By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Without the fishermen of Punta Abreojos, they had nothing. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) wanted to wage a worldwide campaign against Mitsubishi's planned saltworks operation in the remote Mexican seaside village of Punta Abreojos. The American environmental groups claimed the project would harm the gray whales that calved in the waters near the village all winter long. They also alleged construction of the plant and its related facilities would be noisy and disruptive to the marine resources that much of the town depended on for income.
Any real challenge to the $120 million salt plant project, which was to be a joint venture between Mitsubishi and the Mexican government, was going to take global sophistication and big bucks. For NRDC and IFAW -- two leading U.S.-based environmental organizations -- this was a test of their power against megaconglomerates, and they built a multimillion-dollar war chest for the fight. They sent out 27 million pieces of mail for the campaign, initiated a worldwide boycott of Mitsubishi, lined up actors like Pierce Brosnan and Glenn Close to speak out about the project, and ran television and newspaper ads around the country. They got supporters to bombard Mitsubishi with more than one million protest postcards, used the Internet to link supporters around the world, and filed a barrage of lawsuits in Mexican courts. Organizers hoped the campaign would set up a new model to fight corporate greed and save wild places.
But to be really effective, they needed the locals on their side. They understood this and so did the fishermen. And so, the wooing began.
In this issue, four New Times writers examine the truth behind a controversial proposed salt plant near the calving lagoons of Baja and how a misguided campaign to save the whales benefited two of the world's largest environmental groups. While government and academic whale researchers struggled to raise the few hundred thousand dollars needed to investigate central problems with the grays' Arctic food supply, green groups raised and spent $15 million to fight the salt plant, even though a panel of leading whale experts found the plant would not harm the whales.
The recovery of the Eastern Pacific gray whale from the brink of extinction is the single greatest turnaround of a marine mammal population, and the whale's myriad connections to human cultural conflicts are no less impressive in their scope.
In New Times' special project "Shades of Gray," reporters from several of our papers have traveled from Siberia to Mexico to tell the complex tale of a creature whose annual migration -- at 12,000 miles round trip -- is the longest by any mammal.
To court the fishing village that was losing its young adults because there were no jobs, NRDC and IFAW began making promises. In the dusty town of 1,200, representatives from the two environmental groups pledged a lucrative, corporate-free future for Punta Abreojos, which sits on a Pacific Ocean inlet west of Laguna San Ignacio three hours from the nearest paved road. "They promised jobs that wouldn't affect the environment -- alternatives to the salt plant," says Angela Garcia, a 25-year-old Punta Abreojos resident and the daughter of a fisherman. "They made promises of money and other things."
The two groups also let their fellow environmentalists who were bankrolling the campaign know this was not only a fight against Mitsubishi and the Mexican government but a battle to save a sleepy, peaceful town on the Pacific from reckless industrialism. In one fund-raising letter, NRDC's president John Adams wrote, "We will advocate an economic future built on protection of natural resources. . . . NRDC will work with local groups to fashion a less-damaging alternative that will preserve the whales, the lagoon and jobs."
If a partnership could be forged, it would have big implications. American environmentalists had told residents of the dusty Mexican town there were better economic opportunities without the salt plant, and they would help them find that future. Success in Punta Abreojos would set up a model for communities around the globe and demonstrate that green alternatives could be financially lucrative.
The promise of a new economy by the environmental coalition was significant. From the very first Earth Day in 1970, the prospect of a healthy planet had been pitted against jobs. In a sleepy little fishing village in the Baja, two of the world's leading green organizations promised something revolutionary: employment.
The courting of Punta Abreojos paid off. As the campaign against Mitsubishi intensified in the late '90s, Punta Abreojos signed up to join NRDC and IFAW. The two groups flew fishermen to Mexico City to testify against the salt plant, and when the plan was killed a year and a half ago in a historic decision by the then-president of Mexico, they set up a $100,000 fund to help Punta Abreojos and the surrounding communities build an eco-friendly, sustainable future. Together, they had challenged the rising tide of globalization and had won.
NRDC was proud of its achievement in Mexico against Mitsubishi and its partnership with the fishermen of Punta Abreojos. In its magazine, The Amicus Journal, sent to the group's 500,000 members last summer, one article explained, "Now that the plant has been canceled, the environmentalists have assigned experts to spend some months in Punta Abreojos and other nearby settlements to help raise local living standards." As NRDC's Jacob Scherr put it: "We not only saved a lagoon, we saved a town."
Jared Blumenfeld, IFAW's former director of habitat protection, tells New Times, "We had a kind of moral commitment [to Punta Abreojos] because they helped us in defeating the saltworks. Therefore, we are obliged not only to prevent industrial development to occur but to find alternatives for this community."
Today, the two organizations claim they are working to bring First World sophistication and resources to the village to attain a clean but prosperous future. "We're trying to help these communities set up sustainable economic programs that will outlast us," says Ari Hershowitz, an NRDC resource specialist in Washington, D.C., who has been working with the residents of Punta Abreojos for the last three years. "We have a long-term commitment."