The Gulf of California Region is experiencing an investment boom in mega developments of intense interest
worldwide. The setting is a unique backdrop of fragile deserts, marine sanctuaries, coastal areas, and
islands recently designated as the components of a UNESCO World Heritage site. Efforts to protect the
biodiversity in this northwest Mexico habitat bordering on the United States give rise to pioneering
projects that offer prosperity to local communities. The challenges of handling the sometimes competing
growth and conservation demands in northwest Mexico are the subject of this investigative feature series.
It is sponsored by the Fondo Educación Ambiental, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation,
and the International Center for Journalists.
Throughout the Gulf of California Region, the multi-million-dollar infrastructure projects of state
and federal governments, together with the large private investments they support, make front-page news
and motivate presidential visits. Outstanding among the developers, the government’s National Tourism
Promotion Fund (Fonatur) is financing 27 pleasure-boat marinas to be operated by the Singlar Co. as part
of the Nautical Stairway, or Mar de Cortés mega project, which is designed to detonate spending
that will attract U.S. tourism.
Part of the project is the construction of the first coastal highway in the north of Sonora state,
running from the fishing village of El Golfo de Santa Clara to the resort town of Guaymas. Other new
roads and airports contribute to luring visitors across the border from the southwestern U.S. states
of California and Arizona, as well as to the immediate economic feasibility of building skyscrapers and
condominiums, such as Mayan Palace and Sandy Beach Resorts in Puerto Peñasco’s purview. Liberty
Cove realtors, based in Los Angeles, propose a tourist residential development three times the size of
Manhattan on Sonora’s shore.
Meanwhile Sempra Energy and Shell Oil Co. are moving forward with their Costa Azul liquid natural
gas terminal in Ensenada. Proposals for more such plants unfold in Puerto Libertad and other spots around
the region. In the desert adjacent to the gulf, toxic industrial waste confinement sites have received
federal licenses to operate. Bahia Kino is the point of entry for a series of saltwater farms conceived
to raise seafood and crops on 100,000 or more ocean inundated hectares spanning the states of Sonora
and Sinaloa. Soon to come is the expansion of industrial port facilities serving the dynamic free trade
with Asia, such as those announced by the Communications and Transport Secretariat that would convert
the until now peaceful Punta Colonet in one of the Pacific Coast’s biggest commercial exchange centers.
For its part, the Bahia Balandra project would claim the popular beaches of La Paz as an exclusive
attraction for high-class travelers. While that goes on there, Loreto Bay Co. is creating a tourist destination
on 3,200 hectares advertised as the first sustainable community on the Baja California Peninsula. The
mega projects have produced inconformity and organized protests but scant indication that the clamor
in the streets is heard in the offices where the decisions are made.
Equally or more important are other processes that don’t draw as much publicity yet constitute innovations
fostering environmental appreciation, citizen involvement, and revenue sources. Most of them are modest,
nonetheless replicable, models for brushing up the economy and preventing migration. By holding traditional
dances and crafts fairs in the non-profit Ruta de Sonora travel agency’s ecotourism campaign,
the Cucapah Indians attract substitute business for their lost fishing resources. The Conca’ac (Seri)
Indians share their spiritual values to inspire the tortugueros groups, which promote income alternatives
protecting endangered sea turtles from the black market that threatens extinction of the species. Among
the Yoreme (Yaquis and Mayos), women in the Cobanaras organization train health promoters to teach life-saving
defenses against pesticides used in agribusiness. Families in the Hardy-Colorado River Users Ecological
Association are rebuilding abandoned hunting camps to serve as bases for guiding bird watchers. The Ejido Luis
Encinas Johnson is setting up tourist facilities at Ciénega de Santa Clara, the Sonoran Desert’s
most important wetlands. Lazos del Mar offers a mutual self-help fund for women of the Upper
Gulf of California who join to borrow money for startup enterprises in order to relieve pressure on fisheries
in a protected area. The Puerto Peñasco Divers Cooperative Society won the National Conservation
Prize for renewing depleted shellfish beds to nurture continued production. Meanwhile nine Baja California
Peninsula cooperatives became the first business in the developing world to obtain certification for
sustainable community fishing.
The Ejido Luís Echeverría Álvarez, on the edge of San Ignacio Lagoon,
has a vanguard agreement that protects 50,000 hectares for whale watching and other tourism. Likewise,
other ejido members have convinced the National Anthropology and History Institute to channel
them the fees visitors pay for guided tours to the petroglyphs on their land in the state of Baja California
Sur. In the gulf village of Bahía de los Ángeles, ejido members are formulating
a management plan that will protect their fishing and small-scale tourism interests in light of the creation
of a new national park nearby. In another protected area, the Pinacate and Gran Desierto del Altar Biosphere
Reserve, governments, corporations, institutes, and non-profit groups are collaborating to consolidate
a visitors’ center. At the other extreme of the gulf region, the civic organization Loreto 2025 is presenting
studies of a magnitude never before seen, in order to support decision-making about urban growth.
Northwestern Mexico has very uneven growth. The glowing accounts of five-star undertakings publicized
in foreign real estate forums contrast embarrassingly with daily reality. In many places, running water,
sewerage, electricity, telephone, and internet are not available. Except in the better-off neighborhoods
of Baja California state’s border cities and a limited number of coastal resorts, such as Puerto Peñasco,
Los Cabos, and Mazatlan, the luxuries advertised abroad are nowhere to be seen. Whether new infrastructure
is to be channeled to the investor or local market, whether extravagance or preservation is to be the
guiding principle of development, residents and visitors alike are at a place in time where they can
seize the opportunity to mold the destiny of this frontier to their liking.
The Hoover Dam near Las Vegas, Nevada, was the largest in the world when it was built in 1936. It
set Lake Mead like a gem in a golden string of desert peaks along the 1,625 miles (2,300 kms) of the
Colorado River, stretching from the Rocky Mountains in the United States to the Gulf of California in
Mexico. Some 30 years later, Glen Canyon Dam formed Lake Powell. In the time and space between, other
reservoirs came to stud the arid watershed chain. The U.S. government linked them in a dazzling network
to irrigate and power 20th Century western expansion. However, the jewels of growth in the United States
carried a high cost for Mexico. The life they sustained north of the border was sucked from south of
Some 200,000 people in the 1,127 communities of the Colorado River’s Mexican drainage who were deprived
of water resources have mounted desperate campaigns to save what still trickles down to them, obtain
more, and restore habitats. They are engaged in an uphill battle but their efforts are starting to show
results. Residents have been conducting scientific monitoring for 25 years. They have nurtured wetlands,
like the Cienega de Santa Clara, which is now the largest and most important marsh on the Lower Colorado
and in the Sonoran Desert. They are planting endangered mesquite trees and experimenting with a new water
permit scheme. They are fixing up old hunting camps to accommodate bird watchers. They have converted
the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve into a center of repopulation
for unique and threatened wildlife, while using the conservation principles of the federal Protected
Natural Area (PNA) system as a motor for sustainable development. Inside the reserve, in the village
of El Golfo de Santa Clara, they have founded a savings and loan association for women, oriented toward
protecting commercial fishing. Now they want to secure a minimum flow of Colorado River water for agriculture
and other activities. They are joining together to prevent outside investment interests from unleashing
development that detracts from their natural surroundings.
In Punta Abreojos, Baja California Sur, as in the rest of the world, fishing is in danger.
Fisheries find themselves in a supply-and-demand crisis. More than 75% of them have exceeded capacity
or are at maximum capacity, according the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. It seems as if the fishing
industry is figuratively trapped in its own net. It must satisfy the needs of the market and assure its
own survival at the same time as resources are being exponentially depleted.
Solutions will depend on bringing the prevailing chaos to order. The challenges demand a mix of formulas
that range from respecting traditional use areas to enforcing unprecedented bans, from retiring parts
of an old fleet to utilizing new technologies, from removing subsidies to offering credits. Diversification
of income sources is needed everywhere, from Natural Protected Areas to aquaculture farms, from cooperatives
to joint federal-community projects. In all of this, training and environmental education are crucial.
The lobster cooperatives of the Pacific Coast, including the one in Punta Abreojos, were certified as
the first sustainable community fishery in the developing world. They have reversed the trend toward
seafood depletion in their waters, setting an example in the region and beyond.
Agriculture and aquaculture are important activities in the Gulf of California region, not only for
their economic contribution, but also for their environmental consequences. Their main impact is on water.
Overuse and abuse cause uncalculated damage to public health. Shrimp farming and crop harvesting produce
income. But with it comes the cost of aquifer, stream, and sea water contamination from fertilizers,
pesticides, and wastes. What’s more, these industries entail large-scale land use changes. Against this
backdrop, surprising technological breakthroughs give rise to many development uncertainties. In finding
a happy medium, public participation in decisions is paramount. Currents of thought are just now converging
about ways to take advantage of recent generations’ progress toward more environmentally friendly resource
Development proposals sneak up on remote and unsuspecting towns in the Gulf of California region,
such as Bahia Kino, Santa Rosalillita, Bahia de los Angeles, El Golfo de Santa Clara, Puerto Libertad,
and Punta Colonet. Many of the residents have no basic services, such as water, drainage, light, and
roads. Meanwhile, government representatives offer these facilities to infrastructure mega project companies,
which pass along to their investors the profits obtained through the subsidies.
The public’s share in the process and the wealth generated is what creates the difference between
the success of community projects and the failure of mega projects, no matter how technologically attractive
they may be, according to civic groups and non-profits working to involve residents in developing income
sources that assure conservation of large chunks of habitat. These groups also are helping build citizens’
capacity to use democratic participation mechanisms, such as hearings on environmental impact statements
and requests to the Federal Public Information Access Institute.
In building the framework for a style of growth that is socially acceptable, politically viable, and
respectful of natural resources, numerous efforts converge and diverge. Guaranteeing rational use and
conservation for future generations involves representatives of federal, state, and municipal government,
domestic and foreign investors, academics, and members of organized civil society.
Contrasting sharply with the government’s Nautical Stair Steps mega project, a landmark conservation
easement agreement brokered by the groups in the San Ignacio Lagoon Conservation Alliance preserves 45,000
hectares for biodiversity, pointing the way for low-impact, sustainable tourism that involves local self-determination,
with benefits for future generations of the community and visitors alike.
Decisions on the growth of Mexican cities have, until now, been left to private investors and land
speculators, backed to the hilt by the federal, state, and municipal governments. Only in recent years
have the opinions of the local population and academic researchers been taken into account in urban development
plans, which often are dead letter or are overtaken by events on the ground. The concept of city has
traditionally been assumed to be synonymous with progress, with new and better job opportunities, and
therefore with economic well-being and a "modern" lifestyle. In addition, voices questioning
urban sprawl have usually been accused of being enemies of progress and change, derided as being enamored
of the status quo, and demonized before the public, all while the cities are circled by shantytowns and
plagued by growing unemployment, the spread of the informal sector, and inadequate medical, educational,
and recreational services.
Things are turning out differently in Loreto, Baja California Sur, even as the government’s National
Tourism Promotion Fund (Fonatur) plans to convert it into a large international-class tourist attraction
by building hotels, condominiums, marinas, and villas, mainly for U.S. and Canadian tourists. This could
lead to a tenfold increase in the town’s population by 2025. Fonatur’s plans were backed by the municipal
government through its proposed "Subregional Urban Development Program for the Loreto-Nopoló-Notrí-Puerto
Escondido-Ligüi-Ensenada Blanca region." But the program has been met by a united response
from loretanos, academics, services providers, and social organizations seeking options. After
numerous meetings, including at the regional level and with outside participants, most notably from Harvard
University, these stakeholders drafted an alternative growth plan and a series of proposals that are
currently being analyzed by the city council. They oppose following in the footsteps of San José del
Cabo and Cabo San Lucas, better known as Los Cabos, once quiet fishing villages whose physiognomy and
customs have changed at a dizzying pace due to unplanned development. Instead, the denizens of Loreto
support measured growth, capped at a rate and level that can be sustained by the desert’s limited water
Gulf of California Environmental Series (Spanish and
Balancing Economic Development with Environmental Protection
Join Forces to Save the Colorado River Delta
Fishing Families’ Sense of Place: Promise of Prosperous Future
Loreto Sees the Limits of Growth: Slow and Steady Wins the Race
Miguel Ángel Torres
Salsipuedes: Challenges for Ecotourism in Mexico’s Baja California
Miguel Ángel Torres and Micheline Cariño
Big Projects Surprise Small Communities
A Future Compromised: Agriculture and Aquaculture Compete for Water
This series can also be found in Spanish at Cómo
lograr el desarrollo sustentable.