The Unlikely Environmentalists

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

"Not long after our boat made it out into the water, a friendly whale nestled up next to the boat where the president and his family were. You can imagine the excitement -- everyone was yelling things like, 'Come here, little whale,' to 'Give it a kiss! A kiss, a kiss, a kiss!' Everybody had their arms in the water, touching and caressing the whale. The president was in the boat's bow taking photographs. He was enjoying the moment, taking photos," says Lopez as he further describes the beautiful, light-bathed scene:

A group of boats nods gently over the waves at Laguna San Ignacio, Carabias in one of them, President Ernesto Zedillo, the final heir of the modern era's longest political dynasty, in another. Zedillo's wife and children are in the boat with him, and a glistening, mottled gray whale nuzzles alongside. One of Zedillo's daughters leans over and kisses the whale. Passengers cheer. The president smiles; he takes photographs. His wife pets the whale. Zedillo snaps another photograph. A few feet away Carabias sits in her boat with her own children, smiling, serene.

Carabias, to the rumored chagrin of Trade Minister Herminio Blanco, had succeeded in inviting the president to see Laguna San Ignacio for himself. Zedillo and his family are enjoying a moment of bliss. Carabias, in her fashion, also seems pleased.

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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"She had her own way of enjoying the moment," says Kuyima's Lopez. "She didn't put her hands in the water -- she was just watching. She seemed at peace."

Zedillo returned to Mexico City and promptly canceled the Laguna San Ignacio salt beds.

"I believe this was a factor in allowing him to begin to understand, to listen, to involve himself, to feel, and to live what this place is about, no?" Carabias later said. "It was a very personal moment, a very human moment."

It was a very fin del siglomoment; Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon did what Mexican presidents always did during the country's 20th century of perfect dictatorship; he canceled plans to build a salt plant at Laguna San Ignacio because, well, he wished it so.


A year and a month later, Homero Aridjis stands awkwardly for a photo opportunity at the Sony Metreon movie theater complex in San Francisco, California, flanked by a U.S. television star, a U.S. political scion, and hundreds of wealthy U.S. environmentalists.

The occasion is the National Resources Defense Council's Forces of Nature Awards Ceremony, a $200-per-head fund raiser. Aridjis is being honored along with television star Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Kennedy scion Bobby Jr. for vanquishing a salt manufacturing plant near the Mexican birthing grounds of the California gray whale. In the NRDC's script, these people have become protagonists in La Leyenda de Laguna San Ignacio. This fund-raising event is intended as the final chapter in the U.S. environmentalist version of the Mitsubishi/salt plant tale. Accordingly, there is a bit of surreal disjoint between this event and reality as it is ordinarily experienced.

Louis-Dreyfus tracks the attendant knot of photographers with Larry Bird-like peripheral vision, lest one of them lose track of her most attractive profile. Kennedy holds forth to a throng five fans thick. Homero and Betty Aridjis, meanwhile, sip tea and chat amongst themselves. Homero is both of this jet-setting world -- he's a diplomat and internationally renowned poet -- and he is not of this world: Unlike the others present, he actually had a meaningful role in the cancellation of the Laguna San Ignacio salt project.

This is an ethereal Hollywood moment constructed to accompany a bit of Los Angeles fantasy.

The tale scripted by NRDC president John Adams is fictional. The salt plant's cancellation was a Mexican affair. The less globally romantic but far more accurate version of the tale goes like this: Latin America's most prominent environmentalist, Homero Aridjis, brings a faulty environmental assessment report to the attention of the Mexican press. A sympathetic cabinet minister declares the document illegal. A half-decade of bureaucratic wrangling ensues, and the plant is ultimately canceled by presidential decree.

This wouldn't be the first time First World people took credit for Third World struggles. And this wouldn't be the first time events of an isolated, local nature were ascribed momentous historical portent.

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