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Restoring the environment, revitalizing the culture: cenote conservation in Yucatan, Mexico

Yolanda Lopez-Maldonado, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München Department für Geographie
Fikret Berkes, University of Manitoba, Natural Resources Institute


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Cenotes are sinkholes through which groundwater may be accessed from the Yucatan Peninsula Aquifer. Historically and culturally, cenotes are also important cultural and spiritual natural sites for the Maya, but they have been contaminated and degraded. We ask the following: What are the present-day meanings, understanding, and values of cenotes for the Maya? Is it possible to adopt a cultural approach for conservation of cenotes in Yucatan? Participant observation, interviews with stakeholders, and underwater exploration in cenotes were used to obtain data. Results indicate that cenotes often retain some spiritual meaning for people but not as important cultural, spiritual, or sacred sites. Little consensus was found regarding the significance of cenotes and how best to protect them. Informants noted changes in water quality, and identified the threats to cenotes including tourism, poor solid waste management, contamination, and deficiency of interest in preservation. Lack of accurate knowledge was a problem: informants did not seem to understand that cenotes are interconnected through the groundwater system. The Yucatan case illustrates how loss of cultural values can be linked to environmental quality and resource degradation. Conversely, it can be argued that cultural revitalization in indigenous communities has the potential to bring back community-based conservation.

Key words

cenotes; community-based conservation; groundwater; Mayas; sacred natural sites; Yucatan

Copyright © 2017 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087