Case study: Sian Ka'an

Located on the east coast of the Yucatán peninsula, this biosphere reserve contains tropical forests, mangroves and marshes, as well as a large marine section intersected by a barrier reef. It provides a habitat for a remarkably rich flora and a fauna comprising more than 300 species of birds, as well as a large number of the region's characteristic terrestrial vertebrates, which cohabit in the diverse environment formed by its complex hydrological system.

1. Raising Awareness

For the World Heritage Site Manager of Sian Ka’an, Francisco Ursua, one of the most important results of the raised awareness that comes with WH recognition has been the increase in the establishment of local Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) in support of the site. Examples of these include Amigos de Sian Ka’an, Centro Ecologico Sian Ka’an, Sian Ka’an Artists and Sian Ka’an Foundation amongst others.

In the opinion of the Sian Ka’an site manager, WH status created the impetus for formation of local NGOs as they recognized that their efforts would be acknowledged world-wide. In addition they were confident that the site would be supported by the local and federal governments for a long period of time as they had committed to an international designation with its associated responsibilities.

" World Heritage status has acted to position Sian Ka’an as one of the areas of central importance in national conservation efforts in Mexico. This has translated into budget designation and participation in institutional programs not only from CONANP (the protected areas commission of the Mexican Government) but also from other national governmental sectors, such as funds from the tourism ministry and environmental services from the Forests Commission." - Alfredo Arellano, former site manager of Sian Ka’an

2. Increasing Protection

In certain cases a World Heritage designation may be used as a point of leverage to influence development decisions and legislation affecting protected areas. Below are three examples which demonstrate how the WH label was used in the case of Sian Ka’an.

In the first example the Managers of Sian Ka’an used the WH status of the site to encourage Government ministers to implement building density restrictions for the Coastal Development Plan for private properties, which was decreed in 2002. Partly as a result of this promotion of WH values the development regulations for Sian Ka’an are far stricter than for other areas outside the reserve.

WH status has also been harnessed to help block other ecologically detrimental projects. For example, in 2001 there was a proposal to build a new road through the centre of the reserve; this was effectively stopped by Alfredo and his colleagues. Similarly, when planning was proposed for a marina close to Sian Ka’an, the managers and others again used the WH status of the site to assist them in blocking the development.

"The criteria and the commitment that Mexico established with UNESCO in order to include Sian Ka’an in the World Heritage list have been used to generate opposition against potentially damaging projects in workshops, direct consultations with investors or government agencies, in the media and in academic forums. Participation and public outreach from our partner-allied NGO’s has also been of main importance, particularly among those with international links. In this way, and with the use of legal instruments, we have been able to stop bad ideas even before they became projects, like roads, marinas, dredges, massive hotel developments and housing complexes. WH has helped with defining policies oriented to sustainability, often contrary to the expectations of other governmental sectors, private entrepreneurs and some property owners inside the reserve. - Francisco Ursua and Alfredo Arellano.

Another interesting development of the local involvement is a fisherman ranger who lives in the site as part of the community. Francisco receives notification from this ranger of any attempts to carry out activities that are degrading to the area. In addition, each of the site’s inhabitants acts as an effective warden; as they recognize that they are the guardians of the natural resources, they have a very strong feeling of ownership resulting in equally strong protection.

In the northern part of the bay of Sian Ka’an the local owners have even divided up the area for lobster farming, as with agricultural plots. The management of this area is very strong as it provides their livelihoods. It is, in effect, firstly their heritage and secondly a World Heritage. Asked for a final thought on what World Heritage status meant for Sian Ka’an, Francisco came up with the following:

"If anything very serious were to happen to the site of Sian Ka’an, and the problems could not be solved nationally, the international community would come to the aid of the site. I have this absolute security of knowledge." - Francisco Ursua

3. Enhancing Funding

In terms of site entry fees, the site’s managers have recently held meetings with legislators to establish a differential rate for entry into Sian Ka’an. In 2004 CONANP will promote modifications to the law through congress, in order to establish higher fees in certain areas, including those designated as World Heritage sites.

External funding has been facilitated by the World Heritage Centre and the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), working in co-operation with the Mexican Government for management and conservation. For example Sian Ka’an has the following projects with UNESCO support:

  • UNESCO - World Heritage Centre/UN Environment Programme (UNEP)/Rare/UN Foundation (UNF): ‘Linking Conservation of Biodiversity and Sustainable Tourism at World Heritage Sites’, (see below in section 5).
  • UNESCO/GEF - UN Development Program (UNDP), Small Grant Program - 'Community Management of Protected Areas Conservation'.
  • UNESCO-WHC, The Nature Conservancy, The Gillette Company and the UNF - project to conserve freshwater, marine and coastal resources in and around Sian Ka'an.

    This project is being implemented by Amigos de Sian Ka'an, and seeks to promote the protection of critical coastal habitats and ensure the viability of the region's freshwater system through a number of activities including developing a conservation land buyer program.

"World Heritage status has promoted the development of sustainable development project funding through projects supported by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and other UN agencies. These projects have been very useful in relating people’s well being with the conservation of the site." - Marco Lazcano, Director, Amigos de Sian Ka’an

4. Improving Management

As with other sites in this study WH status has contributed to increased awareness in the programs and management practices in Sian Ka’an through forums, meetings, workshops and training courses promoted by multilateral organizations including UNESCO and the WH centre.

Sian Ka’an has already seen the benefit from this networking and exchange of ideas. In fact Alfredo stated that he had held discussions with managers in the Africa region who encounter the same day to day problems as himself.

 On a broader scale Sian Ka’an has acted in a leadership role and has been used as a model in designing and establishing new strategies for sustainable development and protected areas management at a regional level for the Yucatan Peninsula, as well as in other protected areas in Mexico.

"On a broader scale Sian Ka’an has acted in a leadership role and has been used as a model in designing and establishing new strategies for sustainable development and protected areas management at a Regional level for the Yucatan Peninsula, as well as in other Protected Areas in México." - Francisco Ursua

5. Harnessing Tourism

To harness the growing tourist numbers the management administration of Sian Ka’an is working in conjunction with the UNESCO-UNEP-Rare project mentioned above. This important initiative is a four-year project whose goal is to link biodiversity conservation and sustainable tourism development in six World Heritage sites. This effort combines conservation education, planning, business development and marketing techniques to create processes for using tourism to promote the protection of important habitats. A key project component is involving tour operators in site-specific activities to create better tourism products and sustainable management systems.

Through this project economic benefits brought by tourism growth go to the local communities. Examples of the benefits are evident in the community, which has been able to: increase the average income per capita, diversify its production means and include women living in the site in new enterprises. The other World Heritage sites included in this study alongside Sian Ka'an are: El Vizcaino, also in Mexico; Rio Platano in Honduras; Tikal in Guatemala; Ujung Kulon and Komodo and in Indonesia. The Ujung Kulon manager also participated in this project see case study number six.

World Heritage Sites
Strategic objectives
  • Conservation