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.


Former Mexican Environment Minister Julia Carabias Lillo, Maestra en Ciencias, Profesora, Autor, is sitting in her office at la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, producing wave after wave of words. They splash in masses of fine bubbles; they emanate as large, rolling swells. They crash and froth relentlessly in a way that, unlike the sea, is not terribly soothing.

Carabias, author of publications such as Integrated Resource Management; Toward a Policy of Sustainable Development; and Poverty and the Environment, is involved in an activity she knows very well: She's having trouble with the press. A proud, university-bred technocrat, she has honed a college professor's tone -- replete with condescension, page-long sentences, and elliptical turns of phrase -- into an annoying personal trademark. This trying way with words has carved a public image that still frustrates her, even half a year out of office.

A salt barge at the Guerrero Negro salt factory.
A salt barge at the Guerrero Negro salt factory.

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Perhaps most frustrating of all was her years-long role attempting to strike a balance among environmentalist, government, and business interests in the dispute of the salt project at Laguna San Ignacio. She was vilified, at one time or another, as either a sellout to, or an enemy of, each faction. Now, less than a year after the battle's end, merely talking about the Laguna San Ignacio dispute evokes bitter memories; she can't seem to speak about the episode without expressing contempt.

Carabias comes from a lost tribe -- one nearly extinct in this era of professionally run democratic politics -- of technical specialists, highly placed in politics, who have no ear whatsoever for public relations.

"I think that during the past administration, when it came to public relations, we all fell short," Carabias says, by way of understatement.

Carabias became so disliked by Mexican essayists, journalists, and political cartoonists that they took to calling her, in one way or another, physically unattractive. (She's actually nothing of the sort.) Carabias' academic work focused more on considering and blunting the pernicious effects of construction projects than banning development outright.

Following this instinct once in office, Carabias won outspoken loyalty from the economists, engineers, and legal experts who worked under her. For her commitment to neutral scientific analysis of environmental issues, Carabias won the praise of academic researchers in both the United States and Mexico.

In fact, by the account of former government officials, U.S. scientists, Mexican news reports, and Mexican government and other documents, Carabias waged a half-decade campaign against Mitsubishi's plans at Laguna San Ignacio -- and she succeeded. Those same sources, meanwhile, make it clear that U.S. environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) had at most a minor, tangential role in the Mitsubishi project's demise, despite their claim to have "defeated" it with an international, multimillion-dollar public relations campaign. Indeed, the NRDC's aggressive campaign gave the proposed project a lease on life by fueling charges that U.S. activists were meddling in Mexican affairs.

And yet, among the hundreds of articles published about the Laguna San Ignacio project, almost all the coverage focuses on the NRDC. A Lexis-Nexis and Internet search of news articles produces no stories describing the San Ignacio conflict from the Environmental Ministry's point of view.


Carabias considered the salt plant problematic from the time she first reviewed -- and rejected -- Mitsubishi's environmental impact statement in 1995, when she was head of the Mexican Environmental Institute. From then until the project's demise in March 2000, Carabias used her position in the president's Cabinet to force Mitsubishi to agree to extraordinary, and expensive, environmental mitigation measures -- measures that endangered the plant's economic viability enough to make it a significantly less attractive proposition for Mitsubishi by the time it was canceled in 2000.

During some of this time, of course, the NRDC and its First World environmental allies were also campaigning against the salt facility. Far from being helpful, however, the campaign by U.S. environmental groups, Carabias says, exposed her to charges by nationalistic Mexicans that she was a traitor. Mexico has a long and deep history of mistrust of international political power, particularly the power exerted by the U.S. on its southern neighbor. How dare you sympathize with these U.S. extremists?the nationalists asked when Carabias moved to oppose the Mitsubishi operation. And when experts from UNESCO visited Laguna San Ignacio to study whether the salt plant would endanger the central Baja California region's status as a World Heritage Site, the Mexican media treated them as if they were foreign invaders. "We've noticed that there's a UNESCO mission in Mexico right now which traveled to Baja California to determine -- tell me if I have this right -- whether salt production in Baja California should be expanded," said popular radio host Guillermo Ortega during a talk show interview with Carabias. "A lot of people have been calling to ask why UNESCO has to come to our country to tell us whether or not, or how, we should conduct our own business here."

In the end, the NRDC campaign nearly ruined Carabias' efforts to persuade her boss to cancel the project.

"I'm extremely critical of the nongovernmental organizations who flew the flag saying they were the ones who pressured the Mexican government into canceling the project. We absolutely reject that thesis," Carabias says. "Toward the end, I had a lot of problems in my discussions with the president because he was extremely irritated -- really, really irritated -- with the NRDC campaign. This was one of the things that nearly convinced him to go ahead with the salt plant, because of the way canceling the plant would read in the Mexican press."

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