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Activists Break New Ground to Help Shake Off Saltworks Project

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With his family and a couple of friends, President Ernesto Zedillo helicoptered to San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja California Sur one weekend and joined other eco-tourists in small skiffs out on the water.

Against a backdrop of sand dunes and desert mountains, several playful gray whales surfaced and approached the president’s boat, friends recall. Zedillo’s group then camped that night on the shore of the lagoon, the last undisturbed mating and calving sanctuary for gray whales.

A week later, on March 2, Zedillo announced that he was canceling a proposal to build the world’s largest salt production complex on the edge of the lagoon, to keep the nature reserve pristine for future generations.

Zedillo, a Yale-trained economist, has worked obsessively to increase exports and investment since he took office in 1994. Yet, for reasons that went far beyond his weekend lagoon visit, Zedillo chose to sacrifice a $180-million investment that would have created 200 jobs and earned $85 million in export revenues each year.

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Now, environmental groups are studying the lessons of one of the hardest-fought environmental battles in recent years, one that resulted in a landmark choice by an impoverished country to save a unique wilderness, even at the expense of industrial growth.

In the aftermath of the struggle, key players agree that the anti-saltworks campaign broke new ground in environmental activism, developing a multilayered sophistication that is sure to be reflected in future eco-confrontations.

“It’s a case study in how to do a grass-roots campaign in the era of globalization, and the result is a tremendous victory for environmentalists around the world,” said Joel Reynolds, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles who helped direct the campaign. “What happened here was that the environmental coalition drew a line in the sand around San Ignacio Lagoon, and we held that line.”

A 5-Year Process That Led to Final Ruling

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It would be an overstatement to suggest that Zedillo made his decision either because of the protest campaign or because of his visit to the lagoon that February weekend. A scuba-diving enthusiast, the 48-year-old president has whale-watched there in past years and knows the Baja region well. What’s more, Mexico followed an unprecedented public five-year process to get to the final ruling.

Indeed, in announcing his decision, Zedillo angrily attacked what he called extremist environmental groups “who have used this project to seek notoriety and even, I have to say it, to profit financially and politically.”

He also insisted that the project wouldn’t have harmed the whales or other wildlife in the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve on the Pacific coast of the Baja California peninsula. The simple reason behind his decision, Zedillo said, was that a 75,000-acre saltworks would change the landscape “in a place unique in the world both for the species that inhabit it and for its natural beauty, which is also a value we should preserve.”

Those who have visited the lagoon--and stroked or even kissed the head of a 35-ton, 45-foot-long gray whale--can understand Zedillo’s decision. The anti-saltworks coalition skillfully used the magnetic charm of the gray whale to create a broad public debate in Mexico on an issue that in the past would have been decided by executive fiat.

“The big picture is that this is a remarkable decision for democracy in Mexico,” said Serge Dedina, a researcher at the University of Arizona whose book about the lagoon issue, “Saving the Gray Whale,” was published earlier this year. “This opened up the system to nonpolitical groups in ways that have never happened before.”

The first proposal was rejected in February 1995, but the government-controlled company Exportadora de Sal S.A., or ESSA, applied to submit a revised proposal and a new environmental impact statement. The Mexican government holds 51% of ESSA, and Mitsubishi Corp. owns 49%.

ESSA already operates an immense salt evaporation plant around another lagoon at Guerrero Negro, 100 miles to the north of the proposed San Ignacio site. The company argued that the number of whales had grown steady in its lagoon and that birds were thriving in the salt evaporation ponds. ESSA defended its Guerrero Negro salt operation as an environmentally friendly process using sun, wind and seawater to produce salt crystals.

Environment Secretary Julia Carabias Lillo created a strict framework for ESSA’s second application. She convened a respected international scientific team to draft the questions to be answered in the impact statement. The company then recruited top marine biologists to carry out the study. After several delays, the company presented the report in February to its shareholders, the government and Mitsubishi.

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The company was then to have submitted its proposal to the National Ecology Institute, part of the Environment Ministry, which would have ruled yes or no. But Zedillo cut short the process. He instructed Commerce Secretary Herminio Blanco Mendoza, who is also the board chairman of ESSA, to kill the project.

That surprised many environment-watchers, who had expected the government to drag out the decision past the July 2 presidential election, in which Zedillo’s party is fighting to win a 13th consecutive victory since 1929.

A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the activists’ pressure within Mexico and abroad “was just going to keep on growing, and they were going to make the campaign more and more extreme, even saying we were murdering whales. It was a good moment to decide, before it became a public scandal and got mixed up in the electoral campaign as well.”

Carabias, however, said in an interview that the international campaign was an obstacle to rejecting the saltworks proposal, because the Mexican government is extremely sensitive about outside pressure.

Environmental Report Turned the Tide

In the end, the impact statement was decisive, she said. It made clear the environmental effect of flooding tens of thousands of acres on a now-dry desert floor just inland from the lagoon. The document’s description of the potential changes to the landscape was enough to persuade Zedillo to say no, she said.

A respected biologist, Carabias contends that the decision was consistent with Zedillo’s commitment to the environment since he took office. Protected lands, including reserves and forests, have been extended from 30 million acres in 1994 to 80 million acres now, she noted, and management programs have been implemented in more than 35 reserves, covering 85% of the protected land. Nongovernmental groups also have begun helping the government administer these parks and reserves for the first time, adding badly needed resources.

“This is a watershed decision,” Carabias said. “It is consistent with the whole effort by President Zedillo to strengthen our protected areas, but there’s an additional ingredient, and that is: Let’s value these natural spaces for themselves as part of Mexican culture. Not everywhere does there have to be a car factory next to a beautiful countryside. There are certain sites in our country that should be left untouched.

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“We don’t allow the alteration of archeological zones or natural monuments, and it should also be part of our culture not to permit alteration of certain natural spaces,” she added. “The first step we’ve taken in that direction is San Ignacio, and I believe there are others in the country as well that should be left isolated from human intervention.”

The campaign against the saltworks attracted tenacious Mexican leaders such as poet Homero Aridjis and his wife, Betty Ferber; and the urbane former Mexican ambassador to London, Andres Rozental, liaison and lobbyist for the international environmental groups.

Aridjis persuaded the Mexico City government--controlled by an opposition leftist party--to give him space on bus shelters throughout the city, where he put posters showing a whale’s tail and asking, “Property of a private company or all Mexicans?”

Rozental said the victory has “enormous, enormous implications for the future. Thanks to the role of civil societies and [nongovernmental organizations], this is one of the few times in recent history where there’s been a change of government position on an issue.”

In the United States, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the International Fund for Animal Welfare marshaled celebrities such as Pierce Brosnan to awaken public interest. Stepping up the pressure last year, they launched the clever “I Don’t Buy It” boycott of Mitsubishi products in California. In all, 46 cities and towns, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, joined the California Coastal Commission in condemning the project. Several mutual fund managers publicly disavowed Mitsubishi stock.

Opponents deluged Mitsubishi with more than 1 million letters, estimated Reynolds, the national resources council lawyer, and at least 300,000 more were sent to the Mexican government.

Jared Blumenfeld, director of the animal fund’s habitat program, said the campaign used the Internet to involve the public in ways not possible a decade ago. “We used the new tools of the 21st century to wage this David and Goliath fight, and instead of a slingshot, we had the Internet,” he said.

In California, the primary battleground, the coalition directed people’s e-mail protests by ZIP Code to the nearest Mitsubishi car dealership or bank branch, so the pressure was close to home. “We used political and corporate strategies to win an environmental campaign,” Blumenfeld added.

While the Natural Resources Defense Council and the International Fund for Animal Welfare waged their high-pressure and noisy protest, the World Wildlife Fund played a lower-key role, carrying out a study showing that fishing and eco-tourism could provide nearly as much revenue for the Baja California peninsula as the saltworks without the environmental damage.

That study apparently was critical in Zedillo’s reasoning; he noted that he consulted the World Wildlife Fund before making his decision.

Along with the national and international initiatives, the arguments voiced by fishermen from the tiny village of Punta Abreojos also resonated. The hamlet of 200 families, which would have doubled in size if the salt plant was built, was adamant that its future lay in the growing lobster and abalone harvests that brought in $5 million in revenues last year, earning a healthy living for fishing cooperative members.

Without such local resistance, it is unlikely that the international efforts would have prevailed.

Jacob Scherr, the national resources council’s international program director, said the huge variety of tactics and channels distinguished the coalition’s campaign from previous environmental efforts.

“We are going to take the lessons of San Ignacio and apply them worldwide to protect and preserve what little is left on our planet that has not been developed or spoiled,” he said.


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