Owners to limit growth at oasis

Baja deal would mark an unusual alliance

It is one of Mexico’s most remote regions, a vast landscape of water and earth where migratory birds feed, mangroves thrive and gray whales migrate to breed and bear their young. For years, conservation groups from both sides of the border have fought to preserve the Laguna San Ignacio and its surroundings.

For the first time, local residents also are having a say about this sparsely settled and biologically wealthy stretch of the Baja California peninsula.

Next week, leaders of the 43-member communal landholding group Ejido Luis Echeverría are expected to limit development on more than four-fifths of their property – almost 120,000 acres along the lagoon.

The legally binding arrangement, scheduled to be signed Tuesday in Tijuana, marks an unusual marriage of U.S. and Mexican conservationists with local landholders in a region where jobs are few and development pressures have been growing. With scarce Mexican government resources for conservation, the Baja California peninsula has become a key testing ground for such private efforts.

The agreement involves the largest piece of property to be placed in a private land trust in Mexico since the concept became legally feasible in 1996. It is one of very few such arrangements involving an ejido, a form of communal landholding created under Mexico’s 1917 Constitution to distribute property among landless Mexicans.

“Everyone in Baja California Sur is thinking about selling their land, but we’re going to show that you don’t necessarily have to sell,” said Raúl López Góngora, president of Ejido Luis Echeverría, whose members subsist through fishing and ecotourism. “Maybe we can set a precedent for conservation in the region.”

In exchange for limiting development, Ejido Luis Echeverría will receive $25,000 a year in perpetuity from a trust fund established through the San Diego-based International Community Foundation. Staff from Pronatura, Mexico’s oldest and largest conservation group, will monitor how the money is spent, ensuring that it is used for environmentally sustainable development projects. In a separate agreement expected later this year, members also would split a one-time payment of $545,000 to preserve the remaining 20,000 acres they hold as individual parcels. Close to 80 percent of the Baja California peninsula is in the hands of ejidos, and conserving coastal lands depends on securing their cooperation. For decades, ejido  property could be neither bought nor sold. But changes in the 1990s allowed for the privatization and sale of the communal property. Land rich but cash poor, growing numbers of ejido  members are opting to sell their parcels, and the buyers are often developers and land speculators.

Laguna San Ignacio has been a case in point. The region first became a rallying point for environmental groups from both sides of the border in the mid-1990s when salt evaporation ponds were proposed for the shores of the lagoon. Conservationists feared this would greatly damage the ecosystem.

“It is one of the great wildlife experiences anywhere in the northern hemisphere to go to this lagoon and interact with the whales at close range,” said Joel Reynolds, director of the mammal protection program of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The New York-based group played an active role in opposing the salt project, and has raised $1.5 million for the creation of the conservation easement, or private trust, with Ejido Luis Echeverría.

Although private easements are common conservation tools in the United States and other parts of the world, they are a relatively recent phenomenon in Mexico. Farther north on the Baja California peninsula, Pronatura has negotiated easements protecting 2,500 acres along the Gulf of California near Bahia de los Angeles, but these involve far smaller pieces of property, all of them individually held ejido  parcels that did not involve negotiation with the entire land-holding group.

Given the growing development pressures along the Baja California peninsula, “I don’t think we could save these areas” without such agreements, said Miguel Àngel Vargas of Pronatura. “What we’re doing is taking preventive measures.”

The Ejido Luis Echeverría is now part of a binational coalition called the Laguna San Ignacio Conservation Alliance. The group is hoping that five other ejidos  could be persuaded to sign similar agreements, and that eventually 1 million acres would be protected in private trusts.

“The idea is that the community itself decides, ‘This is what we want for the future, and this is how we can best use our resources,’ ” said Vargas, who is in charge of private conservation programs in northwest Mexico for Pronatura. “We’re hoping for a domino effect.”

The agreement will be registered with Mexico’s National Agrarian Registry, which keeps track of ejido  lands; but otherwise, there is no direct government involvement. If the property is sold, the restrictions would still apply, say Pronatura attorneys. If the ejido fails to live up to its commitment, the money could stop coming and the group would face civil legal action.

Persuading the remaining ejidos  to follow the same course could be a struggle and require more than $8 million. “In ejidos  that don’t have vision for the future, that don’t see opportunities, the only option they see is selling their land,” López said.

Serge Dedina, director of the Imperial Beach-based conservation group Wildcoast, has spent years studying the whales at Laguna San Ignacio and worked closely with the members of Ejido Luis Echeverría.

“They are some of the most ardent conservationists of Mexico,” said Dedina, whose group worked to bring together the members of the Conservation Alliance. “We’re empowering local people to become stewards of their own land.”

Although a broad range of wildlife thrives in the region, the gray whale has been the central focus of past conservation campaigns. The mammals can measure more than 40 feet and weigh more than 40 tons, traveling more than 6,000 miles every year between their feeding grounds in the Arctic Ocean to three warm-water lagoons on the Baja California coast, of which Laguna San Ignacio is the smallest and least disturbed.

Efforts to protect Laguna San Ignacio began in the 1970s, when the Mexican government declared the lagoon a wildlife refuge. In 1988, the government established the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, a 6.2-million acre expanse three times the size of Yellowstone National Park, along a heavily traveled route for migratory birds. The reserve, which includes the lagoon and its shores, establishes strict protections for certain core areas, but the rules do not prevent development in the “buffer zones.”

The designation did not stop the Mitsubishi Corp. in partnership with the Mexican government from proposing the salt manufacturing plant on the shores of San Ignacio in the mid-1990s.

Although the Baja California Sur government supported the project, saying it would created much-needed jobs in the region, the proposal generated widespread opposition from conservation groups who waged a lengthy and costly campaign against it. Then-President Ernesto Zedillo canceled the project in March 2000.

In 2003, the lagoon and another gray whale breeding site, Laguna Ojo de Liebre, were designated United Nations World Heritage sites.

Members of Ejido Luis Echeverría, who staunchly opposed the salt project, say their greatest concern was maintaining their fishing grounds, but since the campaign to defeat the salt plant, their whale watching business has picked up considerably.

Now, with the new revenue, ejido  members are planning to expand their economic activities with small-scale projects such as oyster farms and chicken farms, and training women in crafts projects.

Jorge Urban, head of marine mammal research at the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur in La Paz, applauds the arrangement.

“It worries me when there’s talk about conservation and protecting the whales and the people who live in the area are not taken into account,” Urban said. “This seems excellent, because . . . you’re benefiting the local communities.”

López, the ejido  president, hopes the easement would not only protect the region, but prove a point: “If we’re successful, we can show people that it’s possible to get ahead with your own efforts, without asking for help.”

• Sandra Dibble: (619) 293-1716; sandra.dibble@uniontrib.com