Baja California: An environmental battle in San Jose del Cabo
They call themselves the “Angeles del Estero,” and they’re trying to save a river estuary at the tip of the Baja California peninsula in Mexico, as development pressures threaten not only the scenery but the very vitality of the delta.I encountered the group while on vacation in 2006, when I visited the city of San Jose del Cabo and observed a sign on a beach declaring that a local bird species was threatened with extinction and asking for help in trying to “save the estuary.”My vacation immediately morphed into an investigative exercise, but that’s the way I like it sometimes – a nice place to visit, but with a serious side that I can appreciate and even help with.Inquiries led me to Norma Sanchez, a local psychologist, jazz singer and chief of the Angeles (pronounced, in Spanish, “ahng-he-lez”). Born in Mexico City but a resident of San Jose for the past dozen or so years, she has worked for several years to keep resort developers, local citizens looking for a place to dump trash, and others from destroying the delta. The “estero” borders the eastern edge of the city, where the Rio San Jose comes down from nearby mountains and empties into the sea.
“This is the most important estuary in all the peninsula,” she declared. “It’s one of a kind,” because it is a freshwater delta that is “a very important place for migratory birds.”A bird count in 2000, the year Los Angeles del Estero was founded, showed there were 100 different species of migratory birds using the estuary as a stopover. And besides the wildlife, she said, local agricultural operations have historically used the estuary and helped to keep it from being developed.”We used to have more farming around the estuary,” she recalled.In 2001, she said, there were 11 different fires started at different points in the estuary, destroying crops, farms and homes and depriving 15 farming families of their livelihood. She said no one was prosecuted for starting the fires and offered the opinion that the fires had contributed to a decrease in local farming, which means diminished support for her cause.”You get a lot of intimidation, nonsupport from the government,” she said.The main problem, Sanchez said, is the nearly completed Marina San Jose on the estuary’s east side, using lands purchased from the dispossessed farmers. As of last year, she said, only one farmer, Gilberto Miranda, was still holding out against the marina developers. Miranda’s orchards grew organic produce, and his family had farmed the area for generations.An Internet article by the environmental organization Greenpeace called the estuary “the most important source of fresh water in the region” and described plans for the marina, known as the Los Cabos Project: “Two golf courses, three large hotels, 1,168 houses, three beach clubs, two theme parks and a marina for 500 boats.” If the plans are not altered, Greenpeace maintained, “the wetland will be history.” The fight has spawned sit-ins and other forms of protest.Another threat to the estuary, Sanchez said, is a four-lane “bypass” being built from the airport the north of town, on a strip of filled-in, raised roadway along the western edge of the estuary and down to the beach. Runoff, and the encroachment of the road into the estuary, is the problem, she said.Javi Muñoz, at the office of the regional government in Cabo San Lucas, said he was doing what he could to satisfy the demands of Sanchez and her group.”I like Norma,” he said in heavily accented English, “but she think like an environmentalist,” meaning she only sees her side of the issue.Muñoz, however, was required to deal with the developers, locals in San Jose who use the estuary as a recreational amenity, and federal government agencies that view development as the savior of the local economy.One positive recent change in attitudes, he said, was the transfer of governmental responsibility from federal officials to regional and state agencies, which he felt might be less eager to let developers have their way. The municipal government has undertaken studies about how to proceed while balancing development with preservation of the estuary.Sanchez was skeptical of the government’s commitment to save the estuary, but cautiously upbeat about the prospects, especially since U.S. environmental groups have become aware of the fight.”Oh, yes, the estero has a tremendous chance if you just leave it alone,” she concluded hopefully. “But I don’t have too many expectations.” To learn more about the group and its activities, search the Internet for Angeles del Estero.John Colson’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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