The New Economy

The road to Punta Abreojos is paved with hollow intentions

In the NRDC's newsletter Nature's Voice sent out earlier this year to members around the country, Hershowitz talked about his work in Punta Abreojos in near poetic terms. "It's important that these projects are directly responsive to the community's needs and move at a pace the communities are comfortable with. For me, it's a privilege to be working with people who have such a deep tie to the place they live in -- who live with a sense of the profound continuity and peace that an enduring relationship with the land can bring."

But newsletters and publicity materials from the two hugely successful environmental groups don't publicize what's really happening in Punta Abreojos, and it's a lot less rosy than NRDC and IFAW officials are willing to admit. Economists familiar with the area predict the help from the two environmental organizations will be of little benefit. Even less impressed are some Punta Abreojos residents who call the assistance nothing more than an empty public relations gesture. Meanwhile, nearly everyone in Punta Abreojos agrees they never were consulted on how the donated money should be spent despite NRDC's claims that the ideas for the various projects came from the residents themselves. And surprisingly, even the Punta Abreojos fishermen who will benefit the most from the environmental groups' largess aren't happy. They want the money to go to different projects.

The plan to help Punta Abreojos has turned into a messy collision between slick American environmental groups and a rural Mexican village. "They came, they lied," says Angela Garcia, the town's librarian who also works for a Mexican environmental organization called ProEsteros teaching children about natural habitats and recycling. "They made promises and promises to this community and we have nothing to show for it."

NRDC's Ari Hershowitz says environmental groups wanted to set up economic programs that would sustain the town.
NRDC's Ari Hershowitz says environmental groups wanted to set up economic programs that would sustain the town.
The Punta Abreojos gas station is a primitive operation.
Susan Goldsmith
The Punta Abreojos gas station is a primitive operation.


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.

Related stories:
Crying Whale
The Unlikely Environmentalists

Read the entire series

Punta Abreojos sits at the end of a grueling 37-mile dirt road off the main highway that cuts through the state of Baja California Sur. It's a funky, blustery little place with a couple of dusty streets, a few stores and restaurants in run-down shacks, and one telephone for the entire community. Call somebody in Punta Abreojos and the operator stands outside the office where the telephone is and yells out to the person you are trying to reach that there is a call waiting. There's no bank, and the town gas station is a couple of big corroding drums in a dirt-floor shack and a teenage attendant who pumps the fuel by hand.

By rural Mexican standards, though, the village has done quite well -- its 50-year-old fishing cooperative brings in nearly $5 million a year primarily from abalone and lobster, which is shipped live or in cans all over Mexico and Asia. The co-op's 192 members make between $8,000 and $10,000 a year -- enough to support their families and live in decent housing with running water, electricity and television sets with satellite dishes. There's a retirement plan for the older fishermen, and the co-op pays for one child from each member family to attend university or vocational school. It even once paid for a member's child to attend law school. Getting into the co-op, though, requires a father to die, and only then can one son, not a daughter, take his place in the organization. Other than through a father's death, few newcomers are let into the group.

So for the 50 or more people in the village who are not members of the organization or in a co-op family, life can be very difficult, as there are few other ways to make money in Punta Abreojos. A few teachers are employed in town, several residents run tiny stores or restaurants, but for everybody else, there's little or no work. Angela Garcia, who grew up in the village and now is the local librarian, has seen most of her friends leave Punta Abreojos to find jobs. Ironically, the gray whales swim as much as 6,000 miles south from Alaska each year to have their babies in the waters near Punta Abreojos while the town's children are forced to leave in search of employment.

"There's no future here," says Garcia, who spent six months as a newspaper reporter in the Baja city of La Paz. "You finish high school and that's it. . . . As far as alternative work outside of the co-op, there's nothing." Garcia returned home because she loves the town and was willing to live with her parents and make little to no money. Although she has come back to stay, there are few people her age left in Punta Abreojos.

Garcia and several other people in the seaside hamlet supported the salt plant because they believed it would have had minimal impact on the ocean, whales and fishing resources, and would have brought enormous benefits to an area in desperate need of economic opportunities. The project, which would have created 200 well-paying jobs, was expected to generate $100 million a year in revenue -- 20 times as much as the co-op brings in each year. In Guerrero Negro -- two hours north of Punta Abreojos -- Mitsubishi has operated an existing salt plant for the past 50 years. There, workers made on average about $1,000 a month, which includes health insurance, vacation time, profit sharing, college subsidies and discounted groceries from a company store. Employees for the new plant would have come from Punta Abreojos and from nearby, extremely poor lagoon settlements. The Japanese company also promised to spend more than $1 million providing better services to the town, such as cheaper and more reliable water and electricity, along with paved roads.

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