The New Economy

The road to Punta Abreojos is paved with hollow intentions

Although the bulk of the project would have been 62,000 acres of ponds where sea water would sit until it evaporated and left only the salt, Punta Abreojos fishermen were concerned about their resources -- in part because of the company's environmental troubles at its existing salt plant a couple of hours north. A few years earlier, 300 batteries were discovered in the lagoon, and the federal government sanctioned the company. In 1997, 94 sea turtles washed up dead and Mitsubishi was blamed, although the company vehemently contested allegations it was responsible.

The Punta Abreojos plan involved a milelong pier jutting out into the ocean for loading harvested salt onto cargo ships, and the town's fishermen were concerned construction of the dock would have hurt their lucrative lobster beds. To assuage local concerns about the project's impact on the ocean, Mitsubishi agreed to make costly concessions like special electric seawater pumps rather than diesel ones to avoid spill risks and a giant conveyor belt to move the salt rather than noisy, polluting trucks. The company also agreed to move the lobster beds or re-create the breeding habitat anywhere the fishermen wanted. These project changes were made because, like NRDC and IFAW, Mitsubishi was also wooing the fishing co-op to its side.

To Mitsubishi's credit, the existing salt plant had had almost no impact on marine resources in its five decades of operation, according to a biologist with the country's El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve -- a naturally protected area that includes the body of water where the salt plant is located. Lobster, abalone and fishing stocks have all thrived for decades alongside the salt harvesting operation, says biologist Hector Toledo.

Edmundo Elorduy is vice president of marine operations for Mitsubishi's salt plant in Guerrero Negro.
Susan Goldsmith
Edmundo Elorduy is vice president of marine operations for Mitsubishi's salt plant in Guerrero Negro.
The NRDC and IFAW have been courting Punta Abreojos fishermen like Isidro Arce.
Susan Goldsmith
The NRDC and IFAW have been courting Punta Abreojos fishermen like Isidro Arce.


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

Despite that record, the fishermen of Punta Abreojos -- by far the largest and most powerful group in the town -- aligned themselves with the greens. Those without work in the small village appeared to have been left in the dust with no real employment opportunities in sight anywhere.

So when NRDC and IFAW pledged to help make up for the 200-plus jobs the salt plant would have provided, Garcia and others who do not work for the cooperative were relieved. The town literally was a dead end and, perhaps, these big environmental organizations that helped convince the co-op to oppose the project would come through with employment alternatives, Garcia thought. That's what they promised, and she believed them.

So did Armando Camacho, a mechanic and the father of two sons who must find work in other communities to support his family. Already, his older son has moved away to find a job, and now his younger child is considering what he'll do when he graduates high school. "They promised a lot of things," Camacho says of the two environmental organizations' pledges during the campaign against Mitsubishi.

In interviews with New Times and in NRDC promotional materials, Hershowitz says the two organizations solicited ideas from community members and generated project proposals from the bottom up -- from the very people the money is intended to help. "We're working with the communities to determine what components would be necessary to ensure a stable economic future," says Hershowitz, a 29-year-old who has a master's degree in neuroscience from Cal Tech. "Punta Abreojos has demonstrated a small community can maintain its way of life in a globalized economy, and we're helping them take it to the next level."

Community-generated planning is not the way the leaders of the fishing cooperative describe what's happened so far. They say Hershowitz and IFAW have dictated how the money will be spent and never solicited input from anyone. "They told us what the money is for," says Isidro Arce, a fishing cooperative member and spokesman. "We're a little shy here and didn't say anything about it. If someone gives you bread, you can't say no. If I have bread and you're hungry, you're not going to say no."

Another fisherman and co-op leader, Javier Villavicensio, is even less diplomatic about the donated money. "The groups are telling us what we have to use the money for and we don't like that. . . . Ari just came here and said, 'This is the way it's going to be.'"

The way it's going to be is this: About $40,000 of the money will be spent on a study to determine how best to expand the cooperative's small oyster farming operation into a full-scale oyster production facility. This is the cornerstone of the groups' efforts in Punta Abreojos. Another chunk of the money, still to be determined, will go to develop a plan for solar/wind-generated power for the oyster hatchery and related facilities. That plan, Hershowitz says, may also include green power for the town as well. And finally, the rest of the money will be spent paying for classroom construction and school supplies for nearby communities and for lobbying the federal government, which has, in the past, indicated it was willing to spend funds improving the infrastructure throughout the state of Baja California Sur.

"They've had an oyster facility for local consumption but didn't have the resources or technical capacity to expand it," Hershowitz says by phone from Washington, D.C. "We're funding the design of the facility and a market study to determine the economic potential of the project."

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