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The New Economy 

The road to Punta Abreojos is paved with hollow intentions

Wednesday, Nov 21 2001
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Without the fishermen of Punta Abreojos, they had nothing. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) wanted to wage a worldwide campaign against Mitsubishi's planned saltworks operation in the remote Mexican seaside village of Punta Abreojos. The American environmental groups claimed the project would harm the gray whales that calved in the waters near the village all winter long. They also alleged construction of the plant and its related facilities would be noisy and disruptive to the marine resources that much of the town depended on for income.

Any real challenge to the $120 million salt plant project, which was to be a joint venture between Mitsubishi and the Mexican government, was going to take global sophistication and big bucks. For NRDC and IFAW -- two leading U.S.-based environmental organizations -- this was a test of their power against megaconglomerates, and they built a multimillion-dollar war chest for the fight. They sent out 27 million pieces of mail for the campaign, initiated a worldwide boycott of Mitsubishi, lined up actors like Pierce Brosnan and Glenn Close to speak out about the project, and ran television and newspaper ads around the country. They got supporters to bombard Mitsubishi with more than 1 million protest postcards, used the Internet to link supporters around the world, and filed a barrage of lawsuits in Mexican courts. Organizers hoped the campaign would set up a new model to fight corporate greed and save wild places.

But to be really effective, they needed the locals on their side. They understood this and so did the fishermen. And so, the wooing began.

To court the fishing village that was losing its young adults because there were no jobs, NRDC and IFAW began making promises. In the dusty town of 1,200, representatives from the two environmental groups pledged a lucrative, corporate-free future for Punta Abreojos, which sits on a Pacific Ocean inlet west of Laguna San Ignacio three hours from the nearest paved road. "They promised jobs that wouldn't affect the environment -- alternatives to the salt plant," says Angela Garcia, a 25-year-old Punta Abreojos resident and the daughter of a fisherman. "They made promises of money and other things."

The two groups also let their fellow environmentalists who were bankrolling the campaign know this was not only a fight against Mitsubishi and the Mexican government but a battle to save a sleepy, peaceful town on the Pacific from reckless industrialism. In one fund-raising letter, NRDC's president, John Adams, wrote, "We will advocate an economic future built on protection of natural resources. ... NRDC will work with local groups to fashion a less-damaging alternative that will preserve the whales, the lagoon and jobs."

If a partnership could be forged, it would have big implications. American environmentalists had told residents of the dusty Mexican town there were better economic opportunities without the salt plant, and they would help them find that future. Success in Punta Abreojos would set up a model for communities around the globe and demonstrate that green alternatives could be financially lucrative.

The promise of a new economy by the environmental coalition was significant and unprecedented. From the very first Earth Day in 1970, the prospect of a healthy planet had been pitted against jobs. In a sleepy little fishing village in the Baja, two of the world's leading green organizations promised something revolutionary: employment.

The courting of Punta Abreojos paid off. As the campaign against Mitsubishi intensified in the late '90s, Punta Abreojos signed up to join NRDC and IFAW. The two groups flew fishermen to Mexico City to testify against the salt plant, and when the plan was killed a year and a half ago in a historic decision by the then-president of Mexico, they set up a $100,000 fund to help Punta Abreojos and the surrounding communities build an eco-friendly, sustainable future. Together, they had challenged the rising tide of globalization and had won.

NRDC was proud of its achievement in Mexico against Mitsubishi and its partnership with the fishermen of Punta Abreojos. In its magazine, The Amicus Journal, sent to the group's 450,000 members last summer, one article explained, "Now that the plant has been canceled, the environmentalists have assigned experts to spend some months in Punta Abreojos and other nearby settlements to help raise local living standards." As NRDC's Jacob Scherr put it: "We not only saved a lagoon, we saved a town."

Jared Blumenfeld, formerly with IFAW, tells New Times, "We had a kind of moral commitment [to Punta Abreojos] because they helped us in defeating the saltworks. Therefore, we are obliged not only to prevent industrial development to occur but to find alternatives for this community."

Today, the two organizations claim they are working to bring First World sophistication and resources to the village to attain a clean but prosperous future. "We're trying to help these communities set up sustainable economic programs that will outlast us," says Ari Hershowitz, an NRDC resource specialist in Washington, D.C., who has been working with the residents of Punta Abreojos for the last three years. "We have a long-term commitment."

In the NRDC's newsletter Nature's Voice sent out earlier this year to members around the country, Hershowitz talked about his work in Punta Abreojos in near poetic terms. "It's important that these projects are directly responsive to the community's needs and move at a pace the communities are comfortable with. For me, it's a privilege to be working with people who have such a deep tie to the place they live in -- who live with a sense of the profound continuity and peace that an enduring relationship with the land can bring."

But newsletters and publicity materials from the two hugely successful environmental groups don't publicize what's really happening in Punta Abreojos, and it's a lot less rosy than NRDC and IFAW officials are willing to admit. Economists familiar with the area predict the help from the two environmental organizations will be of little benefit. Even less impressed are some Punta Abreojos residents who call the assistance nothing more than an empty public relations gesture. Meanwhile, nearly everyone in Punta Abreojos agrees they never were consulted on how the donated money should be spent despite NRDC's claims that the ideas for the various projects came from the residents themselves. And surprisingly, even the Punta Abreojos fishermen who will benefit the most from the environmental groups' largess aren't happy. They want the money to go to different projects.

About The Author

Susan Goldsmith

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