The real estate boom in northern Baja California is a vivid lesson for a network of conservationist and environmental leaders concerned with preserving undeveloped coastal areas south of Ensenada. During the six-year presidency of Vicente Fox, which ended in 2006, a slew of mega-development projects emanating from Mexico City impacted the entire Baja California peninsula, including some of the most biologically important areas. Whether it was the proposed Puerto Los Cabos marina development that has damaged the San José del Cabo estuary, a Chevron-Texaco LNG facility adjacent to the Coronado Islands, or the mega-resort planned for Bahía de Los Ángeles, these projects seemed to threaten just about every coastal area of ecological significance.
Because they are remote, hours by car from the nearest paved road, many wild areas in Baja California had until recently been considered undevelopable. For example, the Pacific fishing town of Punta Abreojos, just north of San Ignacio Lagoon on the Pacific coast, has attracted mostly surfers and fishermen. Now the state of Baja California Sur has proposed a cruise ship terminal there.
For Fernando Ochoa, a 32-year-old attorney from Mexico City who runs the Northwest Environmental Law Center in Ensenada--one of only two nonprofit environmental law firms in Mexico--the number of development projects in Baja is “overwhelming.” He said, “The total budget for conservation of the Mexican government and NGOs is literally millions of times less than what is destined for development. . . . There are not enough people working in the conservation field compared to the development field.”
Nevertheless, Ochoa successfully blocked efforts by FONATUR to build a marina in a wetland just north of Bahía de los Ángeles. He prevailed on behalf of local fishermen and community residents who use the wetland for fishing and recreation. After that victory, Ochoa switched his focus to blocking the cruise ship terminal in Punta Abreojos, with the help of Mexico’s Group of 100, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and WiLDCOAST.
“We want to see development that complies with Mexican laws so there is sustainable development, healthy communities, and projects that are appropriate for the natural environment where they are proposed,” said Ochoa. “Punta Abreojos is not an appropriate location for a cruise ship terminal. Since the community has an economy based on fishing, they need projects that correspond to the needs of the community.”
Ochoa believes that the long-term solution to conflicts between inappropriate development and conservation is working with local landowners to make conservation an economic option. “Poverty is a cultural and social problem in Mexico,” he said. “If poor people who own nothing but their land sell out to a speculator for a low price, they will either become destitute where they live or they will have to migrate to a city to work.” What’s needed are financial incentives for rural landowners to adopt conservation easements on their properties, to provide “long-term options, rather than just the short-term option of selling.”
In San Ignacio Lagoon, where whales go to give birth, the strategy of land conservation combined with sustainable development has proved effective. The lagoon, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is some 600 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border. About 500 local residents make their living from fishing and conducting whale-watching tours on the lagoon, an isolated wetland that is also habitat for black brant, eastern Pacific sea turtles, bottlenose dolphins, and thousands of shorebirds.