The New Economy

The road to Punta Abreojos is paved with hollow intentions

"I just haven't seen any," says director Victor Sánchez Sotomayor. "They say a lot of things, but they don't work here. They have public events to show they work here, but they don't. Never do they do it. Never. No penny from there ever comes here."

Money trickling down to Mexico may not be plentiful, but during the campaign against the Japanese conglomerate, it flowed. NRDC raised $7 million during the battle and bolstered its membership by another quarter-million people. Since 1996, those new members have handed over $20 million in annual dues. IFAW did not raise any additional funds during the campaign but spent heavily. Together, the two organizations paid $15.5 million to fight the salt plant proposal. But the groups' efforts to aid the community that made the victory possible have not been so successful. They've earmarked $40,000 toward job creation in Punta Abreojos, and only one man, who was already employed, has found work. Critics are not surprised. They point out plans to create desperately needed employment opportunities left out input from residents themselves and involve little more than vague ideas generated in Washington, D.C. The oyster farm project does not have the needed funding to pay for its implementation, nor does the solar/wind energy proposal. As one Mexican economist explained, attempts to move from green rhetoric to real-paying jobs have not happened, and that failure underscores just how hard it is do that in the Baja outback.

NRDC's Hershowitz insists his organization's commitment is long-term but qualifies it when pressed. "Are we going to have people on the ground there in three years? Probably not."

In part, that's because NRDC - "America's most effective environmental action organization" - is now on to new battles, like saving a remote area in Belize from a plan to build a hydroelectric dam. It's part of a new effort by NRDC, which the fight in Mexico inaugurated, called the BioGems campaign. The group, according to a newsletter from NRDC President John Adams, is now going to "mount new campaigns around the world on behalf of wildlife habitats that stand on the brink of destruction." Adams goes on to say that because of the victory in Mexico, NRDC has turned into "a powerful international force that now stands ready to protect embattled wildlife and wilderness around the planet."

Ironically, the real sustainable economic development appears to have been the salt plant itself. The existing salt plant north of Punta Abreojos has had no impact on marine resources, according to biologists who monitor the lagoon, and its several thousand acres of shallow evaporation ponds have become a sanctuary for dozens of migrating bird species.

The environmental groups that fought Mitsubishi made Punta Abreojos their very own lab experiment where ideas about sustainable green development were to be put to the test with real people in need. The organizations were able to beat back the corporate giant, but creating jobs has proved far more difficult. In the meantime, the list of all that is missing in Punta Abreojos - young people, employment, a comfortable life for those not in the co-op - grows longer. Angela Garcia continues to spend her days with the children of her village, teaching them what wild things live in the estuary outside the town and why tossing garbage on the beach isn't a good idea. So far she has not figured out just what lessons there are for these kids in the story of their town, the salt plant, and the two American environmental groups.

"The diseases that hit oysters are very unpredictable," Gordon says. "Growing oysters is like farming. They've got it down to a science, but there's still a lot of uncertainty, and like any other form of farming, entire crops can be wiped out. There are really good years and bad years."

Sol Azul had its entire crop nearly killed off in 1998 by El Niño. But the business survived and is doing well, says Valentin Quintero, the company's marine biologist. However, the company only employs 15 people, and that's before the other growers have started harvesting their crops -- hardly the 85 to 100 people NRDC expects the Punta Abreojos oyster farm will be able to hire. And the fate of Sol Azul's employees -- along with those who might be employed in Punta Abreojos -- is uncertain once all of the 14 new oyster farms in Baja begin competing with the 10 existing operations.

Like the Punta Abreojos venture, Sol Azul is hoping to sell its oysters to the growing U.S. market. But because Mexico lost its Food and Drug Administration certification for oyster export in 1999 due to sanitary deficiencies, that option appears uncertain at best. (Even before the certification was rescinded, only one company in all of Mexico met U.S. standards for importing the mollusks.) To obtain the required certification, the FDA has asked Mexico's federal health and safety agency to ensure that each and every grower do 47 different things to meet the United States' import regulations. "The last conversation we had with them, they told us they were working to resolve the problems," the FDA source explains.

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