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Our Q&A this weekend is with Exequiel Ezcurra, the provost of the San Diego Natural History Museum. I talked at length with him about a new water exhibit opening at the museum this weekend, and the Q&A will be published later this evening.
In the mid-1990s, Ezcurra served on the International Scientific Advisory Board set up by the Mexican government to evaluate the environmental impact of a proposed large-scale salt-evaporating facility at Laguna San Ignacio in Baja California Sur. The project was hugely controversial and drew attention from around the world, before ultimately being killed by Mexico President Ernesto Zedillo. I had hoped to talk to him earlier this year when I was reporting my stories about the lagoon, which serves as shelter for the gray whales that swim by San Diego’s shores each year. We didn’t connect then, but I raised the issue on Tuesday. Since our Q&A is focused on water, here’s what he had to say about the fight over the salt works.
There’s still, it seems, a bitterness among people there (in San Ignacio) that the world rallied around them for a few years and then disappeared.
That was really what I believed to have been a very bad move. I would even say mean, in the sense of egotistical, self-centered moves of some American NGOs. Personally, I thought the project should not have been done. But the NGOs opposing the project started using all sorts of foul arguments and did a lot of harm in the long term. That left behind this bitterness and this fundamental question: Does a good end justify any means?
I could never see any scientific evidence it would have done harm to the whales. The argument is a different one. It’s a World Heritage Site. Is it morally right to convert a World Heritage Site into an industrial site? And what happens if the demand for salt doesn’t keep climbing? These questions should have led any intelligent person to think twice about the project. Once the project was stopped, all the Hollywood stars just took off and never came back.
It was their biggest one-year drop in tourism.
Yeah. It was really bad for them. I know almost all of them as friends. It was a terrible time for them. It was big-time bad. That generated a lot of sensitivities against the environmental movement. They perceived environmental conservationists as money-grubbers, opportunists.
That sentiment was unilateral. They felt disenfranchised from the environmental community.
Yes. The people got very, very hurt. There were also casualties in the serious environmental movement. One of them, who I have the utmost respect for, is Paul Dayton from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Paul is probably the most cited marine biologist in the world. And Paul Dayton dared say that there was no evidence that the whales would suffer with the project. But because his (scientific) opinion contradicted the campaign of conservation NGOs, they actually lynched him. Paul Dayton since then has been a quiet character. He just doesn’t open his mouth. He was hit so hard and so unexpectedly, he never saw it coming. It was a media campaign in the worst sense of the word.
On also the Mexican government side, I thought it was stupid. The Mexican government hurt themselves in an incredible way. They bring in scientists from across the world to analyze the environmental impact statement. And at the end, the Mexican president says: I have visited the area … we have decided to cancel the project. (But) the president isn’t allowed to make an evaluation of an environmental impact statement. That was terrible. It violated the whole process. Why would you establish a process, have public hearings, establish an international committee — if at the end, you’re going to say: We don’t want it. The casualties were in place. The battlefield was red with blood.
It sent out the discretionary message that at the end of the day, the Mexican president is the one who makes the decisions, there’s no process in place for making decisions of this magnitude. Ten years later, those scars are still in place.