Destruction of the Río Los Horcones Canyon Narrowly Averted—For Now

We in Jalisco are at a critical moment. The fragile ecologic equilibrium of the Rio Los Horcones Canyon hangs
in the balance, threatening not only native wildlife but also our regional economy and culture that are inextricably
intertwined with this natural treasure. Collective action is needed to ensure the survival of this ecosystem.

For the past several months, staff of the Vallarta Botanical Garden and our neighbors in the ejidos of Las Juntas
y Los Veranos, Emiliano Zapata, and Boca de Tomatlán have observed an unprecedented deforestation of the
wild and scenic Río Los Horcones Canyon accompanied by large-scale bulldozing. What we saw was beyond
any of the routine highway maintenance that happens each year and we wondered what was coming down the
pike. No one seemed to know and our communities were angered to not be consulted. On Thursday, January
17th the destruction of the canyon was scaled up with the arrival of a fleet of demolition vehicles and blasting
equipment. Workers immediately began carving into the river canyon with alarming speed and efficiency. They
informed us that they were making an ecologically friendly dam. They also assured us very politely that they had
all of their permits to do so and that everyone would benefit from their actions. In light of the destruction we saw,
we found their words to be unconvincing.

Upon sharing this news with our neighbors and friends throughout Jalisco and beyond, a barrage of “denuncias”
(official complaints) were filed with PROFEPA, Mexico’s Ministry/Secretariat of the Environment and Natural
Resources. On Tuesday, January 22nd, the Garden hosted a meeting with community members from Las Juntas
y Los Veranos along with Mario Topete Cortés, Ejido President of Boca de Tomatlán y Mismaloya, and José
Ayala, a representative of Grupo Hidrogenerador de Occidente, the company that was carrying out the
demolition. José Ayala stated the alleged specifications of the project which included a total dam of the Río Los
Horcones approximately 300 meters downstream of Chico’s Paradise, diversion of the river by way of kilometers
of aboveground steel pipeline, and a power plant in the community of El Polvorín in Boca de Tomatlán. From our
estimations, this would leave the river completely dry for the majority of the year except during the rainy season,
diverting every last drop of water into the tubing.

When asked for architectural plans of the project detailing the exact placements and dimensions, Ayala stated
that as a private company Grupo Hidrogenerador de Occidente is not required to demonstrate such plans. He
then went on to describe the project as a harness of a renewable resource that would provide much needed
power. Ayala never identified the private company that would own and run the concession. When asked to show
their permits and evidence of their environmental impact studies, Ayala said that he is not required to do so. He
only produced a list of alleged permits that supposedly were filed with local and federal agencies. This list notably
failed to include environmental and social impact studies. Ayala also wouldn’t indicate if the water itself would
become privately owned by the dam owner and later made available for sale and/or pave the way for further
change of land use. Ayala told community members that they should be grateful to have a company in their area
that really cares for the environment and is working on their behalf.

Reporters who attended this meeting quickly began spreading news throughout the Puerto Vallarta Region and beyond. Photos and videos of the damage started circulating on social media and officials of municipal, state, and federal agencies were appealed upon to stop the project. On Thursday, January 24th, federal agents of PROFEPA assigned to the State of Jalisco inspected the destruction and rapidly ordered the operations to cease and desist, at least until further investigations are completed. Local community members and environmentalists all over are applauding this win, but we are deeply concerned about the irreversible destruction of the past several months that intensified rapidly in the week preceding January 24th. We are even more concerned about the future of this river canyon.

The Río Los Horcones is one of the Bay of Banderas’ few major freshwater rivers that remains wild
and undammed throughout its entire course. Its watershed begins high in the pine and oak cloaked sierras at
elevations of nearly 2000 meters (6000 feet). Along the way, it is nurtured by a multitude of rushing spring-fed
tributaries at many forks, “horcones,” in the river (hence the name, “Río Los Horcones”). One of its most dramatic
sections is the deep canyon that it has carved into an area reaching from what is now the Ejido of Las Juntas y
Los Veranos down to Boca de Tomatlán. Here, it forms crystal-clear emerald-tinted pools connected by surging
rapids and splashing cascades. Included along its descent is one particularly breathtaking waterfall of over 20
meters thundering against a sheer granite wall painted with ferns, bromeliads, and orchids. Much of the granite
in this canyon is polished to a marble-smooth finish rife with captivating formations that would bedazzle any
sculptor. The steep canyon sides are a mosaic of naturally denuded cliffs and dense thickets of tropical dry forest.

This seemingly indomitable terrain has kept it one of the region’s last great bastions of native wildlife with a vast array of species including the emblematic jaguar, ocelot, Military Macaw, and even river otters. But, as clearly evidenced around the world, there is no mountain too high or canyon too deep to escape the threat of exploitation and the destruction of modern explosives and heavy machinery. In the Puerto Vallarta region, our economy is tourism and the beauty and diversity of our wildlife is a principal draw bringing visitors to our destination. Allowing the destruction of our natural resources would be like killing the proverbial goose that laid the golden eggs. Acapulco, whose very name means, “where the reeds were destroyed,” may serve as a good close-by example of how a tourism-based seaside economy can suffer if it becomes overbuilt and if its critical natural areas are not protected. Incidentally, Puerto Vallarta’s indigenous name, Xihutla, means, “place where the turquoise-blue reeds grow.”

At the Vallarta Botanical Garden, we are dedicated to conserving plant life, especially our region’s native plants. These plants not only provide habitat for our tremendously fascinating wildlife, but also provide ecosystem services essential to human life as well. Those of us who value wildlife have a responsibility to defend it. During much of our struggle to stop the recent destruction along the banks of the Río Los Horcones, we heard many people saying things like, “What a shame, but there’s probably nothing we can do about it.” Others said, “You should be careful; there may be big money and big interests behind this.” Yet, the bold few who rallied with us, attended public meetings, filed denuncias, and spoke up have stopped the bleeding, at least for now. Until this canyon is permanently protected, it will remain under threat—not just from dams, pipelines and power plants—but also illegal lumber harvesting, poaching, and contamination. Additional forces such as invasive species and climate change represent threats against wildlife in even the best guarded parks and preserves.

In recent years, the Vallarta Botanical Garden has been acquiring new lands to grow its native forest preserve.
This reserve is now over 25 hectares of protected land adjacent to the landscaped gardens with its visitor
infrastructure occupying roughly 3 hectares, for a combined property of approximately 28 hectares (about 60, 10,
and 70 acres respectively). Our recent wildlife camera trapping work in conjunction with our collaborators at
Panthera, the world’s foremost NGO dedicated to conserving big cats in the wild, has motivated us to set much
larger goals for securing new land. We used to think of land acquisitions for this preserve in terms of dozens of
hectares, but our new goals should probably be in terms of hundreds of square kilometers.

With sufficient funding this can become a substantial interconnected preserve which would secure the corridor
of animals such as jaguars and ocelots and protect the forests that these animals reign over—when given the
chance to do so. With the help of our community and the generosity of those willing to invest into the protection
of natural spaces, we can begin purchasing additional land with intact habitat while it still lasts in such condition.
Those interested in helping towards this goal through their time, talent, or treasure are encouraged to contact the
authors directly. Please send your communications to info@vbgardens.org with “FOREST PRESERVE” in the
subject line. Communities that are alert, dedicated, and united can ensure that their precious natural areas are
destined to a thriving future and will continue providing benefits including clean air, clean water, and perhaps
most cleansing of all—pure natural beauty.

YOU CAN HELP.

Please write to us at info@vbgardens.org with “FOREST PRESERVE” in your subject line.

Neil Gerlowski has served as the Executive Director of the Vallarta
Botanical Garden (VBG) since 2010. He helped form this garden’s
international science advisory board, which among other activities,
is working to study and document the diverse native plant life of the
VBG’s forest preserve as well as participate in plant research
elsewhere in Mexico and abroad. Neil Gerlowski has a Master’s of
Arts in Teaching from the University of New Hampshire (2001) and
successfully completed Longwood Gardens’ Fellows Program in
2018.

Dr. Rafael Guzmán Mejía first gained international fame as a
botanist in 1977 when he rediscovered Zea perennis, an important
teozintle, or ancient ancestor of domesticated corn, assumed to have
gone extinct in the wild for decades. In 1977 he discovered yet
another teozintle, Zea diploperennis, and wrote its first scientific
description together with Hugh Iltis and John Doebley. These plants
helped spearhead the long-term legal protection for a vast
wilderness area that is now the Sierra de Manantlán Biosphere
Reserve. Dr. Rafael was this reserve’s founding director. He aspires
to contribute to the creation a similar vast, contiguous reserve in the
mountains of Puerto Vallarta and Cabo Corrientes.