A close call turned true Calling: Speaking up for his town

An interview with Xavier Peralta.

This is our interview with Xavier Peralta, a man that has dedicated years of his life to serve others at his own stake and who has not been afraid to stand up, run risks and speak loud and clear against corruption, lack of law enforcement, the use of privileged information for illicit creation of wealth of but a few. He does so everyday in Tulum, where consistent predation of our ecosystem is a consequence of a tourism and real state services industries that seek fast investment return by talking the classical route to maximise profits and build big developments to cope the outstanding population and market growth of Tulum. Tulum delicate balance of underground water systems, limestone bed rock and coral reef barriers will not hold up to this model. The environment will end up impacted and its resources will be depleted, resulting in assets with no value, because there will not be a market. Achieving sustainable development is the only way to continue having what Tulum offers today as a preferred destination to the world. Of all, water is the most important common thread that can bring us together. This is what drives Xavier and many other citizens today. 

Xavier @ Jardín de Frida
Xavier @ Jardín de Frida photo: Juan Ayza

The interview started a couple of months ago, in early May. He took my phone call asking for his advice regarding the creation of yet another new group of citizens that were concerned with making Tulum a eco-certified sustainable tourism, housing and infrastructure-wise town, before it is too late and we go the way Playa del Carmen and Cancún have gone. Xavier cut to the chase over the cellphone line and we were talking fifteen minutes later at a table in the local Bistro. He ordered a glass of thirst quenching ice cold mineral water with red grenadine syrup to which he meticulously squeezed just the right amount of lime drops, as a preface to our conversation. 

I sought Xavier’s experience, which had also been an ordeal for him to gain. It was most important then, first to avoid duplicating by learning what he had done. I looked to obtain lessons learned and the cost-benefit of pursuing the truth through direct and constant filing of complaints and law suits interaction needed at his time, and utilise his non for profit organisation “Contraloria Ciudadana” already established, as an alternative to group what today is Red Comunidad Tulum citizens network.

After collaborating together in the ongoing Red Comunidad Tulum actions for sustainable development in our town, for several months, the second interview took place in the last days of June. So I should warn our readers of this interview writer’s possible bias towards Xavier’s person, but then again I stand before you the reader to make up your mind in the process of learning through Xavier’s activism.

Why did you become a denounce voice for the community?

Because it is my mission. This is what I came to do. What was waiting for me to do.

I did not believe in anything at all, until back in 1975 when three definite events ground my life to a stop. Belief and faith were the only way left from there on.

I decided to talk with the boss [he refers to God as “El patron” Spanish for the boss, as he looks up and tells me] one day and told him to prove his existence to me if he was up there at all. That same day a friend with a photo studio offered me a job as a photographer, which he recalled I had done in my early years. I lived for the next thirty out of this business.

The second event was opting for vegetarian food and turn my attention towards ecology, after being involved with a lifestyle that had me and my family travelling from México City to Las Vegas and back, but that I learned to be an artificial life after a while.  It was back then when I got sick with cancer that was fortunately detected on time. In the public hospital where they treated me I had the sadly awakening experience of seeing my other two fellow patients die in the shared room of this cancer unit; life fell into perspective then. You understand what real problems are. While recovering, Louise Hayes’ book Heal Your Body, (published in 1976, long before it was fashionable to discuss the connection between the mind and body), was brought to my attention by several different friends. I was already reading it! In the book I found a way to lead my life in a simple easy way into a better one. The story in the making of this book of miracles is amazing, lets us just say it was dictated to her from above, little after she had decided to help the world with something. The book became a best-seller. With it I understood the cycle of forgiveness and dropped my resentments. I then took the Miracles course and the teachers one, and gave the course for two years. At 365 lessons a year, you change. And that, changed my life.

I adopted an spiritual life after my recovery and heard my calling to help others by first becoming conscious of my health and that of others, of our planet, cities and towns and the responsibilities we have as citizens with the place you live in. This one in particular, Tulum, is magic. Simply beautiful.

I moved into Tulum eight years ago. A short time after I formed Contraloria Ciudadana A.C. (their blog site is hacked right now)  to fight for the environment which continues to be threatened by the combination of excessive population growth and lagging basic infrastructure. I had friends living in Tulum back in 2006 when I came. They saw it coming and decided to leave; I stayed.

I collaborated with Expresiones in 2009 – the local independent newspaper at the time -. Its director, journalist José Alberto Hernández Lopez was killed  in December. I also worked in radio. It was cancelled after two programs.

The State of Quintana Roo has a very comprehensive and even a forefront set of environmental laws and regulations within Mexico, not all published unfortunately so some cannot be enforced properly. I decided to follow those cases where urban or coastal real state developments had gone over the law without being stopped. I aimed my efforts denouncing the most significant ones back then and became the voice of other minded citizens, a voice that filed the necessary lawsuits to be heard. These I signed personally on behalf of Contraloria Ciudadana as a plaintiff. Some of the most notable cases have been: Chedraui supermarket chain Tulum store by Urban Development marked protected area, Aldea Zamá high end housing and commercial development in mangrove land with huge population density impact, and Bahía Príncipe golf course near Xel-Ha. These are all developments associated to power groups and families in the country.

I brought Aldea Zamá case to the attention of senators in Federal Congress high chamber. The story also caught on as a result of Iván Restrepo et. al. articles in one of Mexico main nationwide newspapers, La Jornada. We managed to stop if not at least delay their development plans.

But not all my activity has been associated to lawsuits. We have also been able to build consensus with the Municipal authorities, when in 2006 we reached 33 agreement items to protect the environment in Tulum and have them published in the Municipality forthcoming Urban Development Programme (PDU). Unfortunately the PDU released months afterwards had nothing to do with them. This is still the prevailing PDU to date, and it has not been updated yet, as it should be according to the most recent National Development Plan document that is announced every time a new Federal administration starts in Mexico, such as the one that took office past December 2012.

[Nevertheless, Xavier continues to follow up on every environment related issue in Tulum where the Citizen has the right to know or where the law is being bent. He keeps active both in the constant land ownership and unlawful a-la-gangster evictions in beach properties, as well as in matters related to using bicycles and having a Bicycle day in Tulum, such as introduced with his “Tulum en Bicicleta” programme involvement.

Contraloria Ciudadana A.C. groups the main environmental ONGs in the area, including science, limnology (Razonatura), environmental law (such as CEMDA) and sustainable development and communities consulting firms (such as Yaxche, Arbol de la Vida, A.C.), among many other.]

So, looking back at your efforts, how do you feel about it all?

Feels good, but sad at the same time; I’ve doing many things by myself, and until not long ago I saw little if any sustained involvement from the community and its citizens.

For one thing, citizen organised efforts have taken momentum within the recent Red Comunidad Tulum network. That is good news.

I have been in this for years. I have seen impunity, corruption, lack of accountability of government authorities and with it, their short term vision and personal greed to increase net worth or assets using a public service position.

What do you see ahead?

The magic [of Tulum] is ending. Tourists come here to see nature, to heal, to seek ancient culture remains and traditions, to enjoy our beaches and Caribbean sea. But many of these Eco-Chic places are truly not “eco” at all, in the sustainable way; just “chic”. And even then the question of development seen without a link to sustainability brings us to the question: How many hotels do we really need and can we really have, if we are not to do away with Tulum as it is?

I was reading a study on the impact of Golf Courses. The document was prepared in Spain. Similar to an UNESCO finding I came across, it concluded that a single 18 hole golf course needed about 1.5 MT of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides a year, and as much water as 2.3 million litres a day, which is roughly the consumption of 60 thousand rural villagers. Or, roughly 3 times Tulum town today.

If this was not enough to question Bahía Príncipe Golf Resort [Grupo Piñero] operation nearby, pesticides and fertiliser aquifer pollution is inevitable happening there when irrigation water washes down into to our fragile karstic bed rock and interconnected underground freshwater systems; our only source of freshwater in the Peninsula. Since 1997 Studies made of Japanese tourism Golf have already discovered skin and respiratory problems in frequent golf players, that can be associated to pesticides and fertilisers.

So we need to act. And we need to act now. But, full commitment and dedication are a must if we are to be successful. Citizens and organisations in the Red Comunidad Tulum Network should be prepared to do so in an incorporated way, as it has been the experience and modus operandi of Contraloria Ciudadana so far. You have to “walk the talk”.

And, actions take significant time to happen as well; Contraloria Ciudadana had to wait 9 months to get an audience with the Municipality President (currently interim president Martín Antonio Cobos Villalobos, since previous Edith González was prosecuted and sent to jail). But Contraloria did not only have to wait for the audience. It had to fight for their right to get one! They went through the state office of the Federal Human Rights Commission to be heard.

In that meeting they agreed the following 5 points with Villalobos:

  1. Organise and get authorities participation on the Water Forum meeting (held in Tulum in May 18, 2013)
  2. Organise and get authorities participation for a Waste management forum, that also addresses the critical Tulum Dumpster situation.
  3. Continue the “Tulum en Bicicleta” movement programme we started in 2010 and continued in  2011 in conjunction with 350.org – an international campaign dedicated to solving the climate crisis -, by relaunching it in August 2013.
  4. Place 10 citizen complaint mailboxes in town (“Buzón de expresión Ciudadana).
  5. Participate as an observer NGO of the Municipality handover process when changing administration.

We hear you are now conducting a TV programme as well, if it were not enough! Is this true? 

Yes. It is called “Observatorio Ciudadano” and it is done with the local private Channel 30. It reaches those with the Cablemas cable network (Televisa). As the name tells, it is a programme that brings the important matters to the public. It is essential that citizens get involved in solving the town problems. And that is a real challenge when you come to see the following:

  • Tulum inhabitants have immigrated from other states, searching for jobs. They do not have roots in Tulum.
  • Development is accelerating, Playa del Carmen was the fastest growing city in the world, until Dubai came. Now it is Tulum.
  • Basic infrastructure is lagging, to say the least, population growth, noticeably. [Xavier quotes 1973 film by director Richard Fleischer “Soylent Green).

We filmed the water forum and then did a series of interviews live in the studio, probing to see what the solutions platforms for each candidate to Municipality office were. Elections took place a mere 2 weeks ago Our first programme aired about a week before the election. In that chapter conclusions we commented, as we have done so to general media, that no candidate had an agenda that took water as  a priority and clearly articulated how it would handle it when  assuming office.

Our next scheduled episode will deal with how to preserve sea turtles that lay eggs on our beaches, and a following episode will address the issue of trash and the saturation of the current dumpster site, pollutes underground water and that shall soon be turned into sanitary landfill and shut-off, but not before lining its floor with a special membrane. This is a confirmed Municipality project, as well as opening a new site.

Contraloría Ciudadana has much to do. What about funding?

Well, that is a problem. Contraloria has no money to do its job. We have sought help when  we attended the COP16 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference meeting in Cancún and presented our work and our goals, but we did not get financing at all.

A way out could be that Contraloria Social office of the Municipality (a role that municipal government has to have to keep an eye on social programmes) could be run by Contraloria Ciudadana A.C. while sharing offices. After all we already are a NGO and a member, as formalised under oath in the ad-hoc session with José Gabriel Gutiérrez Lavín – Municipality Controller at the time. We also ensure continuity of Contraloria Social’s projects during administration handovers.

If you were to summarise, what would the most important challenge that Tulum has looking ahead, be?

Without doubt it is that of citizen lack of awareness and involvement.

Authorities and business owners all want money fro themselves. They are not realising they will kill the hen that lays the golden eggs. Short term vision will not change this.

There is hope in noticing that some citizens are participating and active. Water might be the common thread that brings everyone together.

And what would you vote as the single most important solution then?

Getting together around the issue of water as an integrating community driver.

In doing this, we have to come to terms with the fact that there is no way to solve the problem being separate, as individuals. It has to be a community effort.

Are we prepared to think and act together?

The interview ends. We talk about writing. Xavier remembers his own writing for the iconic “Mexico Desconocido” magazine years ago, in 1995. He wrote about Nezahualcóyotl (fasting coyote), (1402-1472) , a Nahuan, – not an Aztec – King of Texcoco of the Acolhua  linage, in whom he found his hero while he prepared the article “Los baños de Nezahualcóytl”  and offered it as a tribute to the king’s memory.  “These people were highly cultivated in their time”, he says. 

As a warrior, Nezahualcóyotl was always the first into battle. He was never wounded, nor lost a single battle. Yet, at the same time he also was a philosopher, an architect, a ruler, a mystic and a poet. He even predicted the arrival of the Spanish. Texcocans loved him and looked after him as well. Texcoco was a cultural centre, with aqueducts and large buildings, in a way an Athens, where they taught Náhuatl language, as well as poetry, philosophy, ethics, moral, theology, astronomy, medicine, architecture and history.   

Maybe, this is the war  of conscience, of words and actions and of principles, we citizens of Tulum are waging, with Xavier, against business greed and short term vision, against pollution due to lacking infrastructure amidst rampant construction and well above average population growth, that will bring about the end of Tulum habitat. Shall we just bathe in one of the Kingdom’s pools and watch it fade, or are we to morally fight for it as a community? 

Think of Nezahualcóyotl’s magnificent city. Think of the water flowing from the aqueduct to his mountain pools overlooking the Valley of Mexico and the hummingbirds he wrote poems to. You are the king, dear reader. I ask you, would you like all of this be gone tomorrow?

Licencia de Creative Commons
A close call turned true Calling: Speaking up for his town by Juan Ayza M. is licensed under a Creative Commons Reconocimiento-NoComercial-SinObraDerivada 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at juan.ayza@gmail.com.

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