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.

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.

His résumé suggests gravitas, but Aridjis -- a small, swarthy man whose dancing, sweeping, ever-moving hands play the lead in an effusive personality -- is nothing like the stereotype of the Serious Latin American Intellectual. His diplomatic persona is of the United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan variety -- understated, gregarious, spontaneous. Sipping a glass of iced hibiscus tea -- a popular homemade soft drink known as agua de jamaica -- Aridjis recounts how he used his negotiating skills to help usher the whales at Laguna San Ignacio into the consciousness of Mexico, and the world.

Former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo (center) canceled a proposed salt plant after going on a whale-watching trip in Laguna San Ignacio.
Courtesy KUYIMA Ecotours
Former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo (center) canceled a proposed salt plant after going on a whale-watching trip in Laguna San Ignacio.
Joel Reynolds of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Don Lewis
Joel Reynolds of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Details

The recovery of the Eastern Pacific gray whale from the brink of extinction is the single greatest turnaround of a marine mammal population, and the whale's myriad connections to human cultural conflicts are no less impressive in their scope.

In New Times' special project "Shades of Gray," reporters from several of our papers have traveled from Siberia to Mexico to tell the complex tale of a creature whose annual migration -- at 12,000 miles round trip -- is the longest by any mammal.

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Aridjis learned about the Mitsubishi salt plant from two American graduate students, Serge Dedina and his wife, Emily Young, doing research on this desolate area of Baja California's Pacific Coast prior to 1995. They had a contract with the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission to investigate potential threats to the habitat of the gray whale. The couple soon discovered that Mexico's National Ecology Institute was about to give the green light to Exportadora de Sal (ESSA, a joint venture owned by Mitsubishi and the Mexican government) to develop 525,000 acres of El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve -- Latin America's largest protected natural area -- into a massive saltworks.

These protected acres would become drying ponds, pumping stations, conveyer belts, stockpiles, service roads, and worker housing -- complete with a mile-long pier for oceangoing freighters jutting into Bahia de Ballenas, directly in the path of whales heading for the lagoon. Machinery would pump 570 million gallons of seawater per day from the lagoon into ponds, where the water would evaporate and salt would remain.

Environmentalists feared that the noise from salt-laden boats, toxic brine from salt-evaporation pools, and salt-loading piers jutting out into the whale's traditional thruways could potentially obstruct these mammals' ability to breed. Aridjis had already waged a battle to preserve the wintering area of the monarch butterfly in his home state of Michoacán. News from Laguna San Ignacio portended a similar fight.

"I immediately wanted to find out more information about the project, so I asked the Environmental Ministry for the environmental impact report on the project," says Aridjis. He was met with a type of stonewalling familiar to anyone who has ever sought information from the authoritarian PRI bureaucracy.

Finally, Aridjis found a friendly American source in the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission who had obtained a copy of the report. It was a flimsy piece of work, drafted as an apparent formality accompanying an industrial development the government considered a done deal. A month later, in February 1995, Aridjis published a column, titled "The Silence of the Whales," in the Mexico City daily Reforma, denouncing the environmental threats posed by the salt plant.

As it happened, the environmentalists had an early ace in the hole: Ernesto Zedillo had chosen a woman with considerable environmental expertise as his minister of natural resources; Julia Carabias had even taught a course on environmental impact assessments. Six days after Aridjis' Reformacolumn was published, Carabias used her office's environmental law enforcement powers to reject the report, saying the plant was "not compatible with the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve's conservation objectives."


It seemed that the battle of Laguna San Ignacio had ended after a single shot. Actually, the struggle would continue for another half-decade. Aridjis held press conferences. U.S. environmental groups published newspaper advertisements. So did Mitsubishi.

But this public posturing was background noise to the real battle over the salt plant, which was being waged within the president's Cabinet. Although Carabias didn't buy Aridjis' claim that the plant would kill whales, she and her subordinates objected to the idea of building a major industrial facility in El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, perhaps Mexico's greatest protected natural area.

Rather than wage a battle of propaganda, Carabias unleashed a siege of experts.

She announced she would appoint an advisory committee of international marine experts to oversee the new environmental impact statement, going so far as to ask Aridjis and his wife for advice. "She put herself in front of the freight train of economics and politics," says Steven Swartz, a marine mammal biologist with the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service who was on the panel.

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