MEXICO : Gray Whales vs. Pesos: Which Should Prevail?

Homero Aridjis is president of the environmental Group of 100 and author of the forthcoming novel, "The Lord of the Last Days: Visions of the Year 1000."

At a time when there seems no end to Mexico's economic crisis, a head-on collision between business interests, backed by state authorities, and respect for Mexico's environment, and the laws designed to protect it, is shaping up. Crudely put, a victory for the business interests would amount to a trade-off of gray whales for cash that would not even trickle down to the pockets of those who are supposed to receive it.

Every year, gray whales migrate 18,000 kilometers from the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas to their breeding and calving areas in Mexico. They chiefly gather in Baja California's coastal waters, because of the warmer temperatures and greater buoyancy of the water, and for the protection that lagoons afford from high seas and predators. Laguna de San Ignacio is the only one of these havens still unaffected by human intervention. This pristine breeding ground is now threatened by Exportadora de Sal, which wants to develop a salt-production facility on the flats around the lagoon. The company, jointly owned by Mexico (51%) and the Mitsubishi Corp. of Japan (49%), already produces about 6 million tons of salt a year at Laguna Ojo de Liebre, in Guerrero Negro. Its expansion plans at San Ignacio would increase its annual production capacity by more than 7 million tons.

But bowing to pressure from Mexican environmental groups, the National Ecology Institute has rejected an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) that concluded the salt project would not adversely affect the lagoon's waters. It should be noted that of the EIA's 465 pages, only 23 lines were devoted to the potential impact of the saltworks on the gray whale, whose continued protection is a priority of environmentalists. In a bizarre twist, the report claimed there would be no effect on the lagoon because the project was to be built on land, even though nonstop pumping of 30,000 liters per second of water out of the lagoon will lower its temperature and salinity.

In rejecting the EIA, the institute stated that the economic benefits of the proposed saltworks would not justify the loss of the Vizcaino Desert Biosphere Reserve, of which Laguna de San Ignacio is a part. For the moment, at least, Mexico's economic woes will not be used as a pretext to bulldoze its conservation policies.

But this is only the first round in the battle pitting major economic interests against Mexico's environmental policies, including protection of the gray whale's winter habitat. A state environmental official declared the salt project had only been rejected in its present form.

The immediate reaction has been a closing of ranks around the salt company, and an assault on environmentalists.

Baja Gov. Guillermo Mercado Romero has pooh-poohed any environmental risk posed by the proposed saltworks, contending that such charges are based on disinformation. He insists that the salt company's $120-million investment would jump-start the region's economy.

The mayor of Mulege, in whose jurisdiction San Ignacio falls, implied that if the salt project is not permitted, the company might well be forced to shut down operations in Guerrero Negro. Hinting at a conflict between state and federal authorities, he rejected "centralist stances" that attempt to thwart local economic development and denied any hazardous pollution during Exportadora de Sal's decades of existence, even though the company has a history of environmental negligence. In 1984, nearly 4 million liters of diesel fuel were unaccounted for and, for the last two years, no gray whales have been sighted in Laguana Guerreo Negro.

Exportadora's general manager, Juan Bremer, in denying any environmental threat, went so far as to make the extraordinary--and fanciful--claim that some species would increase as a result of his company's producing more salt. The secretary-general of the Guerrero Negro saltworkers' union, meanwhile, blasted criticisms of the project as biased and false, hailing the company as last year's most profitable government-owned enterprise in all Mexico.

Such sentiments are not shared by local residents, whom advocates of the saltworks project contend will be the chief beneficiaries of the new business. In a letter addressed to Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and forwarded to the Mitsubishi Corp., a recently formed fishing cooperative, based in Laguna de San Ignacio, declared its opposition to the plans. The fishermen wrote they are loathe to end up on the company payroll because of harm the salt project may inflict on the lagoon's environment and the consequent disappearance of their employment. They also recognize that there's no guarantee the scant 208 permanent jobs the new saltworks would create will go to local people or that they will benefit the local population. In Guerrero Negro, at the company's existing saltworks, there is no apparent relation between investment and the local standard of living. Japanese employees of the company live in a fenced-off compound; town residents live amid squalor.

Local residents' time is split between small-scale fishing and burgeoning tourism. Year-round harvesting of pismo clams is the mainstay of the economy. Sales through middlemen are often at artificially low prices, harvests are unpredictable and weather conditions unstable. Some species are overharvested, especially highly prized lobsters, scallops, halibut and grouper. The government makes no attempt to monitor or regulate the unsustainable harvesting practices, which include poaching, out-of-season fishing and violation of quotas. No wonder the area's residents are distrustful of government, which they perceive as corrupt and favoring outside interests.

In the last 20 years, gray-whale watching has become a growth industry, and since the late 1980s, local residents have been hired in increasing numbers by area tour companies. But most of the more than $3 million generated annually by gray-whale tourism remains in foreign or government hands.

Although the National Ecology Institute rejected the saltworks project because of its incompatibility with the biosphere reserve and proximity to the lagoon, its answer was weak. There was no detailed response to the company's expansion plans, leaving an opening for legal challenges. For example, by its argument, why isn't the saltworks in Guerrero Negor illegal?

The whales may have thus won the first round, but the battle between environment and economics in Baja California Sur is far from over. Indeed, the dispute will be an acid test of which interests will prevail in the newly created Secretariat of Environment, Natural Resources and Fisheries. It will also indicate whether Mexico's environmental laws are mere window dressing for environmentally disastrous business ventures.

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