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The Unlikely Environmentalists

Banking northward past the hacked-apart forests of El Ajusco Peak before descending across the sewerless slums of Ciudad Nezahuacoyotl, airplane windows scroll across ecological smut: Xochiaca, a five-square-mile strip of garbage dumps; el Rio Texcoco and her sister streams, sewage conduits all; and monóxido de carbón, dióxido de nitrógeno, dióxido...
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Banking northward past the hacked-apart forests of El Ajusco Peak before descending across the sewerless slums of Ciudad Nezahuacoyotl, airplane windows scroll across ecological smut: Xochiaca, a five-square-mile strip of garbage dumps; el Rio Texcoco and her sister streams, sewage conduits all; and monóxido de carbón, dióxido de nitrógeno, dióxido sulfúrico, ozono, plomo, partículas suspendidas, and the rest of the ingredients of the brown, viscous stew that passes for air here in Mexico City.

This is Planet Earth's Petri dish. Scientists arrive from universities in the U.S., Japan, Canada and Germany and divine their own countries' environmental futures. Sociologists study how squatters destroy forests at the city's edge; chemists tease apart the smog; physiologists study how it damages lungs, capillaries, brains. Even the city's daily dose of dog feces -- all 353 tons of it -- has its scientists. They watch it dry, crumble, and become part of the air.

Mexico City's global omen isn't merely environmental. Of late, the city has been a political harbinger as well. It was, after all, the site of the 21st century's first democratic revolution: the victory last year of presidential candidate Vicente Fox. That victory -- and the resulting end of the 71-year rule of El PRI, the authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party -- made Mexico City a symbol for a new democratic global age.

As it happens, U.S. environmentalists have merged these two historical roles to form a third: By their lights, last year Mexico City also gave birth to a new epoch of ecological globalism, an era when green activism anywhere saves the planet everywhere. On March 2, 2000, at the Los Pinos Mexican presidential residence, President Ernesto Zedillo announced he would cancel a proposal to build the world's largest salt production complex on the edge of the San Ignacio Lagoon, a place American environmentalists claimed was the last undisturbed calving and nursing sanctuary for the gray whale.

Of all the environmental battles that have been joined -- over redwoods, owls, salmon, wolves -- none has more widespread resonance within environmental circles than the fight to Save the Whale. And for the world environmental movement, the fight over Laguna San Ignacio was the Battle of Midway, a fight that would dictate the terms of all that succeeded it. "We drew a line in the sand around this place," says Joel Reynolds, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We were going to do everything within our power to oppose the salt project."

Indeed, Zedillo's cancellation of the plant followed an unprecedented international campaign. A coalition of environmental groups led by the NRDC marshaled celebrities such as Pierce Brosnan and Robert Kennedy Jr. to attend protests; organized a worldwide boycott against the Mitsubishi Corporation, a subsidiary of which was developing the salt project; convinced the state of California, as well as the governments of San Francisco, Los Angeles and 44 other cities and towns, to come out against the project; and generated mountains of protest letters -- a million sent to Mitsubishi, 300,000 to the Mexican government.

For many environmentalists, the cancellation of the salt factory at Laguna San Ignacio was a realization of sentiments expressed at the first Earth Day 31 years ago: The Earth's flora, fauna and geography are a patrimony for all the world's peoples, and the struggle for environmental salvation is a global one. "It is the triumph," said John Adams, president of the NRDC, as quoted in a fund-raising letter, "of an empowered global citizenry."

But on close examination, these grandiose claims turn out to be myth. Notwithstanding scores of press releases, news stories and media-loop jetsam to the contrary, the NRDC had little or nothing to do with saving the gray whale at Laguna San Ignacio. If anything, the American-based group and its environmental allies in the United States endangered efforts by the Mexican environmental ministry to confront and eventually defeat Mitsubishi.

Interviews with former Mexican government officials and U.S. scientists, combined with review of a wide variety of documents from the Mexican government and elsewhere, show that the ecological victory at San Ignacio was a product of unique circumstances. First World environmentalists may believe in a form of Manifest Destiny -- a destiny that will be brought about by U.S.-style political-marketing techniques, exported to green the world -- but the cancellation of the salt plant at Laguna San Ignacio was a homegrown labor of conscience, the final act of the final autocrat of the modern world's longest-running authoritarian regime. It was the culmination of a years-long effort by a highly effective environmental technocrat -- Julia Carabias Lillo, Mexico's Minister of Environment. And it was part of the oeuvre of a single-minded poet-cum-political advocate named Homero Aridjis.

In the United States, nobody calls pundits, politicos, writers or scientists "intellectuals." But in Mexico, it is considered natural that great thinkers should fuel great political struggles. President Vicente Fox, for example, is a veteran of El Grupo San Angel, an ad hoc club of prominent writers and political figures who used to hold meetings at the home of Professor Jorge Castaneda, who is now Mexico's foreign minister. In a similar vein, Homero Aridjis, Latin America's leading environmentalist, is also an internationally renowned poet.

Visitors to Aridjis' house are greeted by a uniformed maid. The walls of his home are decorated with an eclectic selection of original art. Aridjis' wife, Betty Ferber, is a gentle erudite American who married him after a whirlwind romance in 1953. Through constant lobbying she has kept Mexico's environmental battles in the public eye. On this day in May she descends to the dining room alone and offers a cold drink, chatting and waiting for her husband to finish some work in his upstairs office. This exquisite prologue seems entirely appropriate; Homero Aridjis is an internationally prominent man.

Aridjis has taught at Columbia University, New York University and Indiana University. He has received two Guggenheim Fellowships and been Mexican ambassador to the Netherlands and Switzerland. He is the prize-winning author of 28 books of poetry and prose, work that has been translated into 12 languages. As Latin America's leading environmental activist, Aridjis has endured death threats and has been compelled to live under the constant assumption that he is being monitored.

His résumé suggests gravitas, but Aridjis -- a small, swarthy man whose dancing, sweeping, ever-moving hands play the lead in an effusive personality -- is nothing like the stereotype of the Serious Latin American Intellectual. His diplomatic persona is of the United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan variety -- understated, gregarious, spontaneous. Sipping a glass of iced hibiscus tea -- a popular homemade soft drink known as agua de jamaica -- Aridjis recounts how he used his negotiating skills to help usher the whales at Laguna San Ignacio into the consciousness of Mexico, and the world.

Aridjis learned about the Mitsubishi salt plant from two American graduate students, Serge Dedina and his wife, Emily Young, doing research on this desolate area of Baja California's Pacific Coast prior to 1995. They had a contract with the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission to investigate potential threats to the habitat of the gray whale. The couple soon discovered that Mexico's National Ecology Institute was about to give the green light to Exportadora de Sal (ESSA, a joint venture owned by Mitsubishi and the Mexican government) to develop 525,000 acres of El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve -- Latin America's largest protected natural area -- into a massive saltworks.

These protected acres would become drying ponds, pumping stations, conveyer belts, stockpiles, service roads and worker housing -- complete with a milelong pier for oceangoing freighters jutting into Bahia de Ballenas, directly in the path of whales heading for the lagoon. Machinery would pump 570 million gallons of seawater per day from the lagoon into ponds, where the water would evaporate, and salt would remain.

Environmentalists feared that the noise from salt-laden boats, toxic brine from salt-evaporation pools, and salt-loading piers jutting out into the whale's traditional thruways could potentially obstruct these mammals' ability to breed. Aridjis had already waged a battle to preserve the wintering area of the monarch butterfly in his home state of Michoacán. News from Laguna San Ignacio portended a similar fight.

"I immediately wanted to find out more information about the project, so I asked the Environmental Ministry for the environmental impact report on the project," says Aridjis. He was met with a type of stonewalling familiar to anyone who has ever sought information from the authoritarian PRI bureaucracy.

Finally, Aridjis found a friendly American source in the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission who had obtained a copy of the report. It was a flimsy piece of work, drafted as an apparent formality accompanying an industrial development the government considered a done deal. A month later, in February 1995, Aridjis published a column, titled "The Silence of the Whales," in the Mexico City daily Reforma, denouncing the environmental threats posed by the salt plant.

As it happened, the environmentalists had an early ace in the hole: Ernesto Zedillo had chosen a woman with considerable environmental expertise as his minister of natural resources; Julia Carabias had even taught a course on environmental impact assessments. Six days after Aridjis' Reforma column was published, Carabias used her office's environmental law enforcement powers to reject the report, saying the plant was "not compatible with the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve's conservation objectives."

It seemed that the battle of Laguna San Ignacio had ended after a single shot. Actually, the struggle would continue for another half-decade. Aridjis held press conferences. U.S. environmental groups published newspaper advertisements. So did Mitsubishi.

But this public posturing was background noise to the real battle over the salt plant, which was being waged within the president's cabinet. Although Carabias didn't buy Aridjis' claim that the plant would kill whales, she and her subordinates objected to the idea of building a major industrial facility in El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, perhaps Mexico's greatest natural protected area.

Rather than wage a battle of propaganda, Carabias unleashed a siege of experts.

She announced she would appoint an advisory committee of international marine experts to oversee the new environmental impact statement, going so far as to ask Aridjis and his wife for advice. "She put herself in front of the freight train of economics and politics," says Steven Swartz, a marine mammal biologist with the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service who was on the panel.

Former Mexican environment minister Julia Carabias Lillo, Maestra en Siencias, Profesora, Autor, is sitting in her office at la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico, producing wave after wave of words. They splash in masses of fine bubbles; they emanate as large, rolling swells. They crash and froth relentlessly in a way that, unlike the sea, is not terribly soothing.

Carabias, author of publications such as Integrated Resource Management; Toward a Policy of Sustainable Development; and Poverty and the Environment, is involved in an activity she knows very well: She's having trouble with the press. A proud, university-bred technocrat, she has honed a college professor's tone -- replete with condescension, pagelong sentences, and elliptical turns of phrase -- into an annoying personal trademark. This trying way with words has carved a public image that still frustrates her, even half a year out of office.

Perhaps most frustrating of all was her years-long role attempting to strike a balance among environmentalist, government and business interests in the dispute of the salt project at Laguna San Ignacio. She was vilified, at one time or another, as either a sellout to, or an enemy of, each faction. Now, less than a year after the battle's end, merely talking about the Laguna San Ignacio dispute evokes bitter memories; she can't seem to speak about the episode without expressing contempt.

Carabias comes from a lost tribe -- one nearly extinct in this era of professionally run democratic politics -- of technical specialists, highly placed in politics, who have no ear whatsoever for public relations.

"I think that during the past administration, when it came to public relations, we all fell short," Carabias says, by way of understatement.

Carabias became so disliked by Mexican essayists, journalists and political cartoonists that they took to calling her, in one way or another, physically unattractive. (She's actually nothing of the sort.) Carabias' academic work focused more on considering and blunting the pernicious effects of construction projects than banning development outright.

Following this instinct once in office, Carabias won outspoken loyalty from the economists, engineers and legal experts who worked under her. For her commitment to neutral scientific analysis of environmental issues, Carabias won the praise of academic researchers in both the United States and Mexico.

In fact, by the account of former government officials, U.S. scientists, Mexican news reports, and Mexican government and other documents, Carabias waged a half-decade campaign against Mitsubishi's plans at Laguna San Ignacio -- and she succeeded. Those same sources, meanwhile, make it clear that U.S. environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) had at most a minor, tangential role in the Mitsubishi project's demise, despite their claim to have "defeated" it with an international, multimillion-dollar public relations campaign. Indeed, the NRDC's aggressive campaign gave the proposed project a lease on life by fueling charges that U.S. activists were meddling in Mexican affairs.

And yet, among the hundreds of articles published about the Laguna San Ignacio project, almost all the coverage focuses on the NRDC. A Lexis-Nexis and Internet search of news articles produces no stories describing the San Ignacio conflict from the Environmental Ministry's point of view.

Carabias considered the salt plant problematic from the time she first reviewed -- and rejected -- Mitsubishi's environmental impact statement in 1995, when she was head of the Mexican Environmental Institute. From then until the project's demise in March 2000, Carabias used her position in the president's cabinet to force Mitsubishi to agree to extraordinary, and expensive, environmental mitigation measures -- measures that endangered the plant's economic viability enough to make it a significantly less attractive proposition for Mitsubishi by the time it was canceled in 2000.

During some of this time, of course, the NRDC and its First World environmental allies were also campaigning against the salt facility. Far from being helpful, however, the campaign by U.S. environmental groups, Carabias says, exposed her to charges by nationalistic Mexicans that she was a traitor. Mexico has a long and deep history of mistrust of international political power, particularly the power exerted by the U.S. on its southern neighbor. How dare you sympathize with these U.S. extremists? the nationalists asked when Carabias moved to oppose the Mitsubishi operation. And when experts from UNESCO visited Laguna San Ignacio to study whether the salt plant would endanger the central Baja California region's status as a World Heritage Site, the Mexican media treated them as if they were foreign invaders. "We've noticed that there's a UNESCO mission in Mexico right now which traveled to Baja California to determine -- tell me if I have this right -- whether salt production in Baja California should be expanded," said popular radio host Guillermo Ortega during a talk show interview with Carabias. "A lot of people have been calling to ask why UNESCO has to come to our country to tell us whether or not, or how, we should conduct our own business here."

In the end, the NRDC campaign nearly ruined Carabias' efforts to persuade her boss to cancel the project.

"I'm extremely critical of the non-governmental organizations who flew the flag saying they were the ones who pressured the Mexican government into canceling the project. We absolutely reject that thesis," Carabias said. "Toward the end, I had a lot of problems in my discussions with the president because he was extremely irritated -- really, really irritated -- with the NRDC campaign. This was one of the things that nearly convinced him to go ahead with the salt plant, because of the way canceling the plant would read in the Mexican press."

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.

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.

"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!"

"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.

"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.

"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 siglo moment; 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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