The New Economy

The road to Punta Abreojos is paved with hollow intentions

The salt plant, Martinez says, "was the best hope for jobs in this area. . . . I doubt any opportunity will come around like that again."

Even with the best of intentions from Hershowitz and others, Punta Abreojos hardly looks like it will become the self-sustaining, industrial-free showpiece the two environmental groups hoped to show off.


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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Soon after the saltworks plan was scrapped, a media celebration of the campaign began. The Washington Post called it "a stunning victory" for environmentalists around the world, and the New York Times wrote that the defeat demonstrated that the two groups had become "lead players on what has become an international stage."

The victory doesn't seem so stunning to Angela Garcia. She has been waiting for more than a year for the eco-friendly opportunities she was promised. She's still waiting. Garcia makes about $125 a month working as a librarian and for a Mexican environmental organization -- hardly enough to live on even though she's at home with her parents. "I want to know what is their plan for the at least 50 people in Punta Abreojos who need work?" she asked during an interview outside her parents' modest home two blocks from the churning ocean. "I'm afraid me and the other young people are going to be forgotten in this whole thing."

When Hershowitz was asked about the people in town who don't work for the co-op, he said he didn't know there were any. Garcia wasn't surprised by this. She says nobody told Hershowitz the truth about their economic problems because they were worried that if they made waves, whatever help they are getting would disappear.

Those familiar with the backwater village say the entire nature of the town depends on who is and who is not in the co-op. The bulk of the village's four dozen or so people who are not co-op members must rely on seasonal low-paying jobs the fishermen have from time to time for employment. When the salt plant was killed, the co-op ensured its power base in town remained intact and that its low-wage workers would not go elsewhere.

"Everybody depends on the co-op -- they give you the work, the water, the power," says Edmundo Elorduy, vice president of marine operations for Mitsubishi's salt plant two hours north in the town of Guerrero Negro. He believes the co-op's opposition to the salt plant had little to do with concern over marine resources. "They didn't want anybody sharing the leadership in Punta Abreojos."

It is the fishermen in Punta Abreojos that NRDC and IFAW have made attempts to please. As always, the unlucky other residents who are desperate for jobs have been shoved to the sidelines.

As the NRDC sends out newsletters touting its achievement in Punta Abreojos, another crop of young people get ready to move on, leave their families and find work in Tijuana, La Paz and the United States.

"I want to go to L.A. to work with my uncle who has a job in a box factory," 15-year-old Anibal Camacho says. He is planning to leave Punta Abreojos in the next couple of years, like his older brother has and like his father, Armando, does when there are jobs for him elsewhere. "If there was work, I would stay."

Mitsubishi's Elorduy says the town should be known not for what's there, but for what's missing. "Punta Abreojos is an exporter of people."

A serious, studious and articulate young woman, Angela Garcia sees her village's plight as semi-tragic. Spurred on by the environmental groups, the town's leadership voted to oppose the salt plant because they felt, despite any real scientific proof, it was going to ruin their most important resource -- the ocean. Oddly, Garcia points out, the very thing they thought was going to save the town's future -- killing the salt plant -- may have ensured its demise. Today, there are no jobs for young people, and the ocean -- the economic mainstay of the town -- is burdened by overfishing.

Emily Young, a former geography professor at the University of Arizona who has extensively studied and written about the region, believes that helping a community like Punta Abreojos create real economic opportunities is complex and quite difficult. "You can throw a half-million dollars at Punta Abreojos and it may not improve the quality of life and could even harm things. The leaders could get control of the money and that could create all kinds of hostilities and jealousies and tear them apart in a way they've never been before. Throwing money at a problem is not the issue. It takes very careful consultation with the people who live there."

That, nearly everyone in and around Punta Abreojos says, never happened.

"The environmental groups are helping because they said they'd use some of the money they raised [during the campaign to kill the salt plant] to help the villagers. It's just so they can write about it in their newsletters," says Raul Lopez, a fisherman and whale-watching guide who runs an eco-friendly tourist operation on Laguna San Ignacio. "The help is symbolic and nothing else."

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