Sian Ka’an, Mexico

The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is located in the state of Quintana Roo on the east side of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. It has diverse ecosystems ranging from tropical rain forests to mangrove and coral reefs. It contains 23 known archeological sites, 103 known mammal species and 336 known bird species. It also provides important nesting sites for two endangered species of sea turtle. At 1.3 million acres, it constitutes the largest protected area on Mexico’s Caribbean Coast and also provides a home for about 1,000 residents.

Several privately owned parcels exist within the reserve and are controlled by an environmental zoning plan (EZP) adopted in 2002. The EZP bans all development along the 35.5 kilometers of coastline with the most significant ecosystems. However, the landowners here can transfer development potential to less sensitive coastal areas inside the reserve.

The receiving areas are parcels along the remaining 102 kilometers of coastline within the reserve. In these areas, land can be divided into lots with at least 100 meters of ocean frontage. A balanced development scenario for this area would yield about 450 homes (an average of 4.41 homes per kilometer of coastline) or 750 hotel rooms (an average of 8.9 rooms per coastline kilometer). When expressed as density, the EZP allows from 0.35 to 0.5 hotel rooms per hectare. Using “transferable development easements”, as they are called there, developers can achieve an additional 0.2 room per hectare in density.

No transfers have occurred since the EZP was adopted in 2002. However development pressures in this area are very high. Tourist accommodations in the vacation corridor stretching south from Cancun are expected to double in the next five years, adding 15,000 rooms. This should motivate developers to seek the additional density allowed through transfers. Needless to say, the owners of land in the 35.5 kilometers of protected coastline should also be motivated to participate since the EZP allows them no on site development potential at all.


Juan Bezaury Creel, The Nature Conservancy. Presentation given at Economic Instruments for Environmental Basins, a seminar held by Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology in Mexico City, Mexico on September 26, 2003.

Juan Bezaury Creel, “Mitigating the Effects of Coastal Development on the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve – A Case Example From Mexico”, MPA News, August 2002.

“Pez Maya & the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve”, The Nature Conservancy website:

“About Sian Ka’an”, from