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The Unlikely Environmentalists 

International environmentalists claim they stopped a Mexican salt plant that endangered the gray whale. Actually, though, the Mexican government canceled the plant for reasons of its own.

Wednesday, Nov 28 2001

Page 5 of 6

Although the research by scientists overseen by Carabias contradicted Lichtinger -- the salt plant would have little, if any, impact upon any of the species within El Vizcaino -- environmental mitigation clearly came at a cost.

Steve Wechselblatt, a Mitsubishi International Corp. spokesman, says the cost of environmental mitigation measures was not the deciding factor leading to the project's cancellation. But according to Carabias, discussions leading up to the salt plant's demise had everything to do with whether the salt consortium could afford to make the necessary environmental modifications.

"The study showed the plant would create a dramatic change in the landscape, so we were working with the ESSA to reduce this impact; they could move some buildings 20 kilometers back, run their conveyer along the roadway, not allow it to run near the bay -- hide everything," Carabias says. "The question became, "Is it possible to do this?' And they worked on it, and worked on it and worked on it, then said, "Economically, it's not possible.' So they went back and drafted a different plan to reduce the visual impact. But whatever they did, it was going to completely change the landscape."

Jim Brumm, Mitsubishi International vice president, denies that the proposed plant was ever upside down financially.

"Yes, we made a lot of accommodations, including moving facilities out of sight. You would have to be a flying gray whale to have seen the salt plant," says Brumm. "But we always thought it was economically viable."

Neither Lichtinger nor Carabias ever saw any financial projections that suggested otherwise, says Brumm.

By early 2000, Carabias believed, as she had from the start, that in Mexico's greatest wildlife preserve, the government was about to be stuck with a turkey.

Waves of UNESCO research teams, government-appointed international EIR panels, mitigation studies, and counter-mitigation studies had greatly diminished the plant's image as an industrial development coup. Carabias' own panel of international experts had yet to submit its report. Members of the panel say they planned to recommend even more tough environmental measures.

By whale-watching season, the battle over the Laguna San Ignacio salt plant had been successfully turned into a puddle of gelatinous bureaucratic brine.

It was around this time that Carabias persuaded President Zedillo, his family, and a group of his friends to accompany her on a whale-watching excursion to Baja California. This was Zedillo's second visit to the bay, according to Raúl López, a guide with Ecoturismo Kuyima, the company that brought the Zedillo group out onto the bay.

"Not long after our boat made it out into the water, a friendly whale nestled up next to the boat where the president and his family were. You can imagine the excitement -- everyone was yelling things like, "Come here, little whale,' to "Give it a kiss! A kiss, a kiss, a kiss!' Everybody had their arms in the water, touching and caressing the whale. The president was in the boat's bow taking photographs. He was enjoying the moment, taking photos," says López as he further describes the beautiful, light-bathed scene:

A group of boats nods gently over the waves at Laguna San Ignacio, Carabias in one of them, President Ernesto Zedillo, the final heir of the modern era's longest political dynasty, in another. Zedillo's wife and children are in the boat with him, and a glistening, mottled gray whale nuzzles alongside. One of Zedillo's daughters leans over and kisses the whale. Passengers cheer. The president smiles; he takes photographs. His wife pets the whale. Zedillo snaps another photograph. A few feet away Carabias sits in her boat with her own children, smiling, serene.

Carabias, to the rumored chagrin of Trade Minister Herminio Blanco, had succeeded in inviting the president to see Laguna San Ignacio for himself. Zedillo and his family are enjoying a moment of bliss. Carabias, in her fashion, also seems pleased.

"She had her own way of enjoying the moment," says Kuyima's López. "She didn't put her hands in the water -- she was just watching. She seemed at peace."

Zedillo returned to Mexico City and promptly canceled the Laguna San Ignacio salt beds.

"I believe this was a factor in allowing him to begin to understand, to listen, to involve himself, to feel, and to live what this place is about, no?" Carabias later said. "It was a very personal moment, a very human moment."

It was a very fin del siglo moment: Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León did what Mexican presidents always did during the country's 20th century of perfect dictatorship -- he canceled plans to build a salt plant at Laguna San Ignacio because, well, he wished it so.

A year and a month later, Homero Aridjis stands awkwardly for a photo opportunity at the Metreon movie theater complex in San Francisco, flanked by a U.S. television star, a U.S. political scion, and hundreds of wealthy U.S. environmentalists.

The occasion is the National Resources Defense Council's Forces of Nature Awards Ceremony, a $200-per-head fund-raiser. Aridjis is being honored along with television star Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Kennedy scion Bobby Jr. for vanquishing a salt-manufacturing plant near the Mexican birthing grounds of the California gray whale. In the NRDC's script, these people have become protagonists in La Leyenda de Laguna San Ignacio. This fund-raising event is intended as the final chapter in the U.S. environmentalist version of the Mitsubishi/salt plant tale. Accordingly, there is a bit of surreal disjuncture between this event and reality as it is ordinarily experienced.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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