the drawing method that shows how things appear to get smaller as they get further away. 

[liv] “Sargassum: Both an Environmental Economic Opportunity and a Challenge,” Global Foundation for Democracy and Development, March 19, 2019. https://www.globalfoundationdd.org/sargassum-both-an-environmental-economic-opportunity-and-a-challenge/

[lv] “Sargassum Inundates the Beaches of the Caribbean,” Mission Blue, Sylvia Earle Alliance, October 27, 2014. https://mission-blue.org/2014/10/sargassum-inundates-the-beaches-of-the-caribbean/ . James Prosek, “Life in the North Atlantic depends on this floating seaweed,” National Geographic. June 2019. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2019/06/sargasso-sea-north-atlantic-gyre-supports-ocean-life/, Sylvia Earle, “The Sargasso Sea: Why it’s a living laboratory for change,” National Geographic. June 2019. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2019/06/sylvia-earle-sargasso-sea-living-laboratory-for-change/

[lvi] Barnes, 86.

[lvii] “Quintana Roo Beaches Threatened by Smelly Seaweed Invasion,” The Yucatan Times. May 18, 2019. https://www.theyucatantimes.com/2019/05/quintana-roo-beaches-threatened-by-smelly-seaweed-invasion/