The New Economy
Without the fishermen of Punta Abreojos, they had nothing. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) wanted to wage a worldwide campaign against Mitsubishi's planned saltworks operation in the remote Mexican seaside village of Punta Abreojos. The American environmental groups claimed the project would harm the gray whales that calved in the waters near the village all winter long. They also alleged construction of the plant and its related facilities would be noisy and disruptive to the marine resources that much of the town depended on for income.
Any real challenge to the $120 million salt plant project, which was to be a joint venture between Mitsubishi and the Mexican government, was going to take global sophistication and big bucks. For NRDC and IFAW -- two leading U.S.-based environmental organizations -- this was a test of their power against megaconglomerates, and they built a multimillion-dollar war chest for the fight. They sent out 27 million pieces of mail for the campaign, initiated a worldwide boycott of Mitsubishi, lined up actors like Pierce Brosnan and Glenn Close to speak out about the project, and ran television and newspaper ads around the country. They got supporters to bombard Mitsubishi with more than one million protest postcards, used the Internet to link supporters around the world, and filed a barrage of lawsuits in Mexican courts. Organizers hoped the campaign would set up a new model to fight corporate greed and save wild places.
But to be really effective, they needed the locals on their side. They understood this and so did the fishermen. And so, the wooing began.
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.
To court the fishing village that was losing its young adults because there were no jobs, NRDC and IFAW began making promises. In the dusty town of 1,200, representatives from the two environmental groups pledged a lucrative, corporate-free future for Punta Abreojos, which sits on a Pacific Ocean inlet west of Laguna San Ignacio three hours from the nearest paved road. "They promised jobs that wouldn't affect the environment -- alternatives to the salt plant," says Angela Garcia, a 25-year-old Punta Abreojos resident and the daughter of a fisherman. "They made promises of money and other things."
The two groups also let their fellow environmentalists who were bankrolling the campaign know this was not only a fight against Mitsubishi and the Mexican government but a battle to save a sleepy, peaceful town on the Pacific from reckless industrialism. In one fund-raising letter, NRDC's president John Adams wrote, "We will advocate an economic future built on protection of natural resources. . . . NRDC will work with local groups to fashion a less-damaging alternative that will preserve the whales, the lagoon and jobs."
If a partnership could be forged, it would have big implications. American environmentalists had told residents of the dusty Mexican town there were better economic opportunities without the salt plant, and they would help them find that future. Success in Punta Abreojos would set up a model for communities around the globe and demonstrate that green alternatives could be financially lucrative.
The promise of a new economy by the environmental coalition was significant. From the very first Earth Day in 1970, the prospect of a healthy planet had been pitted against jobs. In a sleepy little fishing village in the Baja, two of the world's leading green organizations promised something revolutionary: employment.
The courting of Punta Abreojos paid off. As the campaign against Mitsubishi intensified in the late '90s, Punta Abreojos signed up to join NRDC and IFAW. The two groups flew fishermen to Mexico City to testify against the salt plant, and when the plan was killed a year and a half ago in a historic decision by the then-president of Mexico, they set up a $100,000 fund to help Punta Abreojos and the surrounding communities build an eco-friendly, sustainable future. Together, they had challenged the rising tide of globalization and had won.
NRDC was proud of its achievement in Mexico against Mitsubishi and its partnership with the fishermen of Punta Abreojos. In its magazine, The Amicus Journal, sent to the group's 500,000 members last summer, one article explained, "Now that the plant has been canceled, the environmentalists have assigned experts to spend some months in Punta Abreojos and other nearby settlements to help raise local living standards." As NRDC's Jacob Scherr put it: "We not only saved a lagoon, we saved a town."
Jared Blumenfeld, IFAW's former director of habitat protection, tells New Times, "We had a kind of moral commitment [to Punta Abreojos] because they helped us in defeating the saltworks. Therefore, we are obliged not only to prevent industrial development to occur but to find alternatives for this community."
Today, the two organizations claim they are working to bring First World sophistication and resources to the village to attain a clean but prosperous future. "We're trying to help these communities set up sustainable economic programs that will outlast us," says Ari Hershowitz, an NRDC resource specialist in Washington, D.C., who has been working with the residents of Punta Abreojos for the last three years. "We have a long-term commitment."
In the NRDC's newsletter Nature's Voice sent out earlier this year to members around the country, Hershowitz talked about his work in Punta Abreojos in near poetic terms. "It's important that these projects are directly responsive to the community's needs and move at a pace the communities are comfortable with. For me, it's a privilege to be working with people who have such a deep tie to the place they live in -- who live with a sense of the profound continuity and peace that an enduring relationship with the land can bring."
But newsletters and publicity materials from the two hugely successful environmental groups don't publicize what's really happening in Punta Abreojos, and it's a lot less rosy than NRDC and IFAW officials are willing to admit. Economists familiar with the area predict the help from the two environmental organizations will be of little benefit. Even less impressed are some Punta Abreojos residents who call the assistance nothing more than an empty public relations gesture. Meanwhile, nearly everyone in Punta Abreojos agrees they never were consulted on how the donated money should be spent despite NRDC's claims that the ideas for the various projects came from the residents themselves. And surprisingly, even the Punta Abreojos fishermen who will benefit the most from the environmental groups' largess aren't happy. They want the money to go to different projects.
The plan to help Punta Abreojos has turned into a messy collision between slick American environmental groups and a rural Mexican village. "They came, they lied," says Angela Garcia, the town's librarian who also works for a Mexican environmental organization called ProEsteros teaching children about natural habitats and recycling. "They made promises and promises to this community and we have nothing to show for it."
Punta Abreojos sits at the end of a grueling 37-mile dirt road off the main highway that cuts through the state of Baja California Sur. It's a funky, blustery little place with a couple of dusty streets, a few stores and restaurants in run-down shacks, and one telephone for the entire community. Call somebody in Punta Abreojos and the operator stands outside the office where the telephone is and yells out to the person you are trying to reach that there is a call waiting. There's no bank, and the town gas station is a couple of big corroding drums in a dirt-floor shack and a teenage attendant who pumps the fuel by hand.
By rural Mexican standards, though, the village has done quite well -- its 50-year-old fishing cooperative brings in nearly $5 million a year primarily from abalone and lobster, which is shipped live or in cans all over Mexico and Asia. The co-op's 192 members make between $8,000 and $10,000 a year -- enough to support their families and live in decent housing with running water, electricity and television sets with satellite dishes. There's a retirement plan for the older fishermen, and the co-op pays for one child from each member family to attend university or vocational school. It even once paid for a member's child to attend law school. Getting into the co-op, though, requires a father to die, and only then can one son, not a daughter, take his place in the organization. Other than through a father's death, few newcomers are let into the group.
So for the 50 or more people in the village who are not members of the organization or in a co-op family, life can be very difficult, as there are few other ways to make money in Punta Abreojos. A few teachers are employed in town, several residents run tiny stores or restaurants, but for everybody else, there's little or no work. Angela Garcia, who grew up in the village and now is the local librarian, has seen most of her friends leave Punta Abreojos to find jobs. Ironically, the gray whales swim as much as 6,000 miles south from Alaska each year to have their babies in the waters near Punta Abreojos while the town's children are forced to leave in search of employment.
"There's no future here," says Garcia, who spent six months as a newspaper reporter in the Baja city of La Paz. "You finish high school and that's it. . . . As far as alternative work outside of the co-op, there's nothing." Garcia returned home because she loves the town and was willing to live with her parents and make little to no money. Although she has come back to stay, there are few people her age left in Punta Abreojos.
Garcia and several other people in the seaside hamlet supported the salt plant because they believed it would have had minimal impact on the ocean, whales and fishing resources, and would have brought enormous benefits to an area in desperate need of economic opportunities. The project, which would have created 200 well-paying jobs, was expected to generate $100 million a year in revenue -- 20 times as much as the co-op brings in each year. In Guerrero Negro -- two hours north of Punta Abreojos -- Mitsubishi has operated an existing salt plant for the past 50 years. There, workers made on average about $1,000 a month, which includes health insurance, vacation time, profit sharing, college subsidies and discounted groceries from a company store. Employees for the new plant would have come from Punta Abreojos and from nearby, extremely poor lagoon settlements. The Japanese company also promised to spend more than $1 million providing better services to the town, such as cheaper and more reliable water and electricity, along with paved roads.
Although the bulk of the project would have been 62,000 acres of ponds where sea water would sit until it evaporated and left only the salt, Punta Abreojos fishermen were concerned about their resources -- in part because of the company's environmental troubles at its existing salt plant a couple of hours north. A few years earlier, 300 batteries were discovered in the lagoon, and the federal government sanctioned the company. In 1997, 94 sea turtles washed up dead and Mitsubishi was blamed, although the company vehemently contested allegations it was responsible.
The Punta Abreojos plan involved a milelong pier jutting out into the ocean for loading harvested salt onto cargo ships, and the town's fishermen were concerned construction of the dock would have hurt their lucrative lobster beds. To assuage local concerns about the project's impact on the ocean, Mitsubishi agreed to make costly concessions like special electric seawater pumps rather than diesel ones to avoid spill risks and a giant conveyor belt to move the salt rather than noisy, polluting trucks. The company also agreed to move the lobster beds or re-create the breeding habitat anywhere the fishermen wanted. These project changes were made because, like NRDC and IFAW, Mitsubishi was also wooing the fishing co-op to its side.
To Mitsubishi's credit, the existing salt plant had had almost no impact on marine resources in its five decades of operation, according to a biologist with the country's El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve -- a naturally protected area that includes the body of water where the salt plant is located. Lobster, abalone and fishing stocks have all thrived for decades alongside the salt harvesting operation, says biologist Hector Toledo.
Despite that record, the fishermen of Punta Abreojos -- by far the largest and most powerful group in the town -- aligned themselves with the greens. Those without work in the small village appeared to have been left in the dust with no real employment opportunities in sight anywhere.
So when NRDC and IFAW pledged to help make up for the 200-plus jobs the salt plant would have provided, Garcia and others who do not work for the cooperative were relieved. The town literally was a dead end and, perhaps, these big environmental organizations that helped convince the co-op to oppose the project would come through with employment alternatives, Garcia thought. That's what they promised, and she believed them.
So did Armando Camacho, a mechanic and the father of two sons who must find work in other communities to support his family. Already, his older son has moved away to find a job, and now his younger child is considering what he'll do when he graduates high school. "They promised a lot of things," Camacho says of the two environmental organizations' pledges during the campaign against Mitsubishi.
In interviews with New Times and in NRDC promotional materials, Hershowitz says the two organizations solicited ideas from community members and generated project proposals from the bottom up -- from the very people the money is intended to help. "We're working with the communities to determine what components would be necessary to ensure a stable economic future," says Hershowitz, a 29-year-old who has a master's degree in neuroscience from Cal Tech. "Punta Abreojos has demonstrated a small community can maintain its way of life in a globalized economy, and we're helping them take it to the next level."
Community-generated planning is not the way the leaders of the fishing cooperative describe what's happened so far. They say Hershowitz and IFAW have dictated how the money will be spent and never solicited input from anyone. "They told us what the money is for," says Isidro Arce, a fishing cooperative member and spokesman. "We're a little shy here and didn't say anything about it. If someone gives you bread, you can't say no. If I have bread and you're hungry, you're not going to say no."
Another fisherman and co-op leader, Javier Villavicensio, is even less diplomatic about the donated money. "The groups are telling us what we have to use the money for and we don't like that. . . . Ari just came here and said, 'This is the way it's going to be.'"
The way it's going to be is this: About $40,000 of the money will be spent on a study to determine how best to expand the cooperative's small oyster farming operation into a full-scale oyster production facility. This is the cornerstone of the groups' efforts in Punta Abreojos. Another chunk of the money, still to be determined, will go to develop a plan for solar/wind-generated power for the oyster hatchery and related facilities. That plan, Hershowitz says, may also include green power for the town as well. And finally, the rest of the money will be spent paying for classroom construction and school supplies for nearby communities and for lobbying the federal government, which has, in the past, indicated it was willing to spend funds improving the infrastructure throughout the state of Baja California Sur.
"They've had an oyster facility for local consumption but didn't have the resources or technical capacity to expand it," Hershowitz says by phone from Washington, D.C. "We're funding the design of the facility and a market study to determine the economic potential of the project."
The study, recently completed, is brimming with optimism anticipating healthy harvests and numerous jobs. Because the shellfish harvest from the Pacific is declining and natural resources are being strained, NRDC and IFAW believe creating a sustainable fishery, such as oyster farming, is "a promising alternative" that has "the potential to employ 85 to 100 adults -- a significant portion of the working population of Punta Abreojos," according to NRDC's own proposal for the project. To build the hatchery, NRDC estimates another $200,000 to $500,000 is needed, which it will help the community obtain through grants, donations, loans and other funding sources. Once the design for the project is completed, Hershowitz says his organization will start applying for the money. He says there are international agencies that give money to environmentally sustainable projects such as this one, and NRDC will also petition the Mexican government for some funds, as it has pledged to financially assist the state.
As of yet, there is no money in place to construct the facility.
Nonetheless, oysters, NRDC and IFAW believe, hold the key to Punta Abreojos' environmentally sensitive and lucrative future. "With this hatchery, they could bring in enough income to lessen their impact on other species," Hershowitz says.
This fall, NRDC hired one of the fishing co-op members to spearhead the oyster project.
Those familiar with the shellfish business in Mexico aren't optimistic about Punta Abreojos' chances for shucking the oyster market open and sucking out profits. Because of overfishing problems throughout Mexico, lots of others in Baja California Sur have had the exact same idea; currently there are 10 new oyster hatcheries in the state, and the federal government has approved environmental impact studies for another 14 in the same area. So much competition is certain to hinder the economic viability of Punta Abreojos' oyster farm as well as the project's employment prospects.
"When you get too many people rushing into something, there can be too much product on the market," explains Bill Taylor, co-owner of the 110-year-old Taylor Shellfish in Shelton, Washington, one of the largest shellfish farming companies in the United States that grows oysters, clams and mussels. Taylor has been working with several Baja-based oyster farms and is selling oyster seed to Punta Abreojos. He even had his own oyster venture in Baja until this fall when prices began to plummet and a September hurricane destroyed his crop. So many obstacles convinced Taylor to shut the operation down.
Mexico's largest and most successful oyster hatchery -- Sol Azul -- lies just across the bay from Punta Abreojos on the other side of the lagoon, and even without the competition from the 14 new farms, it only employs a skeleton crew.
It isn't just the mass introduction of oyster hatcheries in the state of Baja California Sur that threatens the Punta Abreojos venture. The process for growing oysters is nearly as treacherous as trying to keep a sandcastle from being swallowed by the surf. Oysters are vulnerable each and every step of their growth. Once in their beds in the open ocean waters, animals feed on them, and every few years or so "summer mortality" hits and entire harvests can be decimated by mysterious bacteria and viruses that strike in June, July and August, says David G. Gordon, the author of a soon-to-be-released book, Heaven on the Half Shell: The Story of the Northwest's Love Affair With the Oyster.
"The diseases that hit oysters are very unpredictable," Gordon says. "Growing oysters is like farming. They've got it down to a science, but there's still a lot of uncertainty, and like any other form of farming, entire crops can be wiped out. There are really good years and bad years."
Sol Azul had its entire crop nearly killed off in 1998 by El Niño. But the business survived and is doing well, says Valentin Quintero, the company's marine biologist. However, the company only employs 15 people, and that's before the other growers have started harvesting their crops -- hardly the 85 to 100 people NRDC expects the Punta Abreojos oyster farm will be able to hire. And the fate of Sol Azul's employees -- along with those who might be employed in Punta Abreojos -- is uncertain once all of the 14 new oyster farms in Baja begin competing with the 10 existing operations.
Like the Punta Abreojos venture, Sol Azul is hoping to sell its oysters to the growing U.S. market. But because Mexico lost its Food and Drug Administration certification for oyster export in 1999 because of sanitary deficiencies, that option appears uncertain at best. (Even before the certification was rescinded, only one company in all of Mexico met U.S. standards for importing the mollusks.) To obtain the required certification, the FDA has asked Mexico's federal health and safety agency to ensure that each and every grower do 47 different things to meet the United States' import regulations. "The last conversation we had with them, they told us they were working to resolve the problems," the FDA source explains.
In Mexico, however, things are hardly moving forward. Oyster farmers don't know what it is they're supposed to be doing and have been unable to find out even the most basic information from the agency overseeing the certification process.
"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.
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."
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.
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."
The head of El Vizcaino Biosphere is equally disgruntled about the lack of follow-through by the environmentalists from NRDC and IFAW.
"I just haven't seen any," says director Victor Sánchez Sotomayor. "They say a lot of things, but they don't work here. They have public events to show they work here, but they don't. Never do they do it. Never. No penny from there ever comes here."
Money trickling down to Mexico may not be plentiful, but during the campaign against the Japanese conglomerate, it flowed. NRDC raised $7 million during the battle and bolstered its membership by another quarter-million people. Since 1996, those new members have handed over $20 million in annual dues. IFAW did not raise any additional funds during the campaign but spent heavily. Together, the two organizations paid $15.5 million to fight the salt plant proposal.
But the groups' efforts to aid the community that made the victory possible have not been so successful. They've earmarked $40,000 toward job creation in Punta Abreojos, and only one man, who was already employed, has found work. Critics are not surprised. They point out plans to create desperately needed employment opportunities left out input from residents themselves and involve little more than vague ideas generated in Washington, D.C. The oyster farm project does not have the needed funding to pay for its implementation, nor does the solar/wind energy proposal. As one Mexican economist explained, attempts to move from green rhetoric to real-paying jobs have not happened, and that failure underscores just how hard it is to do that in the Baja outback.
NRDC's Hershowitz insists his organization's commitment is long-term but qualifies it when pressed. "Are we going to have people on the ground there in three years? Probably not."
In part, that's because NRDC -- "America's most effective environmental action organization" -- is now on to new battles, like saving a remote area in Belize from a plan to build a hydroelectric dam. It's part of a new effort by NRDC, which the fight in Mexico inaugurated, called the BioGems campaign. The group, according to a newsletter from NRDC president John Adams, is now going to "mount new campaigns around the world on behalf of wildlife habitats that stand on the brink of destruction." Adams goes on to say that because of the victory in Mexico, NRDC has turned into "a powerful international force that now stands ready to protect embattled wildlife and wilderness around the planet."
Ironically, the real sustainable economic development appears to have been the salt plant itself. The existing salt plant north of Punta Abreojos has had no impact on marine resources, according to biologists who monitor the lagoon, and its several thousand acres of shallow evaporation ponds have become a sanctuary for dozens of migrating bird species.
The environmental groups who fought Mitsubishi made Punta Abreojos their very own lab experiment where ideas about sustainable green development were to be put to the test with real people in need. The organizations were able to beat back the corporate giant, but creating jobs has proved far more difficult. In the meantime, the list of all that is missing in Punta Abreojos -- young people, employment, a comfortable life for those not in the co-op -- grows longer.
Angela Garcia continues to spend her days with the children of her village, teaching them what wild things live in the estuary outside the town and why tossing garbage on the beach isn't a good idea. So far she has not figured out just what lessons there are for these kids in the story of their town, the salt plant, and the two American environmental groups.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.