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Life Over Commerce.

Environmentalists win the fight in Mexico's Baja California Sur over a salt mine that would endanger the gray whale. Now comes the hard part.


Last March, a 5-year-old multinational environmental campaign helped to stop the construction of what would have been the world's largest salt plant. Destined for the shores of the San Ignacio Lagoon in the pristine desert of southern Baja California, the project was to be located within the borders of the largest nature preserve in Latin America, the Vizcaino Biosphere Preserve. Home to numerous endangered and threatened species, the preserve is a Unesco world heritage site, a designation given only to spots with "outstanding universal value."

"This shows that globalization has its positive side," says Homero Aridjis, a Mexican poet who started the campaign against the proposed plant in 1995. "It is a triumph of life over commerce.

Now that the battle has been won, there work to be done. More appropriate development schemes must be hatched to ensure the long-term peaceful coexistence of the preserve and local inhabitants. Additional measures will be necessary to ensure that tourists don't chase away the area's most prized residents--the gray whale--and to prevent poachers from threatening the other endangered species in the park.

The salt plant was a project of Exportadora de Sal (Essa), a joint venture between the Mexican government (51%) and Japan's Mitsubishi (49%). Essa already runs a giant 50-year-old salt facility on another whale-inhabited lagoon some 200 kilometers up the coast from San Ignacio. The new project would have entailed the construction of an enormous system of salt evaporation ponds and dikes covering some 116 square miles, as well as a mile-long loading pier. Devil fish. Environmentalists had the charisma of one of nature's perennial poster children on their side: the Pacific gray whale, which counts the San Ignacio Lagoon among its few remaining breeding and birthing grounds. In Baja, the baby 'friendly whales" will even glide up to boats to be petted, seemingly as curious about human visitors as visitors are about them. That's quite a switch from their 19th-century reputation as devil fish, an infamy stemming from fierce attacks on whaling ships in defense of their young.

Even though environmentalists quietly conceded the whale would probably be the creature least affected by the development, they spun a global "Save the Whale" campaign around stopping the project. The campaign enlisted the support of Hollywood actors, Nobel laureates and thousands of school children, turning an obscure piece of the dusty Mexican desert into a cause celebre.

In the end, the campaign, waged via consumer and investor boycotts, the Internet, newspaper ads, billboards and a letter-writing effort that sent more than 700,000 pieces of protest mail to Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and Mitsubishi, forced the partners to abandon their plans. In early March, Zedillo announced the project's cancellation, taking environnentalists by surprise.

Zedillo maintained the Mexican government had decided to cancel As plans not because the plant would harm the environment or to appease environmentalists, but because it would alter the landscape in unacceptably drastic ways. "The environmental-impact statement proves the salt plant would not have hurt in any way whales or any other species in the preserve," he said. "Nevertheless, the preserve is a unique place in the world both for the species that inhabit it and for its natural beauty, which we should preserve." He lashed out at environmentalists, accusing them of using the project to "gain fame and even to reap economic and political benefits:"

James Brumm, a U.S.-based director of Mitsubishi, also claimed the environmental-impact statement would have allowed the plan to go forward. But he said his company had decided against the project in favor of preserving the unique natural landscape. "This would very much alter the landscape, and ultimately the decision was made that it is better to leave this as an untouched area for eco-tourism and just for preserving the whole area," he said. Nevertheless, Brumm told reporters that the company relented, at least in part, due to public pressure.

Life without salt? While environmentalists say some 70% of the local population was against the plant, fearful it would ruin their fisheries business, the task remains to replace the 200-plus jobs, paved roads, water and electricity service to Punto Abreojos, the town that would have been the center of development.

To replace the economic boost that the salt plant would have created, Zedillo promised that special projects would be started to provide compensation for the communities that would have received jobs and other benefits from the plant.

But that's a tall order. Essa had planned to invest some US$180 million in the construction of the plant and local infrastructure upgrades. Indeed, in the l3,000-resident town adjacent to the present salt plant, the company has provided a number of improvements. It has helped to pave streets, plant trees and develop better schools, hospitals, potable water systems and sanitation services.

That's not all. The 1,000 plant workers and their families also enjoy the benefits of two gyms, tennis courts, a scholarship program for the children, a subsidized food store and an emergency evacuation service for medical care unavailable in the town. About half of the plant's well-compensated workers get an additional perk: They live in company-owned houses that form an idyllic suburb that resembles a piece of San Diego or Houston.

Finding other means of more compatible development may not be easy. Baja California Sur Governor Leonel Cota Montano has said that salt development was the area's only hope. The little town of Punto Abreojos is across the lagoon from where the tourists board boats to see the whales, and even eco-tourism is limited in its appeal.

In the Ojo de Liebre lagoon up the coast, which attracts fewer tourists (but more whales), whale-watching captain Carlos Barajas Aguilera says his company used to see 8,000 visitors a year. But six years ago, three other whale-watching companies started up. Now he says that his outfit draws some 2,500 visitors a year.

More tourists might drive away the whales altogether. Paul Dayton, professor of marine ecology at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, says the whales may prefer the Ojo de Liebre lagoon precisely because there are fewer tourists.

But aside from the fisheries and eco-tourism businesses, there are few other options. The landscape is too dry for agriculture or ranching. Indeed, the area just endured a six-year drought. Without job creation, the area's two illicit sources of employment--poaching and drug smuggling--may swell.

Poaching is already a serious problem facing some of the preserve's endangered animals, particularly the pronghorn antelope and black sea turtles. "The antelope are poached constantly and the turtles are just hanging on by a thread," Dayton says. Without raising regional incomes, he adds, poaching may get worse.

Mark Spalding, a lawyer and adviser to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, says one hope is to provide more and faster land and sea vessels and funding for ranger positions for poacher prevention and apprehension programs. These efforts would be carried out in conjunction with the already-in-progress local anti-poaching education campaigns.

Environmentalist groups say they are committed to helping the locals build a better life, but through compatible and susainable development. "We don't want to just declare victory and abandon the area," Spalding says. That's a nice thought. But the area will probably also require another concerted international effort to pull it from the grip of poverty and ensure the survival of the park.
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Publication:Latin Trade
Geographic Code:0LATI
Date:Jun 1, 2000
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