The Unlikely Environmentalists

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

"In general terms . . . the production or cultivation of salt in wetlands and coastal lagoon systems constitutes one of the most well-integrated and best-adapted of all human activities that involve these environments," the report said. "The solar evaporation salt flats usually embrace an ecosystem of surprising wealth and beauty."

The report also found that the salt plant posed no threat to the whales or any other creatures in El Vizcaino Biosphere.

The UNESCO report muted the hyperbole coming from the two sides of the debate over the salt beds, Carabias recalls. Before, the only rhetoric heard was from foreign environmentalists crying, "Save the Whales!" and Baja California business boosters saying, "Save Our Jobs!"

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.


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 New Economy

Read the entire series

"For us this was an extremely useful process," Carabias said. "And they raised an important issue: Why were we thinking in terms of planning for growth that consisted mostly of outsiders? I think the residents of Baja California were falling into the same trap of false polemicism. But really, how many jobs would this project provide for local Baja Californians? Probably no more than 30 or 40. The company was going to bring in at least 100 of its own employees."

Mitsubishi in interviews has said it would employ 216 workers.

While this is a significant number of jobs in the economy of San Ignacio, Punta Abreojos, La Bocana, San Hipolito and numerous fishing villages like Cardon, the economic importance to Mexico and Baja California Sur was minimal. Though much was made of the fact that Baja California would become the world's greatest salt-producing region if the plant were built, the fact remained that this was, after all, a salt plant. Few commodities -- save perhaps gravel -- are cheaper; the price of salt hovers around $5 a ton.

Mexico had spent the 18 years since the 1982 world oil-prices collapse attempting to wean itself from raw-materials/export-based industrial development. The salt plant would be a move in precisely the opposite direction.

And then there was the question of the plant's profit margin; the Mexican government was, after all, a socio in the plant, and expected a return. The environmental mitigation required by Carabias' international environmental impact assessment team had tightened the project's balance sheets considerably.

Victor Lichtinger, Mexico's current Minister of Environment, had been hired by the salt plant consortium as a consultant a few weeks before President Zedillo decided that the salt plant should be canceled. "In general, my view -- and all I saw was the project as it was presented -- was that the project was not viable," Lichtinger says. "There were many problems with the project itself. As it was presented, it was a project that might have an impact on environment, not only on whales, but on other species that live in that part of Mexico, and they were not really proposing decisions that would have allowed them to continue with the project."

Although the research by scientists overseen by Carabias contradicted Lichtinger -- the salt plant would have little, if any, impact upon any of the species within El Vizcaino -- environmental mitigation clearly came at a cost.

Steve Wechselblatt, a Mitsubishi International Corporation spokesman, says the cost of environmental mitigation measures was not the deciding factor leading to the project's cancellation. But according to Carabias, discussions leading up to the salt plant's demise had everything to do with whether the salt consortium could afford to make the necessary environmental modifications.

"The study showed the plant would create a dramatic change in the landscape, so we were working with the ESSA to reduce this impact; they could move some buildings 20 kilometers back, run their conveyer along the roadway, not allow it to run near the bay -- hide everything," Carabias says. "The question became, 'Is it possible to do this?' And they worked on it, and worked on it and worked on it, then said, 'Economically, it's not possible.' So they went back and drafted a different plan to reduce the visual impact. But whatever they did, it was going to completely change the landscape."

Jim Brumm, Mitsubishi International vice president, denied that the proposed plant was ever upside down financially.

"Yes, we made a lot of accommodations including moving facilities out of sight. You would have to be a flying gray whale to have seen the salt plant," said Brumm. "But we always thought it was economically viable."

Neither Lichtinger nor Carabias ever saw any financial projections that suggested otherwise, said Brumm.

By early 2000, Carabias believed, as she had from the start, that in Mexico's greatest wildlife preserve, the government was about to be stuck with a turkey.

Waves of UNESCO research teams, government-appointed international EIR panels, mitigation studies and counter-mitigation studies had greatly diminished the plant's image as an industrial development coup. Carabias' own panel of international experts had yet to submit its report. Members of the panel say they planned to recommend even more tough environmental measures.

By whale-watching season, the battle over the Laguna San Ignacio salt plant had been successfully turned into a puddle of gelatinous bureaucratic brine.

It was around this time that Carabias persuaded President Zedillo, his family, and a group of his friends to accompany her on a whale-watching excursion to Baja California. This was Zedillo's second visit to the bay, according to Raul Lopez, a guide with Ecoturismo Kuyima, the company that brought the Zedillo group out onto the bay.

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