The so-called ESCALERA NAUTICA (Nautical Ladder), a megalomaniacal project of FONATUR (National Fund to Increase Tourism), to turn the Peninsula of Baja California into a recreation center for boat owners from the United States, has just been the subject of an independent market research study by EDAW, a prestigious company that conducts economic analysis and environmental impact on tourism. The study (financed by the Packard Foundation) shows clearly that FONATUR has exaggerated, by 600%, the demand for marina spaces in Baja California and the Sea of Cortez. While this reputable study forecasts that by the year 2014, some ten thousand vessels may enter the region, FONATUR predicts the arrival of sixty-one thousand. The study also concludes that only fifty-five hundred berths will be needed by then, and not the twenty-six thousand five hundred estimated by FONATUR.
FONATUR’S first victim is Santa Rosalillita where, in order to get the rock to create a marina for fifty vessels, they dynamited the Cerro del Valle de San Andres, destroying half of this habitat for rare plants and damaging a wetland for migratory birds. Witnesses have informed me that explosives used in the project were left out in the open, with no security. FONATUR cannot guarantee that some of them have not been stolen, and are now in the hands of terrorists or local drug dealers.
Although SEMARNAT (Ministry for the Environment) and FONATUR promised not to go ahead with construction of a marina in Santa Rosalillita before an environmental impact statement (comprising the whole area included in the project) had been concluded and approved, they continued with this perverse and utterly senseless work. They are building the marina, situated on the coast of the Biosphere Reserve of the Valle de los Cirios, (Valley of the Boojum Trees) exactly in the place where the wave action is the most powerful, and the water the most shallow. The dredging, which has caused severe erosion on the beach of this little fishing town, does little good, because the sand comes back to fill the marina. It will have to be done annually, thereby adding to the cost of construction. The project is the laughingstock of fishermen, and illustrates FONATUR’S total ignorance of marina construction. It shows that it should not be allowed to build any permanent marina in open waters of the Sea of Cortez, or the Pacific Coast of Baja California.
FONATUR has gone ahead and paved four kilometers of the puente terrestre (land bridge) that it plans to build between Santa Rosalillita and Bahia de los Angeles, so that boats can be hauled from the Pacific to the Sea of Cortez. If they manage to construct this paved canal that passes through the Biosphere Reserve of the Valley of Los Cirios, it will mutilate the Peninsula with an utterly useless strip of asphalt. The project has been suspended, since it was undertaken without the environmental impact statement required by law. It cannot even claim a viability study, although the road crosses a desert with high winds for half of the year. This highway will never be used to transport larger boats whose owners are usually the biggest spenders in Mexico. At most it can serve for small craft with trailers whose owners consume nothing in the way of tourist services, of the kind that benefit the local population. They live in their campers or tents, and catch their own fish to complement the food they bring from the United States. The correct thing is to take apart what has been built, and cease destroying the Boojums, trees that are endemic, and exists nowhere else in the world.
On the Trans Peninsular Highway, starting shortly after Ensenada, every ten kilometers there is a sign announcing the distance to the ESCALERA NAUTICA (296 kilometers, 286 kilometers ecetera), until the hopeful traveler arrives at Kilometer Zero, a tourist site made and abandoned by FONATUR during the presidency of Echevarria. To get people to leave the tent, the circus empresario P.T. Barnum used to put up signs “This Way for the Departure”, and the crowds would converge towards that unknown phenomenon which was nothing but the exit. Like the signs that indicate the road to somewhere that doesn’t even exist, nor has the slightest possibility of meeting people’s expectations, so will be the ESCALERA NAUTICA in its present grotesque and inflated form: a road that leads to nowhere.
The Sea of Cortez, known as the aquarium of the world, is habitat for the gray whale, the whale-shark, the sea lion, five species of marine turtle, the vaquita (a tiny porpoise in danger of extinction), and more than 800 species of fish. The surrounding land is inhabited by 65 reptile species, 40 kinds of mammal, 134 land birds, 600 plant species and the famous Borrego Cimarron (Bighorn Sheep also in danger of extinction). The area within FONATUR’S boundless project affects 40% of the protected natural areas of Mexico, including four Biosphere Reserves and National Parks such as the Pinacate Desert, the Sierra of San Pedro Martir, Loreto and the Angel Island of la Guarda.
According to John McCarthy, Director General of FONATUR, the ESCALERA NAUTICA, which seeks to create a network of some 20 ports and marinas, at intervals of 120 nautical miles, and capture 5.3 million nautical tourists, is going to generate three billion dollars and create sixty thousand jobs by the year 2015, thereby benefiting the states of Baja California Sur, Baja California Norte, Sonora, Sinaloa and Nayarit. But this is not true. Market research results and the danger of irreversible environmental damage require rethinking and redrawing the scale and objectives of the ESCALERA NAUTICA before the fragile and unique ecosystems of Baja California and the Sea of Cortez are destroyed beyond repair, and the region is littered with abandoned development projects that are not viable, leaving a trail of white elephants everywhere. There is no reason to repeat the damages such as occurred at Santa Rosalillita, because clearly there is no market for marinas on the Pacific Coast of Baja California. Above all, it is imperative that SEMARNAT insist upon regional and local environmental impact statements and compliance with the law.
Energy and money should be put into places of proven tourist potential, such as Ensenada, Los Cabos, Loreto, La Paz, Mazatlan and Guayamas-Puerto San Carlos (in Sonora). It is time to forget about building permanent marinas on the Pacific Coast, and in sensitive areas like Bahia Kino and Bahia de los Angeles (renamed “Coronado” by FONATUR as a ruse to attract investors from the North and confuse environmentalists). In places like Bahia de Los Angeles, Punta San Carlos, Punta Abreojos, San Juanico and San Luis Gonzago they should employ floating marinas. These have almost no environmental impact, avoid the need for dredging or altering the coastline, and are less expensive. They are also easy to take out if they cannot be rented. Investors from the United States consider the project a joke as it now exists, and say Mexicans have no understanding of American market research. On the other hand, Serge Dedina, Director of Wildcoast, says: “it’s incongruous for FONATUR to resort to an obsolete nationalism to attack US environmental groups which have voiced their legitimate concerns about this project, when their entire thrust is directed towards tourists and investors from that country.”
Instead of a destructive ESCALERA NAUTICA there should be an ESCALERA ECOLOGICA, that would promote low impact ecotourism and sustainable sport fishing. This is a larger greater market than that of millionaire yacht owners. Or is it that the investments of officials and their partners have moved along too far to reduce a juicy business deal that will defraud the Mexican people in the region, and destroy one of the most beautiful places on the planet that, fortunately, happens to be in Mexico?