East of an Aquatic Eden and into the Desert, by Joy E. Stocke


Guest-blogger Joy E. Stocke is founder and Editor-in-Chief of Wild River Review. She has published fiction, nonfiction and poetry, and has written about and lectured widely on her travels in Greece and Turkey.  She lives part-time in Cabo Pulmo, Baja California Sur, Mexico.

Cabo Pulmo National Park is home to perhaps the oldest and most important coral reef in the northeastern Pacific, and is currently being threatened by a proposed resort complex called Cabo Cortés.  Residents like Joy are working with local and international groups, such as NRDC, to protect Cabo Pulmo’s thriving yet vulnerable marine life from destructive development.

East of an Aquatic Eden and into the Desert

By Joy E. Stocke


 The Baja Peninsula separating the Pacific Ocean from the Sea of Cortés is a forbidding place if you don’t respect her ways.  Those of us who fall in love with her landscape - mountain meets desert meets sea - do so with passion. Divers, fisher-folk, campers, surfers, kayakers, snorkelers, hikers, birders, return year after year. At the edge of the sea others clear brush to reveal Cardon, Ocotillo, Caholla, Wild Plum. We build houses, create livelihoods, and raise families.

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                                       Cabo Pulmo; photo courtesy of Joy E. Stocke.

Part of each year, I am blessed to call Cabo Pulmo my home. When I reach the 9.65 kilometer (6-mile) dirt road that winds along the coast and through a large bird-filled plain tucked into the Sierra Laguna Mountain Range, and watch the chimera of dust and sea shimmer the air, I’m grateful to be part of a place where earth, sea, and their inhabitants coexist in a sustainable ecosystem.

Here on the East Cape of the Baja Sur Peninsula north of the resort corridor of Cabo San Lucas in the Sea of Cortés, which Oceanographers Jacques Cousteau and Sylvia Earl call the Aquarium of the World, we are doubly blessed to have a 20,000 year-old Finger Coral Reef that protects our town of approximately 150 souls.

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Like we humans who reside along its shore, a coral reef survives in community, relying on a delicate balance of sunlight and ocean salinity. If you’ve ever found a piece of coral on the beach, you have noticed its rough surface, remnants of polyps that once swelled to contain a single algae cell. Through the process of photosynthesis, algae feed oxygen and other nutrients to the coral who return carbon dioxide and other substances to the algae, a balance that not only sustains coral and algae, but nourishes 226 species of fish.  Worldwide, fish feed between 30 and 40 million people per year, but also provide a livelihood for communities like Cabo Pulmo who build our infrastructures around fishing, diving, and eco-tourism.

Our reef was not always Mexico’s premiere example of conservation and preservation. By the mid-1980s, Cabo Pulmo Reef was overfished and polluted. Local residents were forced to go elsewhere to find work. Worried that they might have to abandon their way of life, residents called in experts, including marine biologist Dr. Oscar Arizpe, who in 1991, was the first scientist to perform systematic research on the marine animals living in the reef. Based on his findings and that of other scientists, a proposal integrating social, economic and environmental components was presented to the Mexican government. On June 15, 1995, then President Ernesto Zedillo declared the reef a protected natural area.

Today, the reef and community are thriving and Cabo Pulmo has committed itself to developing a sustainable model of profitable fishing and eco-tourism.

Eden nearly lost and regained.

However, Cabo Pulmo’s fragile reef is again under threat. Just north of the park, the Spanish company Hansa Urbana S.A. has purchased and received permission to break ground on the largest development in Mexican history, to be called Cabo Cortés.

So far, the Mexican government has given Hansa Urbana permission to level 1,248 hectares (3,080 acres) of desert for the construction of two 18-hole golf courses, roads, 17 kilometers (10 miles) of water pipes, a marina with 490 moorings and 27,111 guestrooms, a development bigger than all the hotel rooms in the Cabo San Lucas corridor and roughly equivalent to the total number of rooms in the Caribbean resort of Cancun, Mexico’s leading tourist destination. Scientists, researchers, conservationists, activists and organizations including Greenpeace, WiLDCOAST, NRDC, Grupo de los Cien, ACCP, Niparajá, and Cabo Pulmo Vivo have agreed that this development would directly threaten the reef.

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“Construction activities of this size will absolutely have a destructive impact on the reef,” says Judith Lucero Castro, Cabo Pulmo native and founder of Cabo Pulmo Vivo. “The authorities don’t realize that the construction and arrival of workers with no infrastructure to house them will affect the reef immediately, because waste and pollution always ends up in the sea.”

Photo: Judith Lucero Castro, founder of Cabo Pulmo Vivo, with Homero Aridjis, founder of Grupo de los Cien; photo courtesy of Joy E. Stocke


According to Martin Goebel, Founder and President of Sustainable Northwest, “It’s fair to say that Cabo Pulmo Marine Park is the only protected area in Mexico that functions and does what it’s supposed to do. We’ve monitored it from the beginning and have demonstrated that the fish population and diversity are coming back in spades. It is a testament to the commitment of the community and the Mexican Park Service.

When you create an infrastructure for developments of that size such as a desalinization plant to provide water,” he adds. “The rise in salt water is instant and the reef will suffocate.” In addition, residents say, the aquifer supplying water to their and other communities in the area could run dry causing further stress.

At a press conference in Los Cabos in early March, Undersecretary for Environmental Protection of the Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, Maurico Limón, said that, “the project has been partially banned, but it has authorization to start construction of some projects. All those works that will have a marine impact have not been authorized until we have information that will insure that Cabo Pulmo’s reef is not going to be affected.”

The organizations working to save the reef are not convinced and have joined together to create a new vision for the future of the East Cape, one in which development would include sustainable practices that respect limited fresh water and the sea’s ecosystem, one that would employ and include the voices of the local population who need work, basic services, and schools for their children.  

At dawn, the first fishing boat casts off from Cabo Pulmo reef.  North along the beach, land that may soon become a construction site shelters sea turtles and pelicans, snails and crabs.  Just beyond the reef, the first fishing line is cast. The fishermen look up and have a vision, a new model of sustainable development that welcomes tourists, respects the land and sea, and provides a future for their community.