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Nautical Ecocide Threatens the World's Aquarium

by Sonya Angelica Diehn Sunday, Jan. 05, 2003 at 6:48 PM
sonya at greenbicycle dot net

(versión en Español pendiente) Analysis of the Escalera Nautica or Nautical Stairway project in Northwest Mexico, with regards to environmental impact and global economic forces.

Nautical 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.

Stairway 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 stairway."

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 certainty.

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.


Backward Steps

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.


Sonoran Desert Natural History
La Escalera Náutica
Pro Peninsula
Plan Puebla-Panama
Mexico Indymedia

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


Despite 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 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 bioregion.

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