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BAJA IN DECLINE (Baja a la baja)

by HOMERO ARIDJIS

from REFORMA, Sunday, October 14, 2001

The darkish green waters of the Bahia de Los Angeles confirm the saying of Jacques Cousteau, that the Sea of Cortes is the aquarium of the world. Thousands of dolphins hunt sardines, seals reproduce in the islands where plants, animals and reptiles that only exist there are plentiful. Killer whales l2 meters long frequent the bay to feed on the plankton. As a place it is unique, but if President Vicente Fox and John McCarthy, the director of FONATUR (govt. Agency for Tourism Developement), have their way, all will be condemned to disappear to make way for a mega- tourist development with hotels, golf courses and a marina with room for 800 yachts.

This is only one of 24 "marine-tourist" projects of the "ESCALERA NAUTICA" for the Sea of Cortes and the Baja penninsula, whose cost is estimated at some 1.7 billion dollars. The National Park of the Bahia de Loreto. The Biosphere Reserve of the Upper Gulf of California, The Special Reserve of the Islands of the Gulf of California and El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, four natural areas protected for their richness and beauty, will be developed without consulting the specialists responsible for watching over some of the world's greatest treasures, and without consulting the fishermen who depend on those resources to feed their families.

During his visits to the US Fox proclaimed the commitment of his government to democracy, free trade and immigration reform. However, since the terrorist attacks in the US, immigration reform - the centerpiece of Fox,s developement policy - has become abandoned in the US congress. For Fox nothing remains except the Puebla Panama Plan and the ESCALERA NAUTICA', a classic example of an environmentally destructive project, financed by the government and based on erroneous economics. A promotional document produced by FONATUR uses data from 1997 - when the North American economy was in the ascendant - about the estimated increase in the yacht industry in order to show the tourist potential for the region. Now that both countries face a global recession, and both golf and yacht industries are in decline, there is little likelihood that FONATUR will meet its goals.

Baja California is a waste dump of failed government projects. In Loreto an abandoned marina of FONATUR bears witness to the lack of demand for new marinas in the region. Failed camping grounds are to be found all along the Transpenninsular Highway, testimony to the incapability of bureaucrats in Mexico City to carry out successful projects in the penninsula. Several places where there are to be marinas have strong winds, big waves and dense fog. The so-called "puente terrestre" (land bridge) to haul boats from Santa Rosalito to the Bahia de Los Angeles is condemned to failure.

The "Escalera Nautica" represents an attempt at land speculation financed by public funds, that will enrich a small number of officials and a select group of private investors, causing considerable damage to some of the most pristine natural areas of Mexico. The support of Fox's government for this mega- project is evidence of the continuation of "presidencialismo". For Baja California nothing has changed. Congress should begin an investigation into the recent purchases of land on the sites included in the ESCALERA NAUTICA.

It appears that the government learnt nothing from the campaign of the coalition of national and international organizations to prevent Mitsubishi and Exportadora de Sal from building a huge industrial salt plant in the San Ignacio Lagoon, where the gray whale is bornand gives birth. Little less than one year after Zedillo cancelled the project, Fox inaugurated the ESCALERA NAUTICA. On a map released by FONATUR one sees that a marina will be built in Punta Abreojos (on the migration path of the whales), in the same place where it was intended to build a two kilometer long jetty as part of the salt project. The marina will be inside the El Vizcaino Biospere Reserve, where there are places that form part of UNESCO's Patrimony of Humanity.

During a visit to the Bahia de Los Angeles in order to promote the ESCALERA NAUTICA, Victor Lichtinger, Secretary of Semarnat, John McCarthy, the governor of Baja California and Leticia Navarro, Minister of Tourism, made fun of the local fisherment who demonstrated publicly that the project will destroy local eco-tourism and the sport fishing industry, their main sources of income. Bahia de Los Angeles barely has enough water to supply its 800 residents. Where is the water going to come from for thousands of hotel rooms, golf courses and marinas in one the driest regions in the world? How is it possible that the Secretary of Semarnat, who should watch over the conservation of the environment, has made himself into a travel agent for the project?

The World Bank and other institutions have provided millions of dollars to the Mexican government in order to protect the same reserves that Fox and FONATUR want to develop. Let us hope that those institutions can convince Fox's government that to invest in eco-tourism, sustainable fishing and conservation of biodiversity will create more opportunities for local communities than squandering public funds on mega-tourist projects, that are relics from a corrupt past.

Baja California has become an easy target to satisfy the increasing demand for energy in California and in Mexico. Projects range from coal power plants to liquid natural gas terminals. Supplying liquid gas terminals means imports by ship from Indonesia, Australia and Chile, to be processed in Baja California. Sempra Energy of San Diego has acquired land between Santa Rosarito and Ensenada to build a liquid gas terminal, at a cost of 350 million dollars. Sempra is the company that sponsored the film "MARINE OASIS', whose narrator and advisor is Exequiel Ezcurra, the present president of the National Institute of Ecology, and as such, that authority whowill give the green light to the plant's Environmental Impact study. Curiously, MARINE OASIS makes no mention of the marine turtle populations in the Sea of Cortes, although it is among the most threatened fauna in Northeast Mexico and the threats to its existence will increase seriously with the construction of the ESCALERA NAUTICA and the gas terminals.

Another terminal for liquid gas is to be built in Baja California at about 30 kilometers south of the border , by a consortium of El Paso Corporation and Phillips Petroleum. The Minister for Energy, Ernesto Martens, said publicly that he sees in these terminals a response to the energy needs of the country, and that it will be possible to place at least two terminals in Baja California. This type of plant is extremely risky and is a project that, at the moment, does not exist on the American Pacific coast. For the companies, to build these plants in Baja California, and not in California, allows them to avoid a long process of permits, and the garanteed opposition of defenders of the environment in California. Although some of the fuel will be for national use, the rest will go to California to satisfy the demand of that state and to alleviate its present energy crisis. Repsol and Chevron are also studying the possibility of building terminals of liquid gas in Baja California. Apparently they have been given permits, but it appears that Sempra is in good position, since it belongs to consortiums that will build a plant in Mexicali to produce 600 megawatts and will make a 350 kilometer gas line to connect Baja California with the network of gas lines in the American Southwest. We would do better to invest in electricity through the renewable sources, like wind and solar, which are plentiful in Baja California.

Enviropower, of Kentucky, intends to build a coal power plant near Mexicali. The coal will come by train from the interior of Mexico and the United States and the cost of the project will reach 700 million dollars. Part of the energy generated will be for Mexican use, the larger part will go to the US. Only two coal power plants exist in Mexico, in Rio Escondido, Coahuila, near Texs.

Is this how Mexico is to become a power on the world scene, sacrificing its natural environment?


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