Thirty feet off the tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, a reef covering 27.5 square miles stretches out in seven directions. Among its fingerlike extensions swim whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and countless tropical fish. On the shores of Cabo Pulmo National Park, sea lions sunbathe on boulders rounded by the waves of the Sea of Cortez.
It’s picture perfect, but it hasn’t always been this way. In the 1980s, local fishermen began noticing fewer and fewer fish in their nets. Realizing that they had severely overfished the reef and virtually wiped out its once-abundant marine life, the people of Cabo Pulmo did the unthinkable: They voluntarily decided to stop fishing. The tight-knit community of fewer than 200 joined academics and NGOs to petition the government for state and then federal protections for the threatened waters, and in 1995 Mexico created Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park.
The efforts paid off. A 2011 study found that the reef’s biomass had increased by an astounding 463 percent over 10 years. Thanks to this unprecedented recovery, Cabo Pulmo is now one of the world’s most robust marine reserves—and it has the international recognition to prove it. In 2005, UNESCO designated it as part of a World Heritage Site, and three years later the Ramsar Convention added Cabo Pulmo to its list of Wetlands of International Importance.
“It’s incredible—the reef is thriving,” says Amanda Maxwell, director of NRDC’s Latin America project. “And it’s really all because of this local community that decided to become the stewards of this marine park.”
It didn’t take very long for foreign developers to set their sights on the newly revived Cabo Pulmo, however. Hoping to capitalize on its tourism potential, Spanish company Hansa Urbana revealed plans in 2008 to construct a Cancún-size city just to the north of Cabo Pulmo National Park. The megaproject, known as Cabo Cortés, would include a total of 30,000 rooms in hotels and houses, a 490-slip marina, at least three golf courses, and a private jetport—all on the edge of a fragile reef ecosystem, a dozen miles from the closest paved road.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the local community immediately organized against the project, and it wasn’t long before regional and national groups joined the effort, creating a vibrant coalition called Cabo Pulmo Vivo. In response, Hansa Urbana stepped up its pressure on the Mexican government to swiftly approve its ill-conceived proposal. But the coalition did not back down. Instead, it enlisted international organizations, including NRDC, to help protect Cabo Pulmo.
“It was an easy, natural fit for us because many of them were our partners in Laguna San Ignacio,” Maxwell says, referring to NRDC’s involvement in an international campaign that successfully staved off industrial development in the Mexican lagoon, an important breeding area for the Pacific gray whale. After about a year of scoping the project out, NRDC decided to get involved in the Cabo Pulmo effort at the end of 2010.
The project’s flaws were abundant, and the coalition attacked Cabo Cortés on every front imaginable: legal, scientific, environmental, economic, social. The permitting process broke municipal and national laws, and the project would severely harm not only the reef’s marine life but also the local community. There was also the issue of Hansa Urbana’s financial instability: It would be a very risky investment.
Despite this clear evidence, the environmental review process continued for four years, with major pieces of the project receiving approval in 2011. “It soon became obvious that the government wasn’t necessarily prepared to evaluate a project of this size and complexity,” Maxwell remembers. But the coalition pushed on, continuing to call on the expertise of scientists both local and world-renowned and raising awareness throughout the country. Finally in June 2012, Felipe Calderón, the Mexican president at the time, officially rejected the Cabo Cortés project.
The decision was a huge victory for the underdogs in this David-and-Goliath fight, but the threat of unsustainable coastal development near Cabo Pulmo never really goes away. In fact, developers proposed a new project strikingly similar to Cabo Cortés just a few weeks after the president canceled it. And in 2014 the project surfaced again, this time led by Chinese investors who renamed it Cabo Dorado, a plan that Maxwell dubbed “Cabo Cortés 3.0.” Both plans fell through, thanks to the persistence of the local community and other groups, including NRDC. Yet the developers continued to—unsuccessfully—challenge the original rejection of Cabo Cortés.
“It’s important to remember that it’s not an issue of development versus environmentalism,” says Carolina Herrera, NRDC’s Latin America advocate. “It’s about making sure development is compatible with the protection of the marine ecosystem that the self-appointed stewards of Cabo Pulmo worked so hard to revive.”
With that in mind, she continues, “We’re not against all development in the area; we’re against bad development. We’re always ready to get back in the game if we have to.”