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The Unlikely Environmentalists 

International environmentalists claim they stopped a Mexican salt plant that endangered the gray whale. Actually, though, the Mexican government canceled the plant for reasons of its own.

Wednesday, Nov 28 2001
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Banking northward past the hacked-apart forests of El Ajusco Peak before descending across the sewerless slums of Ciudad Nezahuacoyotl, airplane windows scroll across ecological smut: Xochiaca, a five-square-mile strip of garbage dumps; el Rio Texcoco and her sister streams, sewage conduits all; and monóxido de carbón, dióxido de nitrógeno, dióxido sulfúrico, ozono, plomo, partículas suspendidas, and the rest of the ingredients of the brown, viscous stew that passes for air here in Mexico City.

This is Planet Earth's Petri dish. Scientists arrive from universities in the U.S., Japan, Canada, and Germany and divine their own countries' environmental futures. Sociologists study how squatters destroy forests at the city's edge; chemists tease apart the smog; physiologists study how it damages lungs, capillaries, brains. Even the city's daily dose of dog feces -- all 353 tons of it -- has its scientists. They watch it dry, crumble, and become part of the air.

Mexico City's global omen isn't merely environmental. Of late, the city has been a political harbinger as well. It was, after all, the site of the 21st century's first democratic revolution: the victory last year of presidential candidate Vicente Fox. That victory -- and the resulting end of the 71-year rule of El PRI, the authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party -- made Mexico City a symbol for a new democratic global age.

As it happens, U.S. environmentalists have merged these two historical roles to form a third: By their lights, last year Mexico City also gave birth to a new epoch of ecological globalism, an era when green activism anywhere saves the planet everywhere. On March 2, 2000, at Los Pinos, the Mexican presidential residence, President Ernesto Zedillo announced he would cancel a proposal to build the world's largest salt production complex on the edge of the San Ignacio Lagoon, a place American environmentalists claimed was the last undisturbed calving and nursing sanctuary for the gray whale.

Of all the environmental battles that have been joined -- over redwoods, owls, salmon, wolves -- none has more widespread resonance within environmental circles than the fight to Save the Whale. And for the world environmental movement, the fight over Laguna San Ignacio was the Battle of Midway, a fight that would dictate the terms of all that succeeded it. "We drew a line in the sand around this place," says Joel Reynolds, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We were going to do everything within our power to oppose the salt project."

Indeed, Zedillo's cancellation of the plant followed an unprecedented international campaign. A coalition of environmental groups led by the NRDC marshaled celebrities such as Pierce Brosnan and Robert Kennedy Jr. to attend protests; organized a worldwide boycott against the Mitsubishi Corp., a subsidiary of which was developing the salt project; convinced the state of California, as well as the governments of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and 44 other cities and towns, to come out against the project; and generated mountains of protest letters -- a million sent to Mitsubishi, 300,000 to the Mexican government.

For many environmentalists, the cancellation of the salt factory at Laguna San Ignacio was a realization of sentiments expressed at the first Earth Day 31 years ago: The Earth's flora, fauna, and geography are a patrimony for all the world's peoples, and the struggle for environmental salvation is a global one. "It is the triumph," said John Adams, president of the NRDC, as quoted in a fund-raising letter, "of an empowered global citizenry."

But on close examination, these grandiose claims turn out to be myth. Notwithstanding scores of press releases, news stories, and media-loop jetsam to the contrary, the NRDC had little or nothing to do with saving the gray whale at Laguna San Ignacio. If anything, the American-based group and its environmental allies in the United States endangered efforts by the Mexican environmental ministry to confront and eventually defeat Mitsubishi.

Interviews with former Mexican government officials and U.S. scientists, combined with review of a wide variety of documents from the Mexican government and elsewhere, show that the ecological victory at San Ignacio was a product of unique circumstances. First World environmentalists may believe in a form of Manifest Destiny -- a destiny that will be brought about by U.S.-style political-marketing techniques, exported to green the world -- but the cancellation of the salt plant at Laguna San Ignacio was a home-grown labor of conscience, the final act of the final autocrat of the modern world's longest-running authoritarian regime. It was the culmination of a years-long effort by a highly effective environmental technocrat -- Julia Carabias Lillo, Mexico's minister of environment. And it was part of the oeuvre of a single-minded poet-cum-political advocate named Homero Aridjis.


In the United States, nobody calls pundits, politicos, writers, or scientists "intellectuals." But in Mexico, it is considered natural that great thinkers should fuel great political struggles. President Vicente Fox, for example, is a veteran of El Grupo San Angel, an ad hoc club of prominent writers and political figures who used to hold meetings at the home of Professor Jorge Castañeda, who is now Mexico's foreign minister. In a similar vein, Homero Aridjis, Latin America's leading environmentalist, is also an internationally renowned poet.

Visitors to Aridjis' house are greeted by a uniformed maid. The walls of his home are decorated with an eclectic selection of original art. Aridjis' wife, Betty Ferber, is a gentle, erudite American who married him after a whirlwind romance in 1953. Through constant lobbying she has kept Mexico's environmental battles in the public eye. On this day in May she descends to the dining room alone and offers a cold drink, chatting and waiting for her husband to finish some work in his upstairs office. This exquisite prologue seems entirely appropriate; Homero Aridjis is an internationally prominent man.

Aridjis has taught at Columbia University, New York University, and Indiana University. He has received two Guggenheim Fellowships and been Mexican ambassador to the Netherlands and Switzerland. He is the prize-winning author of 28 books of poetry and prose, work that has been translated into 12 languages. As Latin America's leading environmental activist, Aridjis has endured death threats and has been compelled to live under the constant assumption that he is being monitored.

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Matt Smith

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