Forty years ago, Cancun was a small fishing village with a few families. There were some holiday homes, but it was a thin island of lush wetland, connected to the mainland by two narrow strips.

Today, a planned tourism and investment policy has developed Cancun into a posh beachfront with big hotel chains and restaurants to attract tourists.

Biologist Karla Peregrina, part of the Mexican Network of Environmental Journalists, came here in 1996 for her thesis on corals. “Forty years ago, Cancun was nothing, but now it is a planned city with a focused initiative from the federal government. Some 25 cities were created as part of the government's tourist policy, and even financed by the Bank of Mexico,” she said.

Mangrove destruction

The thin island was land-filled to create more space on the beach front, which is covered with mangroves. Even today, when a plane lands in the airport one can see vast stretches of mangroves. This is a hurricane-prone area, and the local ecosystem is adapted to it. However, with large-scale destruction of mangroves, the environment impact could be worse in the years to come, Ms. Peregrina fears.

The cutting of mangroves and land-filling means drainage will be poor. A nearby lagoon has been filled up, and it is choked with invasive species like algae, which was new to the area. Some time back, when local journalists wrote about sick dolphins in the dolphinarium here, they were jailed for their audacity, she points out. Only intense international pressure helped them secure their release.

Even as Cancun hosts the United Nations climate change conference, the status of the environment in Mexico is far from satisfactory.

Valentina Martinez, communication coordinator, Centre for Tropical Research in the University of Vera Cruz and president of the Mexican Network of Environmental Journalists, says deforestation is a major issue in the country; in states such as Vera Cruz, only 5 per cent of the original forest remains. Forests are on the decline owing to clearing of land for cattle farms or agriculture. There is massive water pollution: hotels dump sewerage into rivers and the sea. Untreated waste is a major issue.

Collective farming is coming down and crop diversity is declining, says Ms. Martinez. In many places, only the old people and women remain owing to migration for work. The government, she says, is not looking at available research to plan its policies. It is the state of environment and the government's anti-poor policies that have led to alternative forums like Klima Forum, which stands opposed to the conference.

'Ecological devastation'

Miriam Djeordjian of the Autonomous Feminists Circle, who is part of the Klima Forum, says choosing Cancun for a climate conference is an insult to the Mexican people. “Cancun is a living example of ecological devastation; it's the hotels, the tourism and the sexual trafficking of women. It is the antithesis of sustainable development.”

According to Vanessa Perez Cirera from the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) Mexico, the country has launched an initiative for climate change, and the policy lasts till 2012. “We need to pass law; otherwise there is no legally binding commitment that gives a framework for environmental action.” However, she responds to the negative criticism of Cancun as the venue for the conference by saying people expects this to be a success.

Faint hope

Even if there is little interest in the conference, there is some faint hope that it will spur the Mexican government to put into place some much-needed policies to facilitate sustainable growth, create livelihood and reduce poverty. However, strong opposition continues from mass-based organisations such as Via Campesina, which feels that the conference is already seen as a failure that will affect the future of humanity, as its only result will be to strengthen the intention of multinational companies to divert money away from the climate crisis.

In a statement, Alberto Gomez of La Via Campesina international coordination has condemned the favouring of carbon markets and the abandonment of the proposals of the People's Agreement signed in Cochabamba. The trend, he says, is to favour carbon market and REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), which supports global privatisation of forests, jungles and territories.