Life Over Commerce.


Environmentalists win the fight in Mexico's Baja California Sur over a salt mine that would endanger the gray whale. Now comes the hard part.


Last March, a 5-year-old multinational environmental campaign helped to stop the construction of what would have been the world's largest salt plant. Destined for the shores of the San Ignacio Lagoon in the pristine desert of southern Baja California, the project was to be located within the borders of the largest nature preserve in Latin America, the Vizcaino Biosphere Preserve. Home to numerous endangered and threatened species, the preserve is a Unesco world heritage site, a designation given only to spots with "outstanding universal value."

"This shows that globalization has its positive side," says Homero Aridjis, a Mexican poet who started the campaign against the proposed plant in 1995. "It is a triumph of life over commerce.

Now that the battle has been won, there work to be done. More appropriate development schemes must be hatched to ensure the long-term peaceful coexistence of the preserve and local inhabitants. Additional measures will be necessary to ensure that tourists don't chase away the area's most prized residents--the gray whale--and to prevent poachers from threatening the other endangered species in the park.

The salt plant was a project of Exportadora de Sal (Essa), a joint venture between the Mexican government (51%) and Japan's Mitsubishi (49%). Essa already runs a giant 50-year-old salt facility on another whale-inhabited lagoon some 200 kilometers up the coast from San Ignacio. The new project would have entailed the construction of an enormous system of salt evaporation ponds and dikes covering some 116 square miles, as well as a mile-long loading pier. Devil fish. Environmentalists had the charisma of one of nature's perennial poster children on their side: the Pacific gray whale, which counts the San Ignacio Lagoon among its few remaining breeding and birthing grounds. In Baja, the baby 'friendly whales" will even glide up to boats to be petted, seemingly as curious about human visitors as visitors are about them. That's quite a switch from their 19th-century reputation as devil fish, an infamy stemming from fierce attacks on whaling ships in defense of their young.

Even though environmentalists quietly conceded the whale would probably be the creature least affected by the development, they spun a global "Save the Whale" campaign...

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