Can Mexico's Wild Baja California Endure New Marinas?

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Ruben Lara directs the regional office of Pronatura, the largest environmental organization in Mexico. "Typical Fonatur thinking," he says of Escalera Nautica, "very touristic, like Cancún." Mexico's former environment minister, Victor Lichtinger, insist that the goal is sustainable tourism. "We will allow development projects in our natural beauty spots," he states, "if and when the environment is unharmed."

Mexico's environmental ministry is about to make an official ruling on that. In late September or early October 2003, the ministry is to decide whether the ambitious project will carry on as originally planned or be downsized to minimize environmental impact. One issue, says Lara, is how the resorts will handle sewage and solid waste. "Even now, with a small population in some sites, we have big problems."

Alfonso Aguirre, the Ensenada oceanographer, agrees, pointing out that there are "very few examples worldwide of clean marina development. It's just very hard to do. Are Mexicans expected to become Swedish overnight? We don't have the culture, or the resources, yet."

Environmentalists find the scope of the project unnerving, but some welcome tourism—if it's the right kind.

"In principle there are endless possibilities for ecotourism," says Patricia Martinez, administrative director of a grassroots environmental group in Ensenada called Pro Esteros. "Local fishermen have been taking training programs in English and other skills they need to be science guides." The benefits of whale watching in San Ignacio Lagoon were a factor when Pro Esteros in 2000 helped to defeat a risky salt-works proposal there.

The victory protected the whales and coastline, "but the local people say, 'Protected from what? There's nothing here!'" notes Lara. "The schools are very poor; the roads unpaved; water and electricity uncertain. Some locals have become embittered against environmentalists. The people in these places have nothing."

For them, and for the legions of impoverished job-seekers who might come from afar, even wrongheaded development can be cause for enormous hope.

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