Snakes and Ladders

(a board game known in the U.S. as “Chutes and Ladders”)

How was the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States remembered? In New York, at “Ground Zero”, a reading was held of the names of the dead (several of them Mexican). In Berlin, the German Chancellor led official ceremonies, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was played. Prince Charles and his elder son were among the crowd of Londoners who attended a service in Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The Pope spoke in Rome.

That day, upon concluding a speech inaugurating a jetty for cruise ships in Ensenada, Vicente Fox sent a message to George Bush. Then, together with the Governor of Baja California and John McCarthy, Director General of FONATUR (Fondo Nacional de Fomento al Turismo), he paid a visit to Santa Rosalillito, where the bay is being dredged. A warship was visible at the bottom, symbolic perhaps of the frontal assault on the ecosystems of Baja California and the Sea of Cortes being carried out by the present government in the name of the ‘Escalera Nautica’; declared in 2001 as the principal tourist project for this six year term. The ‘Escalera Nautica’ seeks to open the Sea of Cortes to the ocean-going tourist market of the United States. It aims to provide a network of 22 ports and marinas, in places such as Bahia de Los Angeles, Santa Rosalillita, Punta Abreojos, San Juanico, and Cabo Colnet; thereby to receive 61 thousand private vessels by the year 2014, and to attract 5.3 million ocean-going tourists. Among the plans is construction of four customs and immigration posts for boats with trailers, 20 airports and aerodromes, and a land bridge of 134 kilometers to connect Santa Rosalillita, on the Pacific coast with Bahia de Los Angeles, on the Sea of Cortes. The construction of this disastrous asphalt “bridge” – within the Valle de los Cirios (Valley of the Boojum Trees), is proceeding, along with real estate speculation in areas “privileged” by the ‘Escalera Nautica’. The businesses, which should include hotels, time-shares, golf courses and even casinos, will be handled by franchises. To carry out this ominous project, the Ministry of Finance (Secretaria de Hacienda)has awarded FONATUR a budget of two billion 211 million pesos for the period 2001 – 2006.

Francisco Rodriguez, a Mexican journalist, has published a series of articles describing the connections of John McCarthy with Aeroplazas de Mexico, S.A. de C.V., which, according to Rodriguez – “last December obtained the concession for the tourist corridor, Loreto – Puerto Escondido in Baja California Sur, as part of the ‘Escalera Nautica’ project”. McCarthy was a director of Aeroplazas, “owners of planes that FONATUR officials are required to use for charter flights.” A few years ago, Aeroplazas was taken over by Advent International, a transnational company that provides investment funds, and (again, according to Rodriguez) “relies upon a jet that is paid for by FONATUR to carry investors interested in the ‘Escalera Nautica’ project.” McCarthy resigned from his position in Aeroplazas on May 29, 2000, five weeks before Vicente Fox’s victory in the Presidential election.

These articles proved of interest to the employees of FONATUR. Some read them on the Internet and e-mailed them to colleagues. One employee wrote: “for that ‘crime’ they were forced to sign a prepared resignation statement, and, through threats, intimidation and harassment, such as being shut in a cubicle, to put their signatures on other documents with which the institution covered its back. FONATUR investigated those who had used the central server that registers not only all incoming and outgoing mail, but also all Internet sites visited.” The excuse of the authorities was that the passing on of “slanders” about the agency was “a betrayal of confidence”. Up until now 14 employees have been dismissed for their “disloyalty”.

No environmental impact statement yet exists for the mega –project, but construction has begun in various places, sometimes under the pretext that there is no connection to the ‘Escalera Nautica”, while SEMARNAT complies by looking the other way. FONATUR has not specified the exact sites where it intends to build the marinas, thereby making it impossible to evaluate the impact of jetties, marinas and breakwaters upon patterns of currents and sediment deposits. Construction in the harbor of Santa Rosillita has already caused damage.

Another crucial aspect of the project that FONATUR has not taken into account is the effect of boat traffic on marine fauna, including the risk of collisions with whales. The Sea of Cortes, referred to by Cousteau as “the aquarium of the world” – is regarded by rapacious fishermen and tourist businesses as their own booty to plunder – and the Pacific coast of Baja California is visited by large whales who are very sensitive to noise pollution. Some 42% of cetacean species in the world – whales, dolphins, and the threatened vaquitaporpoise – make use of the Sea of Cortes, to feed and to mate. There are the seals, tortoises, whale sharks and manta rays.

On September 25, some North American biologists on vacation in the Sea of Cortes found two dead whales beached on the island of San Jose. Some of them were marine mammal experts and knowledgeable about the effects of noise upon cetaceans. Upon examination they found the whales to be in good physical condition, with no apparent signs of trauma or disease. They knew that the research vessel R/V Maurice Ewing, from the National Science Foundation, which had left San Diego on September 17 bound for the Sea of Cortes, was doing acoustic research on ocean floor movement and the potential for earthquakes in the Californias. The method employed was to go downwards in a zig-zag pattern emitting high frequency sounds of more than 220 decibels. The investigation began on September 24 and was scheduled to end on November 4. The Center for Biological Diversity filed a suit against the organizations involved in the investigation, requesting an immediate suspension of the seismic studies, on the grounds that they violated major North American environmental laws. On October 28, a federal judge in the United States ordered a halt to the boat’s activities for violating these laws, and for disturbing marine life in the region. SEMARNAT quietly limited itself to putting out a bulletin about “geological studies in the Gulf of Cortes” (sic), stating that on June 20, permission was granted for the ship Maurice Ewing to carry out its research. If SEMARNAT, which has turned itself into a ministry of pollution, is protecting the Sea of Cortes like this from “investigations” that risk the life of cetaceans and break the environmental laws of the country, how can we expect them to take care of the threat from the ‘Escalera Nautica’?

If the reason that Zedillo gave for cancelling the saltworks’ project in the San Ignacio Lagoon was that it would cause changes in the landscape around the lagoon, how can the McCarthy – Fox duo justify a project that will alter and degrade forever the landscapes of a large part of the peninsula of Baja California and the Sea of Cortes, and destroy its fragile ecosystems? This project has no future. Nobody has shown that sufficient demand exists for these marinas. The owners of modest average-sized craft who visit the region, come in search of its coasts and pristine waters, not for marinas and golf courses. The natural vocation of Baja California is low impact tourism, not the transformation of the entire peninsula into a bankrupt and failed imitation of Los Cabos.

Mr. President, don’t let us play at stepping on the snake’s tail* with the most precious ecosystems in Mexico; rather let us climb the ladders of intelligent and honest conservation.

*reference to the board game ‘Snakes & Ladders’.