Mexican stand-off in the mangroves

Sun 27 May 2007



CRUISING along the swerving, mountainous roads of Mexico’s western coast, past trees and vines, blue lagoons and scattered wildflowers, Goffredo Marcaccini stops his Jeep and thrusts his head out of the window. “Ahhh,” he croons, inhaling the morning air. “The smell of the earth. Nice, like the scent of a woman.”

His reverie is short-lived. Further on he encounters roadside debris, including a bright blue Pepsi can. “Modern man,” he says, “is the cancer of the Earth. We are only here to destroy.”

Marcaccini is a self-described romantic, a naturalist who waxes poetic about mangroves, sea turtles and parakeets. He is also an heir to the late British tycoon Sir James Goldsmith, who owned the richly virginal expanse of nature.

Since Goldsmith’s death in 1997, Marcaccini and his wife, Alix, the daughter of Goldsmith, have managed the late patriarch’s most prized asset: Cuixmala, a 2,000-acre private estate with several villas on the Pacific that at various times housed Goldsmith’s three families, mistresses and high-powered visitors including Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

These days, though, there’s trouble brewing on Cuixmala, which is nestled inside the 32,473-acre Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve, a rolling expanse of federally protected coastal land.

In an effort to expand tourism beyond destinations such as Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, Mexican officials have authorised the development of two resorts in the area. The most controversial project, called Marina Careyes, is backed by Roberto Hernandez, a powerful Mexican banker and developer who sold his financial services firm to Citigroup six years ago for $12.5bn (£6.29bn). Hernandez’s minority partners are Gian Franco Brignone and his son Giorgio, Italian property magnates who relocated to Mexico and built a series of sumptuous developments in the state of Jalisco that made it a magnet for the super-rich.

The result is a battle over land rights between Goldsmith’s heirs and two of the country’s most powerful families – a clash that sheds light on the fault lines between traditional luxury resort developers who favour golf courses, swimming pools and spas, and a newer breed of conservationist-entrepreneurs who champion eco-resorts where guests hike and canoe for recreation. The stand-off smacks of a blood feud with roots going back decades to land squabbles involving the Goldsmiths and the Brignones.

Political analysts in Mexico say the rift is also one of the first tests of President Felipe Calderon’s commitment to the environment. Elected last November, Calderon has earned some kudos from environmental groups for recently enacting a wildlife protection law which prohibits activities that may damage Mexico’s coastal mangroves. At the same time, analysts say he is certain to face pressure from Mexico’s powerful tourism industry, which generates billions of dollars in revenue but has also caused scenic coastlines to become clotted with mega-resorts.

“We still need time to see how committed he his,” said Cecilia Navarro, a spokeswoman for Greenpeace Mexico. “He needs to keep firm because we know that a businessman like Mr Hernandez has a lot of power.”

All of the parties involved are well aware of the influence they have – or don’t have – on the outcome of the conflict at Cuixmala. “Daddy would have had so much leverage in this,” Alix Goldsmith says. “He would have had prominent people in politics, environmental groups, scientists, artists signing a petition to the Mexican president asking for the law to be followed. But that’s why we have to be careful; here in Mexico, compared to a guy like Roberto Hernandez, we’re nothing. Nobody knows Goffredo Marcaccini or Alix Goldsmith.”

Marcaccini is more cynical. “This is the classic case of a civil society up against a manipulating government,” he says. “Anyone who tries to speak out here is crushed like a mosquito.”

Hernandez’s partners say they are ecologically sensitive developers and that the first family of Cuixmala simply doesn’t want outsiders to encroach on its private enclave. Others, too, have said that Marcaccini and Goldsmith might be concerned about something other than their mangroves.

“The ecological policies in Mexico are being manipulated by private family interests,” said Octavio Gonzalez Reyes, a columnist who covers tourism for the area’s newspaper, El Occidental, in Guadalajara. “This fight is all about economic interests, not the environment. What the Goldsmiths are interested in protecting is their own private emporium.”

If Marina Careyes opens, it will be the latest addition to one of Mexico’s most lucrative industries. According to the country’s department of tourism, Mexico hauled in more than $12bn last year from 21 million visitors.

Part of the problem, says Giorgio Brignone, is that few of those dollars flowed into the secluded and sparsely populated Chamela-Cuixmala region. “Not one single village has a paved road, potable water or treatment plant,” he says. “This kind of standstill situation cannot be justified any more.”

But Goldsmith, sitting by her pool, says: “It’s greed. I mean, what’s more important to us, the environment or some stupid golf?”

Life that really was a beach for some

During the Seventies, James Goldsmith was among a group of European business moguls who followed the lead of Italian developer Gian Franco Brignone and began vacationing around Careyes. Nearly a decade earlier, Brignone bought several thousand acres. In 1972, he sold a tract of land to Club Med, and later built a small luxury hotel and several lavish homes there.

Careyes became a place inhabited by famous, wealthy people, among them Goldsmith. His sybaritic side is most evident in Careyes, which not only became the centre for his work as a conservationist, but also was the backdrop of a colourful private life.

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