Concern over the Oaxaca coast’s rapid, disorganized, and environmentally destructive development triggered the founding in 2022 of SOS Puerto by a group of residents and visitors.
An educational and legal movement, SOS unites civil society with the public sector, developers, investors, and builders to promote sustainable, respectful, and responsible development.
The goal is to encourage everyone to rethink the approach to development on the coast of Oaxaca while preserving the flora, fauna, and culture.
SOS’s founders feared Puerto was developing similarly to other famous tourist hotspots in Mexico like Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta and Tulum. These areas are famous for rapid over-development and high levels of tourism. Their growth has led to deforestation and loss of habitat for wildlife. The construction of large hotels and other infrastructure has disrupted ecosystems and contributed to land erosion.
High levels of tourism in parts of Mexico have led to increased waste and pollution, particularly in the form of plastic waste that washes up on beaches. In addition, water supply and sewage infrastructure development have often proven to be inadequate to support rapidly growing populations.
Today Puerto Escondido and the surrounding area is experiencing a massive building boom.
Puerto’s two governing municipalities, San Pedro Mixtepec and Santa María Colotepec, have a longstanding agreement that new buildings should not exceed two floors with a palapa on top. This was proposed to prevent the construction of multi-story buildings.
Tall concrete buildings disrupt one of Puerto’s most important attractions, the ocean waves. Puerto’s various waves are at the very heart of its identity. The world-class surf played a major role in Puerto’s development from a tiny fishing village to a modern, increasingly popular tourist destination.
Multiple-story buildings block the passage of the offshore wind that helps to form decent, open-face waves, ideal for surfing.
Large building foundations near the beach compact the subsoil sand and alter the seabed, often ruining the underwater sandbars that play a major role in forming good rideable waves.
The dual municipality agreement on construction height was respected for several years. However, recently there have been people who are unaware of this agreement or choose to ignore it and try to build more than what was agreed by the local government.
Unfortunately, though politically approved, many modern building projects are not evaluated correctly in favor of sustainable urban development, nor do they consider the environmental impact.
With the opening of the new highway from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido, the influx of tourists will continue to increase, affecting the infrastructure of the coast: roads, water, drainage, and public spaces, not to mention all the flora and fauna that are being removed from their natural habitat to build hotels, apartment buildings, and large-scale real estate developments.
SOS Puerto literally began in a local WhatsApp group with the question, “Does anyone know why part of Bacocho Beach is being walled off?” This query led to the discovery of the proposed Oxean project, a 12-story building with 80 apartments.
Oxean had begun construction on a luxury condo-hotel on one of Oaxaca’s four certified clean beaches, from which it had removed tonnes of sand.
Bacocho Beach has no hotels and only one access road. It is a pristine environmental haven with a long stretch of white sands bordered by jungle and deciduous woodland, full of native flora and fauna.
Every year thousands of sea turtles visit Bacocho Beach to lay their eggs.
The Vivemar organization on Bacocho Beach protects four species of sea turtles, two of which are in critical danger of extinction – the hawksbill and the leatherback.
It is a well-known tourist attraction that draws visitors from around the world to help release baby turtles into the ocean.
Oxean’s proposed mega-construction would have overlooked the nesting area. Studies have shown that bright lights adversely affect such sites, as the light scares turtles away. Also, the inevitable increase in pedestrians and ATVs on the beach would negatively affect nesting. Oxean was going to destroy Vivemar’s work.
On March 28, 2022, people took a stand. They went to the Oxean construction site and prevented the trucks from entering and removing sand.
They barricaded the street and set up camp in front of the entrance to the project. A schedule was organized, and volunteers camped out at the entrance 24/7. Construction work was halted.
This event was the defining moment in the foundation of SOS Puerto. As a result of the blockade and protest, another group, Salvemos Bacocho, was set up. Side by side, both groups prevented the Oxean project from continuing.
SOS Puerto promoted the Oxean protest online, creating a petition against the development on Change.org that, to date, has received almost 107,000 signatures.
In partnership with many local businesses and community organizations, SOS lobbied the municipal government, which then voted unanimously to halt construction until permits, environmental assessments, and documentation were reviewed.
After much debate, the federal Ministry of Environment decided to suspend the construction because an environmental impact report was not submitted as stipulated by law.
Now SOS is promoting awareness of and compliance with the “two story, plus one palapa rule” throughout Puerto.
Meanwhile, Oxean’s construction site in Bacocho remains boarded up and unchanged.
According to local resident Anna Von, “The large amount of sand that was removed has not been replaced. For reasons unknown, Bacocho Beach is not being cleaned by the municipality as it once was. The palapa/gazebo that once stood on Bacocho Beach before Oxean arrived has not been replaced.”
SOS Puerto asks citizens to monitor and report illegal or environmentally harmful construction so as to pressure the authorities to act and apply sanctions.
In the words of Andrea Esquerra, one of the main representatives of SOS Puerto, “If we as citizens really know the power that we have when we are united, the world would be so much different. We need to stand together, we need to raise our voices, we need to question the government, and make them work for us, not us for them.”
Patrick Sheehy is an Irishman who has been living in Puerto Escondido, on and off, since 2005. He has a degree in psychology and experience in various fields including teaching, tour-guiding, writing, working with adults with intellectual disabilities and organic horticulture.