case study:

Protecting Sacred Maya Caves − the case of the Cenotes in Yucatan, Mexico

Photo above: Working with Mayan elders during fieldwork in Yucatan

Yolanda Lopez-Maldonado
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München
Department für Geographie
Luisenstraße 37, Raum 426
80333 München
Tel.: +49 89 2180 4180

This case deals with groundwater pollution problems and the importance of revitalization of sacred natural sites in the Mayan area of Yucatan, Mexico. In Yucatan instead of surface rivers, there are groundwater caves, locally called cenotes: Cenotes represents unique elements of the landscape, which are embedded in a particular knowledge system. They are home of important endemic species, migratory birds and represent the main source of freshwater for the population (nearly 2 million inhabitants). The Mayas of Yucatan are one of the largest but most vulnerable indigenous groups in Mexico. Even though they possess values and knowledge about water, population is not allowed to support local monitoring despite the fact that cenotes hold ancestral values and they continue to have impact on the resource, their biota and cultural values. In Yucatan, a lot of work has focused on the hydrological function of groundwater system and its environmental problems. The integration of local values and the revitalization of sacred natural sites, as part of community-based conservation, can result in successful outcomes for better water management.

Cultural and spiritual significance of nature

Yucatan is an area of great environmental and cultural importance. A large number of traditional sacred natural sites have been reported, most of them water-related including human-made monuments, springs, landscapes, caves and cenotes (from the Mayan word ts’onot, sinkhole). Cenotes represent unique elements of the landscape, which are embedded in a particular socio cultural Maya system and represent the basis of the cultural and spiritual significance of nature for the contemporary, and the ancient Maya. The Maya depended exhaustively on groundwater resources for the provision of water as well as for cultural reasons. Since ancient times, they had to design, build, create, and control their own water resources for their source of drinking water. This implies a detailed knowledge base of the resource in an intimate relationship with their belief system and worldviews. Historically, practices and culture were water-rainfall oriented where the underworld represents the basis for their worldview, where powerful supernatural beings live, where the souls of the dead go, and where ancestors reside. In general sacred places were related and shaped by water rituals, some of them are still on practice.

Project area showing some of the Sacred Sites of the Maya in Yucatan, Mexico. The area includes a Geohydrological reserve (green area) with the municipalities (black dots) and some of the cenotes explored and reported with cultural material (red dots) (Precise location not given)
Ecology and biodiversity

The landscape in Yucatan is defined by a permeable karstic soil and comprises thousands of cenotes, particularly in The Ring of Cenotes wetlands – a groundwater system product of a meteorite impact 65 million years ago. Cenotes are the home of important endemic species (e.g. Blind Fish (Ogilbia pearsei) and Blind Swamp Eel (Ophisternon infernale)), and they represent the main source of freshwater. Despite cenotes have been recognized due to its importance by UNESCO and RAMSAR, they are not well recognized by the government. Some beliefs and rituals have been lost and legal protection cannot deal with threats related.


According to the Mexican National Water Law, water belongs to the Nation and technically groundwater is a common resource. However, governance of cenotes is mostly unclear and the property rights are not well defined. Some are located in protected areas, local authorities manage others; few of them are private or managed by ejido members and several of them are open access. The current governance system is polycentric but does not work properly. Government and policy makers do not influence decision-making processes made by associations and communitarian cooperatives.


Population is not able to develop rules for better practices and they do not organize to manage de resource. Users are allowed to take water from any part of the aquifer, but collective choice arrangements are absent or work in an isolated way. Mismatches among institutions and jurisdictions, and lack of rules created a transition from local common management to an open-access use. Efforts have been made by some groups to protect the resource (e.g. clean-ups) but locals do not tend to be involved because of the little incentive and they cannot regulate a joint use.

Lessons learned

To protect groundwater and to maintain the ecological integrity of cenotes using local knowledge, worldviews and values, it is important to draw attention to the conservation of sacred natural sites as reservoirs of biodiversity. The case in Yucatan can be seen as an area of opportunity to evolve into a share governance and management of the resource by respecting indigenous wisdom. Managing and protecting cenotes from a holistic perspective, and as a commons, probably requires the cooperation of a whole network of public and private actors and bridge the gap between science, policy and society. The lessons learned are:

  • Recognizing traditional ecological knowledge: To integrate cultural and spiritual significance of nature government should recognize traditional ecological knowledge as an important informal norm of monitoring to promote better groundwater management.
  • Restoring traditional commons institutions: Some actions that can be implemented to take the cultural and spiritual significance of nature into account in management or governance include: participatory action, linking indigenous local knowledge with modern scientific and technical approaches, and revalorization of values. This can support monitoring, interpreting, and caring for groundwater ecosystems, the resources, and services that they generate.
  • Revival of cultural values regarding sacredness of cenotes: By bringing current actions and local efforts to the scientific arena, working towards groundwater literacy for society and by respecting Maya wisdom.
  • Revitalizing community responsibility, backed up by government regulation: By performing local-communitarian activities with the young and the different groups of actors drawing from scientists, experts, local members, NGO’s, underwater explorers, local and municipal authorities, communitarian leaders, etc.
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