Positive news for Cabo Pulmo, from international institutions and from the Mexican government

Two major and encouraging developments – one from the Mexican government and the other in the international arena– took place yesterday in Baja California, putting wind in the sails of the diverse coalition working to protect Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park from proposed large-scale real estate and tourism projects nearby – namely the massive Cabo Cortés

First, the Mexican Environmental Authority announced that it would not grant Cabo Cortés anymore permits until 2013, when more data is collected, particularly about the sea currents along the East Cape region of the Gulf of California.  The Secretary of the Environment, Juan Elvira Quesada, stated that although land components of the Cabo Cortés plan are authorized (hotels, electricity, access roads), the marine components (marina, desalination plant) are not:  “it is like authorizing a soccer stadium without a parking lot.”  This move indicates that the government is taking the evaluation of the environmental aspects of the project seriously. 

Second, UNESCO, Ramsar and IUCN representatives met with scientists and then with the NGO groups working to protect Cabo Pulmo during their four-day mission to investigate those potential threats.  The legal, economic, environmental and social arguments that we NGOs presented were diverse, technical and complex, but the underlying message was clear:  Cabo Cortés would devastate the remarkable marine life in Cabo Pulmo as well as the local communities.

A list with every argument against Cabo Cortés would go on for pages, so here is a summary of the major reasons the NGOs presented yesterday about why Cabo Cortés – and similar projects – should not be approved (note: this does not include the issues raised by scientists in their meeting with the mission):

  • There are serious legal problems with the partial approval Cabo Cortés received in early 2011, including:  the fragmented nature of the approval, in which some components were approved and others were not, is not allowed under Mexican Law; the approval allowed construction in and near sand dunes, which is explicitly forbidden in the Ecological Management Plan for Los Cabos; the authority arbitrarily decided not to apply specific policies in the case of Cabo Cortés that it has used as reasons to stop other projects; when faced with the lack of critical information, the authority should have applied the Precautionary Principle, but it did not in this case; there was no evaluation of the effects on the Santiago Aquifer from which Cabo Cortés would draw significant amounts of water (more on this below); and there was no consideration of the carrying capacity of Cabo Pulmo National Park, which would determine how much new activity and how many new visitors the park can handle without being negatively affected.
  • Cabo Cortés would effectively become a new city just north of Cabo Pulmo, with all of the accompanying infrastructure and public services.  It would include 2 million square feet of commercial and office space, a jet port, at least two 27-hole golf courses and an influx of over 100,000 new habitants (and likely more), in addition to the new hotels, 490-slip marina and tourists.  Yet it was not evaluated as such.  Instead, Cabo Cortés was evaluated component by component, without any integrated approach which would take into account the cumulative and interconnected impacts of all the components together – including social impacts on the communities already nearby.
  • Cabo Cortés would get about 35 percent of its fresh water supply from the Santiago Aquifer, which is the only aquifer in the area that is not yet overexploited.  The most recent analysis of the aquifer (2009) shows that it contains roughly 4.8 million cubic meters annually available for concession.  The company has concessions for about 4.5 million cubic meters annually – a huge portion of the aquifer’s concessionable water for just one project.  In additional, there was no register of the concessions that were granted from 2002-2009, so the data used to evaluate the Santiago Aquifer’s available water actually dates back to 2002; therefore no one really knows how much of water is truly available and safe to consume.  The town of Cabo Pulmo, which draws off of the Cabo Pulmo Aquifer, is already facing a severe water shortage.
  • The rest of Cabo Cortés’s water supply would come from a desalination plant, which still is not approved as the company must submit an environmental impact assessment for this plant (part of the Secretary’s “parking lot”).  Yet, the sheer amount of water the plant would generate –it would generate 65 percent of the fresh water supply for the entire complex—would also create an extraordinary amount of hyper-salinated water, or brine, to be re-injected into the sea.  Currents would carry that brine inside the borders of Cabo Pulmo National Park, where it would impact the sensitive corals that form the basis of the ecosystem there. 
  • Cabo Cortés would not necessarily bring good jobs or economic gains to the communities.  In fact, in the history of the nearby major resort area of Los Cabos, hotel occupancy has hardly ever  surpassed 60 percent, and a recent study by Expedia.com shows that 85 percent of tourists do not return to the area.  So Cabo Cortés, which would be less accessible than Los Cabos and would destroy that very natural resource people would travel to see –Cabo Pulmo—is hardly a secure financial investment or economy-boosting project, particularly after the temporary construction jobs end.

One very positive message from the meeting yesterday was that the NGOs and the community are not completely opposed to development in the East Cape Region.  It is the size and location of Cabo Cortés that makes it fundamentally unsustainable and incompatible with a healthy Cabo Pulmo.  Local groups based in La Paz and the town of Cabo Pulmo are in fact already working on a long-term development plan that looks at the types of jobs, construction, infrastructure and economic activities they want to see come to their area for the best possible future.  The UNESCO, Ramsar and IUCN representatives will hear more about that plan today when they meet with the communities later today, as their mission continues.