Ecocide Threatens the World's Aquarium
by Sonya Angelica Diehn
The beautiful and unique Sonoran desert though altered in some areas
by development, agriculture and cattle grazing is one of the largest
intact arid ecosystems in the world, stretching across 120,000 square miles.
It embodies southwestern Arizona, southeastern California, the northwestern
portion of the Mexican state of Sonora and the upper half of the Baja peninsula.
South of the border, sparsely populated northern Mexico holds two-thirds of
the largest and wildest portions of this unique ecosystem. Ranging from the
arid desert of the central gulf coast and lower Colorado River valley to archipelago
estuaries and mangrove swamps, the Sonoran region is home to more than 800 animal
species and as many as 5,000 species of plants and has the greatest diversity
of vegetative growth of any desert in the world.
The Sonoran region boasts 40 percent of Mexico's conservation areas, such as
the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve, the
Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve, Angel de la Guarda Island,
Tiburón Island, Scammon's and San Ignacio Lagoons and the Vizcaino Biosphere
Reserve. The Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and Organ Pipe National
Monument (both in Arizona), along with the four protected areas in the northernmost
part of the Mexican Sonoran Desert, form the second largest protected drylands
matrix in North America.
Inclusive of the marine ecosystem, the region holds the fourth greatest level
of biological diversity on earth. Famed marine biologist Jacques Cousteau called
the Gulf of California, sheltered between the Baja Peninsula and the western
coast of Mexico, "the aquarium of the world." Threatened and endangered
marine species such as the vaquita (an endemic species of porpoise and the smallest
of all cetaceans), totoaba (the largest species of croaker fish in the world),
sea turtle and grey whale make their homes here, as do such terrestrial species
as the Sonoran pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, flat-tailed horned lizards
and desert tortoise. The Sonoran desert is also home to 17 indigenous groups,
many of whom inhabit their homelands with cultural traditions intact.
from Heaven - to Hell
Areas currently protected areas within the region are facing the Escalera Náutica,
or Nautical Stairway project, which some Mexican activists have called the greatest
ecocide in the history. Federal and local governments with the support
of foreign investors signed an accord on this project in February of
2002. Mexican President Vicente Fox's administration, which is admittedly "of
businessmen, by businessmen, and for businessmen," is a major proponent
of this mega-development scheme. The project calls for the construction of 10
new commercial ports and the modernization of 12 others using 222 million of
Mexican taxpayer dollars. Within a 12-year timeframe, the plan aims to develop
a string of marinas up and down the Pacific and gulf coasts of Baja and the
gulf coast of Sonora, so that wealthy tourists in luxury boats will never have
to travel more than 120 nautical miles to the next stop thus, a "nautical
The Escalera Náutica
also calls for four expanded access routes between these ports and the US border,
20 new airports, 34 new golf courses, dozens of new hotels and at least 6,500
new condominiums and villas. At least eight of the new hotels would be built
inside the boundaries of natural protected areas. The construction of an 80-mile
land bridge (or dry canal, a superhighway for cars and trains) across the middle
of the Baja peninsula is also planned. This land bridge would extend from Santa
Rosalillita on the Pacific side (north of Scammon's Lagoon, a breeding ground
for endangered grey whales) to Bahía de los Angeles on the gulf side
(which shelters a fragile cross-gulf island archipelago).
The ostensible goal of this project is to develop luxury tourism in the area.
However, its deeper purpose like its sister development scheme the Plan
Puebla Panama (PPP) is to create the infrastructure for industrialization.
It would allow for greater land and resource privatization and would shift the
area's economy from rural subsistence to foreign speculation.
From habitat destruction and fragmentation to increased pollution and the introduction
of invasive species and toxic chemicals, the environmental impacts would be
devastating. Imagine an arid terrestrial and fertile marine zone trammeled by
more than five million tourists. Droning boats would disturb the migration of
sea mammals. Toxic spillage of petroleum on the land and sea is an eventual
Like the PPP, the Escalera Náutica represents nothing less than a continuation
of the "authoritarian insertion of Mexico in(to) the globalization process,"
according to Gilberto Lopez y Rivas, a representative of the leftist Democratic
Revolution Party in Mexico.
Cancún, considered a success story by John McCarthy (head of the National
Fund for the Development of Tourism [FONATUR] and the same functionary proposing
the Escalera Náutica), is a complete failure in terms of sustainability.
The Escalera Náutica, more aptly termed an investment proposal than a
development plan, has not involved any cooperation or input from locals, and
represents the antithesis of sustainable development.
The Escalera Náutica also threatens to tear apart the social and cultural
fabric of the region by turning the rural population into a labor force for
tourists. Indigenous and protected lands would be transformed into waste dumps
and playgrounds, while the increased presence of the police and army would contribute
to the militarization of the region. The plan would increase the gross domestic
product of the states of Baja, Sonora and Sinaloa but only while concentrating
wealth into the hands of foreign speculators.
Like Fox's related proposal to allow foreign firms to build power plants in
Baja, the Escalera Náutica would turn Mexico into a colony of natural
resources for the US. It represents an infusion of multinational corporations
into the region and a massive push for the dismemberment of natural resources,
which, ironically, are pitched as attractive values of the plan. In a twist,
several interpretive natural "theme parks" are proposed on the Baja
gulf side, graphically displaying the commodification of the natural world in
the Escalera Náutica. The goal of short-term profit, not quality of life
or future-oriented planning, is further illustrated in the Escalera Nautica
by its fossil fuel dependent infrastructure.
La Escalera Náutica
As if this were not enough, the Escalera Náutica is also tied to the
Free Trade Area of the Americas (or FTAA, also known as "NAFTA on Steroids")
by building up transportation infrastructure. It is a race to the bottom for
labor and environmental standards that travels the entire length of the Western
Hemisphere. Docks on the coasts of Baja and Sonora will certainly see the importation
of cheap manufactured components from South America and southeast Asia, which
will be transported along new highways to assembly plants in southern Mexico
or near the US/Mexico border. Shipments of toxic or hazardous materials refused
in the US would be sent to dock on Mexican shores.
Due to the Mexican government's repression of democratic, independently organized
labor, dockworkers in Mexico are conveniently not unionized. Thus, increased
shipping capacity close to the US would allow multinational corporations to
undercut the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union (ILWU).
Not a Done Deal
CONSTRUCTION AT SANTA ROSALILLITA, PACIFIC SIDE BAJA
great poverty, locals in northwestern Mexico locals have refused bribes for
improved systems of electricity, water and schools. Not consulting the local
inhabitants was the government's first mistake; continuing with the plan, against
the wishes of many, is its second. Adan Hernandez, a biology student in San
Carlos, speaks for many when he says, "People here don't want to give up
their lives as fishermen to become waiters and janitors."
While construction of the marina for the land bridge on the Pacific side of
Baja has already begun, more than one billion dollars of foreign investments
are required for the entire development. The ongoing economic recession in the
US has spelled good news for slowing this development process perhaps
even long enough for a people's intervention.
Mexican law may also be on the side of the people on this issue. The Mexican
government is currently in violation of article eight of la Ley Ecológica,
which requires environmental impact statements for all new development projects.
So far, only a general impact statement has been issued for the Escalera Náutica.
In July and August, government attempts to expropriate land to build an international
airport were met with militant resistance in Atenco, a rural town adjacent to
Mexico City (see www.mexico.indymedia.org). Under Mexican law, the government
has the right to expropriate ejidos, or communal lands. But Atenco farmers claimed
a legal challenge to the government's proposed rate of compensation for their
farmland, which amounted to only cents per acre. Atenco activists were able
to use national laws to discredit the feds. This led, in part, to the government's
capitulation on the airport project.
A mounting public discontent with the forced insertion of northwestern Mexico
and the Baja peninsula into the global economy may stop this project yet. Environmental,
indigenous and community groups in southern California, Baja, southern Arizona,
and northwestern Mexico are beginning to organize resistance. On the Gulf of
California, just south of the US/Mexico border, residents of Puerto Peñasco
recently blockaded a shipment of nuclear components destined for Arizona.
Pro Peninsula is researching the project and has begun community organizing
in Baja. Wild Coast is building networks against the project from Imperial Beach,
California. A group from Hermosillo, Mexico, issued demands for basic environmental
and economic evaluations of Escalera Náutica. US environmental groups
are beginning to pressure the Mexican government to alter or abandon the idea,
while militant indigenous tribes are becoming increasingly wary of threats to
their lands. The tide continues to rise against this "ecocidio náutico,"
and the waves have begun to lap at the doors of the decision-makers.
This story may be freely reproduced.
Sonya is a native Tucsonan who seeks to abolish
all forms of oppression. She came of age as an activist at the WTO protests
in Seattle during November of 1999, and continues to reside in Tucson where
she works for a local environmental organization. She is also active on issues
of media, globalization, the environment, and sustainability in the Sonoran