In 1994 San Ignacio Lagoon came close to destruction. The Mexican Salt Exporting Company (ESSA), 49 percent of which is owned by the Mitsubishi Corporation, announced plans to build a 500,000-acre industrial salt-harvesting facility along the north shore. A battle ensued between pro-development forces and an international coalition of environmental groups. In 2000, President Ernesto Zedillo canceled the project. A year later, however, ESSA renewed its concession to harvest salt from the lagoon, and rumors spread that ESSA planned to renew the large-scale salt project. In response, local landowners joined forces in 2003 with Pronatura Noroeste, WiLDCOAST, NRDC, and the International Community Foundation to form the Laguna San Ignacio Conservation Alliance. Their purpose was to establish an agreement with the Ejido Luis Echeverría, which owns 140,000 acres of the lagoon’s southern shore, to plan a conservation program that would protect the 900,000 acres of lagoon habitat and help support local livelihoods.
The result was a pioneering deal by the ejido to protect all of the land within its boundaries--much of the southern portion of the lagoon’s watershed--in return for the establishment of a $725,000 trust fund and $500,000 in direct payments to its 44 members. On March 15, 2007, Ernesto Enkerlin, the director of Mexico’s National Protected Areas Commission (CONANP), announced that President Felipe Calderón had agreed to have his agency manage the 110,000-acre ESSA concession for conservation purposes. The agreement is awaiting final approval by the president. To date, the San Ignacio Conservation Alliance has preserved 140,000 acres and has a goal of protecting another 860,000 acres of lagoon habitat.
The challenge for conservationists and residents of coastal Baja California will be finding a balance between the desire for progress and growth that drives the modern economy of Mexico and concern for preserving coastal habitats that exist nowhere else on earth. For Raúl López, the president of Ejido Echeverría, who helped broker the deal to preserve San Ignacio Lagoon and who makes his living fishing and running Kuyima, a local ecotourism company, the goal is not simply protecting a world-class coastal wetland.
“I am very proud of what we did,” he told me. “We helped preserve the right of local people to work their land, and we have made sure there is access to the public. There are no fences keeping people out. There are some people who think that the only option is to build mega-resorts.
But I think that those of us who live in rural areas surrounded by natural beauty have an obligation to preserve these areas for everyone.”
Hopefully, López’s vision of a coastline on which people can live sustainably with nature can be exported to other areas of the peninsula. Otherwise there is little hope for preserving much of Baja California’s truly wild coastline.
Serge Dedina is the executive director of WiLDCOAST, a nonprofit organization based in Imperial Beach, California, that works to preserve coastal ecoystems and wildlife in the Californias and Latin America. He is the author of Saving the Gray Whale (University of Arizona Press, 2000), and wrote his first article for Coast & Ocean in 1990.