The New Economy

The road to Punta Abreojos is paved with hollow intentions

"It's a huge mess. We are disgusted with the health department in Mexico," says Francisco Fonseca, project development coordinator for Taylor Shellfish in Mexico. "We don't even know who is in charge of the ministry of health in Mexico."

Sol Azul's Valentin Quintero says his employer has been trying to obtain FDA permission to sell oysters in the United States for four years with no luck. "It's very, very difficult," he explained, taking a break from checking on his oyster beds in a Laguna San Ignacio mangrove estuary.

Even with FDA certification, shellfish expert David Gordon tells New Times, the United States currently imports the mollusks from four other countries. Furthermore, he points out, there are numerous American growers who cultivate outstanding oysters.

Town librarian Angela Garcia says NRDC made promises it hasn't kept.
Susan Goldsmith
Town librarian Angela Garcia says NRDC made promises it hasn't kept.
Anibal Camacho may have to move away from his home to find employment.
Susan Goldsmith
Anibal Camacho may have to move away from his home to find employment.

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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

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NRDC's Hershowitz isn't worried about the new farms or the FDA certification problem because of the fishing co-op's lucrative record.

"Punta Abreojos is the best organized fishing co-op in Baja and possibly Mexico," he explains. "We've never seen a lack of market for Baja fish products. The co-op has been marketing lobster and abalone for the past 50 years quite successfully. This will just give them one more product."

In the best of all worlds, with FDA certification, no diseases and good luck, the Punta Abreojos venture is still a big, unpredictable gamble, experts say. The road to the remote village is unpaved, making transportation difficult and expensive, and there is a lot of competition in the oyster market in Mexico and abroad.

"My impression is the oyster aquaculture project really wouldn't take care of the employment issues in the area even if they had great success," says Jose Antonio Martinez, a recently retired economics professor from the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur.

In Punta Abreojos, there's little celebrating going on about the money for the oyster study and hatchery design. Co-op members -- namely those who will directly benefit from the project's success -- want the funds to be spent elsewhere. Co-op leader Isidro Arce would like to improve the local shellfish processing plant, and Javier Villavicensio, another fisherman, wants the money to buy oyster seed.

In defense of how the money is to be spent on the oyster market study and hatchery design, Hershowitz says, "The oyster cultivation facility should be a source of new jobs. . . . Whether it will employ everybody, I don't think so. . . . We can't solve all the problems with one stroke. The most important part of this process is the relationship with the people in these communities. These are projects that came from the communities, and there's no guarantee they'll work in the way that had been hoped."

The green energy portion of the NRDC/IFAW plan is related to the oyster project. The solar- and wind-generated energy is expected to fuel the oyster hatchery and related facilities and could help the co-op save money if some of the power is used for the town itself. The fishing organization spends between $10,000 and $20,000 a month purchasing diesel fuel to operate its generators, which provide power for the entire community. Alternative energy sources will reduce the monthly energy costs to the co-op and decrease the amount of pollution generated in the town, Hershowitz says. NRDC plans on hiring a consulting firm to determine the best way to implement and use alternative green energy sources in Punta Abreojos. Like the oyster plan, NRDC officials have a kernel of an idea with the green energy proposal, some money to carry the plan out, and not much more than that. Hershowitz says he has spoken with officials from a department in the federal branch of the Mexican government that promotes alternative energy, and they are interested. The agency has funded a solar design for Punta Abreojos -- even before NRDC started promoting the idea -- and has implemented a similar project in a nearby community. So far, there is no money in place for the fishing village's alternative energy proposal.

"All these projects are going to take time," Hershowitz explains. "If you try and do them overnight, they're bound to fall apart quickly. It's not on the time scale we in the U.S. are used to dealing with."

Although a clean and cheap way to provide power to the community, the plan -- if and when it ever gets off the ground -- will have little impact on the employment problems for people like Angela Garcia and Armando Camacho.

IFAW, meanwhile, has hired Mexican environmental lawyer Alberto Szekely, who was instrumental in the battle against the salt plant, to lobby the federal government to ensure it follows through on a promise to spend $2.5 million improving the infrastructure in Baja California Sur. Coincidentally, the man he is responsible for pressuring into allocating the money is his younger brother, Francisco Szekely, Mexico's undersecretary of the environment and natural resources.

To those familiar with the arid, remote Baja Sur, the possibilities for these plans to create any real economic growth are limited. "It's extremely difficult to create jobs there," Mexican economist Jose Antonio Martinez explains. He was part of a team of economists who conducted an in-depth study of the region during the battle over the salt plant that was funded by Mitsubishi. "Many of the profits made in that area are spent elsewhere because they don't have the services they need in the area, like stores. They don't have the services or the infrastructure to exploit economic growth."

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