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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 4 of 6

Though Carabias and her inner circle of aides objected to the plant, they couldn't openly advocate against it. This was, after all, a government-sponsored project presumably supported by President Zedillo.

It's often said that Mexico is a country of magnificent laws that are inconsistently enforced. For Carabias, this reality -- and the fact that her boss had made "the rule of law" a buzzword of his presidential administration -- proved a potent asset. Carabias could insist that Mitsubishi strictly adhere to Mexican environmental law without exposing herself to charges that she was a meddler or an obstructionist. Hence her ability to reject the Mitsubishi environmental impact assessment in 1995.

Laguna San Ignacio is contained within El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, the largest environmental preserve in Latin America. Then-President Miguel de la Madrid set aside the reserve in 1988, designating some areas as "core zones," in which no commercial activity could take place, and the rest as "buffer zones," allowing some development. ESSA's proposed saltworks was within the buffer zone, which meant that, by law, the plant had to meet certain environmental requirements.

After Carabias rejected the initial environmental impact report, Mitsubishi hired the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur to conduct a new assessment. Environmentalists had reason to be suspicious of this move, given that Baja California's entire political structure supported the project. Carabias, for her part, took the unusual step of appointing an advisory committee of international marine experts.

"I was always impressed that she was trying to do the right thing," says Steve Reilly, a member of the committee and a marine biologist with the Southwest Fisheries Science Center. "This was an unprecedented situation for Mexico, to have that much outside scrutiny inside Mexico. She caught terrible flak for that sort of thing. The PRI power structure gave her a tremendously bad time. Things were made very difficult for her.

"But at every turn of the process, when our work plan was being agreed upon, we drew up explicit parameters, and she was fully supportive of all those things which we were requesting. She basically went to bat with the Mexican government so that we would be given a free and open hand."

As it turned out, the interplay between Carabias' committee and the salt plant consortium eventually made the plant economically problematic.

According to the team of experts, Mitsubishi's new Laguna San Ignacio plant would have to prove how it was going to provide fresh water to the desert town that would develop around the plant. Mitsubishi would have to show that it could safely handle the highly toxic brine produced during the evaporation process, and how it would make sure ships, the pier, and other industrial activities would not disturb the gray whale.

"We wrote a fairly long list of questions, things that should be addressed, and then the government and the salt company set a number of scientists to work on those questions. The result was this environmental impact study. To complete the process, they would have given us this study, we would have convened, and we would have written our recommendations," Reilly says.

In an unexpected twist, the other team of environmental experts visiting Laguna San Ignacio, the one from UNESCO, which had come at the urging of environmentalists, produced a surprisingly even-handed analysis of the salt plant's ecological impact. This defused potential charges that Carabias, who had hosted the UNESCO team, was cooperating with obstructionist foreign meddlers. The team took pains to point out that salt manufacture is not necessarily environmentally harmful.

"In general terms ... the production or cultivation of salt in wetlands and coastal lagoon systems constitutes one of the most well-integrated and best-adapted of all human activities that involve these environments," the report said. "The solar evaporation salt flats usually embrace an ecosystem of surprising wealth and beauty."

The report also found that the salt plant posed no threat to the whales or any other creatures in El Vizcaino Biosphere.

The UNESCO report muted the hyperbole coming from the two sides of the debate over the salt beds, Carabias recalls. Before, the only rhetoric heard was from foreign environmentalists crying, "Save the Whales!" and Baja California business boosters saying, "Save Our Jobs!"

"For us this was an extremely useful process," Carabias says. "And they raised an important issue: Why were we thinking in terms of planning for growth that consisted mostly of outsiders? I think the residents of Baja California were falling into the same trap of false polemicism. But really, how many jobs would this project provide for local Baja Californians? Probably no more than 30 or 40. The company was going to bring in at least 100 of its own employees."

Mitsubishi in interviews has said it would employ 216 workers.

While this is a significant number of jobs in the economy of San Ignacio, Punta Abreojos, La Bocana, San Hipólito, and numerous fishing villages like Cardón, the economic importance to Mexico and Baja California Sur was minimal. Though much was made of the fact that Baja California would become the world's greatest salt-producing region if the plant were built, the fact remained that this was, after all, a salt plant. Few commodities -- save perhaps gravel -- are cheaper; the price of salt hovers around $5 a ton.

Mexico had spent the 18 years since the 1982 world oil-price collapse attempting to wean itself from raw-materials/export-based industrial development. The salt plant would be a move in precisely the opposite direction.

And then there was the question of the plant's profit margin; the Mexican government was, after all, a socio in the plant, and expected a return. The environmental mitigation required by Carabias' international environmental impact assessment team had tightened the project's balance sheets considerably.

Victor Lichtinger, Mexico's current minister of environment, had been hired by the salt plant consortium as a consultant a few weeks before President Zedillo decided that the salt plant should be canceled. "In general, my view -- and all I saw was the project as it was presented -- was that the project was not viable," Lichtinger says. "There were many problems with the project itself. As it was presented, it was a project that might have an impact on the environment, not only on whales, but on other species that live in that part of Mexico, and they were not really proposing decisions that would have allowed them to continue with the project."

About The Author

Matt Smith


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