Thursday, April 21, 2005 | On a sunny, windswept day in October 1993, my wife Emily and I arrived in San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja California with our dog Chip and a 14-foot travel trailer to study gray whales for our doctoral research at the University of Texas at Austin. The lagoon is famous for friendly gray whales that are known for seeking out hugs and kisses from tourists.

During the months we lived at the lagoon, we came to know a group of fishermen-turned whale-watching guides attempting to build a future in which local livelihoods depend on preserving local wildlife.

That group eventually formed a groundbreaking ecotourism company, Kuyimá, and led a successful effort to prevent the Mitsubishi Corp. from destroying the lagoon. Mitsubishi proposed building a 500,000-acre industrial salt harvesting project on the edge of the world’s last undeveloped gray whale lagoon. After taking his children to San Ignacio Lagoon to pet gray whales, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo cancelled the project in 2000. Zedillo experienced the wonder of San Ignacio Lagoon and the whales that live there accompanied by guides from Kuyimá.

I have always been haunted by the fact that the world came close to losing a unique natural treasure because the Mitsubishi Corp. could lease land from impoverished campesinos, even if that land is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Due to changes in the Mexican constitution, formerly off-limit land owned by ejidos, or communal land cooperatives, are now for sale. Seeing Mitsubishi in action gave me an idea: If large corporations could lease or purchase land from poor ejido members to develop it, why couldn’t conservationists?

So when the leaders of Kuyimá who are also members of the Ejido Luis Echeverria, a campesino association that owns a significant portion of San Ignacio Lagoon, asked for help in protecting their coastal lands from development in a way that would allow local people to make a living from ecotourism and sustainable fishing, I gladly accepted the offer.

Thanks to assistance from Pronatura, Mexico’s leading conservation organization, the Natural Resources Defense Council and San Diego’s International Community Foundation, we are on our way to protecting 120,000 acres of undeveloped lagoon coastline and watershed, as well as providing a sustainable future for the 44 members of the Ejido Luis Echeverria.

Under the Laguna San Ignacio Conservation Alliance, the interest earned from a trust fund managed by the International Community Foundation, will be reinvested back into the rural community of Laguna San Ignacio. In return, the Ejido Luis Echeverria will sign a conservation easement over all their communal use lands. This will ensure that in the future local people will not be under pressure to sell their lands to foreign corporations for shady, ill-conceived development projects.

Last month, residents of San Ignacio Lagoon informed us that speculators were offering to purchase lagoon lands from ejido members in order to develop a future industrial salt project there. Even though Mitsubishi has denied any interest in renewing the salt project, Leonel Cota, the new head of Mexico’s Revolutionary Democratic Party and the former governor of Baja California Sur is a strong proponent of industrializing the lagoon. Cota is an ally of future presidential candidate Manuel Lopez Obrador, the current mayor of Mexico City. Homero Aridjis of Mexico’s Group of 100, an environmental organization, believes that if Obrador is elected president next year, he will immediately move to develop San Ignacio Lagoon. These development rumors have only fueled our effort to preserve the lagoon and the way of life of local residents before it is too late.

For those who work in the developing world, conservation is as much about social justice as it is about protecting wildlife. Unless the social needs of rural people are met first, there will never be that much wildlife around to preserve. In the conservation field, we have to be as entrepreneurial as our private sector competitors. Because unless we move quickly and strategically, we will wake up one day and find out that our coast has been transformed into an industrial park.

Serge Dedina is the executive director of Wildcoast and the author of “Saving the Gray Whale: People, Politics and Conservation in Baja California,” published by University of Arizona Press.

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