NRDC Celebrates Tenth Anniversary of Major Victory in Laguna San Ignacio

Last Pristine Breeding Site for Gray Whales Remains Protected Today

LOS ANGELES (March 4, 2010) – This week marks the tenth anniversary of a monumental victory mobilizing millions of people to protect Laguna San Ignacio – the last undisturbed breeding place for the Pacific gray whale – located on the west coast of Mexico’s Baja California Sur. Caving to public pressure spearheaded by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Mexican government abandoned plans for a massive 116-square mile industrial salt plant proposed near the lagoon on March 2, 2000. The salt project was a joint venture with Mitsubishi Corporation of Japan.

“This remains one of the most significant environmental decisions of our generation – not just for Mexico, but for the world,” says Joel Reynolds, NRDC senior attorney. “The San Ignacio Lagoon is a World Heritage site, a Mexican ‘biosphere reserve,’ a whale sanctuary and a migratory bird refuge. We brought the full force of world opinion and consumer power to bear on Mitsubishi and Mexico to save the gray whale nursery. It would have been the worst place on the planet for industrial development.”

The decision was a victory of historic proportions for the NRDC-led coalition of environmentalists, fishermen, scientists and consumers – as well as the threatened gray whales and other marine species who call the lagoon home. More than a million people sent petitions, letters and emails to Mitsubishi and Mexico demanding that they give up their plans to industrialize Laguna San Ignacio. Still others made their wishes known by refusing to buy Mitsubishi products and telling the company why.

“Were are not only celebrating the defeat of the plans for a massive saltworks at Laguna San Ignacio, but also a decade of efforts to provide permanent protection for this true biological gem,” adds NRDC Senior Attorney Jacob Scherr. We have made great progress working with local communities and our environmental partners to block a revival of the saltworks scheme and to assure a sustainable future for the people living there.”

Following the victory over Mitsubishi, NRDC provided support and encouragement for a number of projects to provide local communities with sustainable economic alternatives, including assisting to expand and improve the school near the lagoon. Five years ago, we helped to launch the Laguna San Ignacio Conservation Alliance. With strong support from NRDC members and other donors, the Alliance purchased conservation easements on more than 125,000 acres of land around the lagoon and increased protections on another 100,000 acres.

Laguna San Ignacio, one of the best wildlife-viewing areas on the planet, is the last pristine breeding ground of the Pacific gray whale. Each year, hundreds of gray whales swim thousands of miles southward from the Arctic to mate, give birth and nurse their young in the warm waters of this vibrant lagoon.

The Saltworks Project

Had the saltworks project progressed, the lagoon would have faced clattering diesel engines pumping 6,000 gallons of sea water out of the lagoon each second, sending it into 116-square miles of evaporation ponds diked and dug out of the surrounding terrain by fleets of bulldozers. A mile-long concrete pier cutting right across the whale’s migratory path would have transported the finished salt to an offshore loading area to more than 120 salt tankers a year. Every three months a giant diesel tanker would pump its fuel onshore, increasing the risks of oil spills and other accidents.

The Coalition to Save Laguna San Ignacio

NRDC’s work to preserve Laguna San Ignacio dates back to 1996, when an international campaign was launched to stop Mitsubishi and the Mexican government from building a massive industrial saltworks on the banks of the lagoon. NRDC and its local partner organizations brought world opinion and consumer power to bear, and in 2000, Mexico and Mitsubishi agreed to abandon the destructive plan. The success of this citizen-propelled effort inspired the creation of NRDC's BioGems Initiative, which works to defend the most endangered wild places in the Americas.

In 1994, Mitsubishi submitted its first application to the Mexican Environment Ministry to build the salt plant. It was rejected by the Environment Ministry as “incompatible with the conservation objectives” of the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, which was created by the Mexican government in 1988 as the largest protected natural area in Latin America. In 1994, the reserve was declared a United Nations World Heritage Site. The $100-million facility would have been the largest salt plant in the world, covering 62,000 acres of the reserve – about three times the size of the District of Columbia.

The Coalition to Save Laguna San Ignacio, comprising 50 environmental groups in Mexico and the United States, worked for five years to stop the project. In 1999, the coalition’s efforts were bolstered by the endorsement of 34 world-renowned scientists, including nine Nobel Laureates, who urged Mitsubishi to abandon its plan and concluded that the salt plant would pose “an unacceptable risk” to wildlife and the environment.