Environmentalists expressed outrage Thursday after a Mexican judge upheld a requirement that they post a $1.1 million bond to pursue a suit against a project to rebuild Cancun beaches with tons of sand extracted from the Caribbean.
Nonprofit groups said the ruling will make it hard or impossible for them to defend environmental causes in court.
"This means that only people with money, and a lot of it, will have access to environmental justice," said Gustavo Alanis of the Mexican Center for Environmental Law.
The activist group Sky, Land and Sea said a judge in Cancun denied their request for an injunction against the requirement that they post a 15 million peso ($1.1 million) bond, something they could not afford to do.
Such bonds are intended to guarantee any damages caused to the defendant if a plaintiff loses a suit.
A court official said he was not at liberty to discuss the case, or the reasoning behind the Wednesday ruling.
Alanis said another, even larger bond had been required in a public-interest case against a highway project in central Mexico in 2008, calling it "part of a pattern" that may discourage such suits.
The groups want to block the beach rebuilding project, saying it will damage the environment while doing little to address the resort's problem.
Cancun has suffered steady beach erosion in recent years, in part because hotels were built on dunes or too close to the water and because natural flows from a nearby lagoon were blocked.
Mexico spent $19 million to replace Cancun beaches washed away by Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
Much of the sand pumped from the sea floor has also eroded, leading to disputes like one in July, when navy personnel cordoned off a stretch of beach in front of a Cancun hotel that had illegally pumped sand and built an illicit breakwater to protect its beach.
Now the government has started a project expected to cost at least $60 million to restore the beaches again, in part by excavating 5.6 million cubic meters (yards) of sand from banks off the islands of Cozumel and Isla Mujeres.
Cozumel inhabitants and environmental activists say the sand bank protects Cozumel from storm surges and is a breeding ground for the queen conch, an overfished marine snail that Mexico is trying to protect.
Federal officials acknowledge the area had been under study for designation as a protected area. In September, a judge temporarily froze the Cozumel section of the project, but work has already begun elsewhere.
Tourism officials and hotel owners say they need to restore the powder-white beaches on which thousands of jobs depend.
"This project is a priority for the economic and social development" of Mexico, the Tourism Department said in a statement.
The project proposes measures to address continued beach erosion, but activists say the sand will probably just wash away again, possibly choking offshore coral reefs.
The Sky, Land and Sea group plans to file another appeal.
"All of a sudden, if we are fighting for something that is in the public interest, we have to be responsible for any losses that a badly planned project might incur. It's depressing," said activist Robert Cudney.