The Unlikely Environmentalists

Mexican officials were quite capable of stopping one of the world's largest corporations on their own

To put it plainly, Zedillo was afraid of being portrayed as a yanqui puppet.

"The president understood very well that he would lose more political capital with a decision to cancel the project than with a decision to sustain it -- this is absolutely the case. This is because he's President of Mexico, not President of U.S. Radical Non-Governmental Organizations, and they were the only ones who were going to be happy with this decision," Carabias said. "So he was very clear about acknowledging that this decision was going to be made at a very high cost."

Carabias had been appointed to Zedillo's cabinet as a tecnico -- an independent academic expert in her field without political experience or ties. As a result, the Environmental Ministry was Mexico's runt Secretariat. It was the one that had to make the most noise in order for its advice to be considered in key decisions.

Poet Homero Aridjis and his dog, Rufus.
Poet Homero Aridjis and his dog, Rufus.
Former Mexican environment minister Julia Carabias Lillo.
Gabriel Jimenez/Diario Reforma
Former Mexican environment minister Julia Carabias Lillo.

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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.

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In the case of the salt plant at Laguna San Ignacio, this meant that Carabias had to outshine Herminio Blanco, the tall, dashing commerce secretary. Blanco had gained prestige as Mexico's representative at the North American Free Trade Agreement talks, and within Mexico he had a reputation for arrogance. He was now chairman of the board of ESSA, the Mexico/Mitsubishi salt plant consortium, and he wasn't about to see his plans thwarted by touchy-feely environmentalism.

Carabias also had to battle a legion of regional politicians who vociferously supported the plant. "The people of Baja California wanted the project, and used every possible platform to lobby for it; this was true for governors, congressmen, state economic ministers and other state officials, manufacturers and investors. They were all pushing together," Carabias says.

One letter, signed by 47 Southern Baja California state government officials, was typical: "We're confident you will reconsider your statement disqualifying the environmental impact statement," the letter said.

Though Carabias and her inner circle of aides objected to the plant, they couldn't openly advocate against it. This was, after all, a government-sponsored project presumably supported by President Zedillo.


It's often said that Mexico is a country of magnificent laws that are inconsistently enforced. For Carabias, this reality -- and the fact that her boss had made "the rule of law" a buzz word of his presidential administration -- proved a potent asset. Carabias could insist that Mitsubishi strictly adhere to Mexican environmental law without exposing herself to charges that she was a meddler or an obstructionist. Hence her ability to reject the Mitsubishi environmental impact assessment in 1995.

Laguna San Ignacio is contained within El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, the largest environmental preserve in Latin America. Then-president Miguel de la Madrid set aside the reserve in 1988, designating some areas as "core zones," in which no commercial activity could take place, and the rest as "buffer zones," allowing some development. ESSA's proposed saltworks is within the buffer zone, which meant that, by law, the plant had to meet certain environmental requirements.

After Carabias rejected the initial environmental impact report, Mitsubishi hired the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur to conduct a new assessment. Environmentalists had reason to be suspicious of this move, given that Baja California's entire political structure supported the project. Carabias, for her part, took the unusual step of appointing an advisory committee of international marine experts.

"I was always impressed that she was trying to do the right thing," says Steve Reilly, a member of the committee and a marine biologist with the Southwest Fisheries Science Center. "This was an unprecedented situation for Mexico, to have that much outside scrutiny inside Mexico. She caught terrible flak for that sort of thing. The PRI power structure gave her a tremendously bad time. Things were made very difficult for her.

"But at every turn of the process, when our work plan was being agreed upon, we drew up explicit parameters, and she was fully supportive of all those things which we were requesting. She basically went to bat with the Mexican government so that we would be given a free and open hand."

As it turned out, the interplay between Carabias' committee and the salt plant consortium eventually made the plant economically problematic.

According to the team of experts, Mitsubishi's new Laguna San Ignacio plant would have to prove how it was going to provide fresh water to the desert town that would develop around the plant. Mitsubishi would have to show that it could safely handle the highly toxic brine produced during the evaporation process, and how it would make sure ships, the pier and other industrial activities would not disturb the gray whale.

"We wrote a fairly long list of questions, things that should be addressed, and then the government and the salt company set a number of scientists to work on those questions. The result was this environmental impact study. To complete the process, they would have given us this study, we would have convened, and we would have written our recommendations," Reilly says.

In an unexpected twist, the other team of environmental experts visiting Laguna San Ignacio, the one from UNESCO, which had come at the urging of environmentalists, produced a surprisingly even-handed analysis of the salt plant's ecological impact. This defused potential charges that Carabias, who had hosted the UNESCO team, was cooperating with obstructionist foreign meddlers. The team took pains to point out that salt manufacture is not necessarily environmentally harmful.

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