Joining forces to protect one of the most valuable ecosystems in Latin America

October 9, 2014

Spanning four countries and supporting over 12 million people, a regional response is the only way to ensure the survival of the Mesoamerican reef network


From the tip of the Yucatan peninsula to the Honduras Bay islands, the Caribbean Sea is renowned for its white sand beaches and turquoise waters. But below the surface, lurks another environmental treasure trove, the Mesoamerican reef.

Stretching for over 1000km and spanning four Central American countries – Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras –, this vast coral network is famed for its rich biodiversity and attracts one of the largest congregations of whale sharks in the world, according to the WWF.

The protection of the reef is a key environmental issue,” explained Andrew Hume, Deputy Director, WWF GEF Agency. “Not only is it of strong importance for biodiversity, but also the multiple social and economic services that the reef provides.

The city of Cancun, at the heart of the Yucatan peninsula, epitomizes this delicate balance. Tourism is the bread and butter of this vibrant Caribbean city, attracting more than two million people a year to its white sand beaches. And while clearly a boom for the local economy and livelihoods, such great numbers can have a profound effect on the Peninsula’s delicate ecosystems.

No ecosystem survives independently of any other, and while the shoreline acts as a physical boundary between the terrestrial and the marine, human activity on land can have untold consequences under the waves. 

As such, for the Mesoamerican reef to continue to thrive, a holistic approach to conservation is needed to hone in on the principal threats to the reef, namely:

  • Local activities and tourism:  Today the Mesoamerican corridor is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world - the reef attracts nine million people every year. But with so many people to accommodate, industrial sprawl threatens the very same marvels which they came to see. 
  • Up-stream stresses on the watersheds: Originating in the mountains and lowlands of the Caribbean, water-basins from all four countries flow in to the reef area. Water diverted upstream, has a knock on effect on the reef downstream.
  • Overfishing: Today, almost every major commercial fishery in the reef is overfished. In 2009, to address the problem a regional ban on lobster fishing during the mating season was established. Lobster has been central to the regional economy for over a century, but their numbers have dwindled significantly in recent decades. 
  • Agricultural runoff: Excess nutrients from agriculture are recognized as one of the leading causes of dead zones on the reef. Up-stream, the agricultural sector relies on river water for irrigation but also uses the basins to remove debris, washing pollution down-stream and into to the sea. 
  • Invasive species: First spotted in 2009, lion fish have no natural predator in the area and are therefore significantly reducing biodiversity on the reef


A shared solution 

Sea borders exist only on maps. Nature does not respect human efforts to organize the Earth’s surface into nations and pollution doesn’t stop at the border.  

While 70% to 80% of the reef falls under Belize’s marine jurisdiction, the majority of the surrounding watersheds and river basins are in the three neighboring countries. As a result, any conservation effort must count on the support of all four host countries, through whose waters the reef network and watersheds run. Without it, you only address a part of the problem.

 “This challenge was also one of the biggest successes,” Hume highlighted. “All four countries have agreed that this is a priority for them, and they want to work together to solve it.”

This is the starting point for an investment of over US$9 million by the GEF to launch the Ridge to Reef initiative – a cross-border project to promote the conservation of the reef at a regional level. 

While not the first intervention for the GEF in the area, this new project exemplifies the ridge to reef approach, focusing on the interactions between the land and the marine environments. As Leah Bunce Karrer, Senior Environmental Specialist for the GEF highlights, the transboundary nature of this project makes this initiative unique from a conservation standpoint. 

The Mesoamerican reef is one of the most critical opportunities to promote this integrated environmental management approach across the region,” Karrer added.  

By convening all the reef’s stakeholders for the first time, the project aims to help them face its greatest threats together in a strategic manner.

From fertile lowlands to cloud forests and mangroves, the Mesoamerican corridor is biodiversity hotspot, which also supports over 12 million people from Mexico to Honduras and is critical to all four countries’ economies. 

The agreement and cooperation already shown by all stakeholders, in accepting this challenge they have taken the first step to ensuring the reef will continue to yield globally significant benefits to freshwater, marine resources and biodiversity for future generations.