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The price of tranquility in an underdeveloped Mexican lagoon

Conservation groups will give a yearly stipend to Mexican landowners to save a whale refuge - and a way of life.

By Danna HarmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 5, 2005



LAGUNA SAN IGNACIO, MEXICO

They have already passed San Diego: thousands of gray whales making their annual 10,000-mile voyage from feeding grounds in the Arctic circle to the warm winter waters of Baja California.

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By now, many of them - the males ahead, the females straggling behind - are arriving in Laguna San Ignacio, one of the world's last underdeveloped lagoons. Here, they will give birth to their young, rear them, and prepare for the long trip back north to Alaska in the spring.

The lagoon has been a home to the whales - as well as 221 species of birds, green sea turtles, bottlenose dolphins, and osprey - for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. And now, thanks to an innovative cross-border conservation agreement, it will be protected in perpetuity.

The deal signed Oct. 25 between US and Mexico-based conservation groups and the 43 members of the local land collective, or ejido, stipulates that fishers and whale-watching guides here will protect the 120,000 acres they own along the shores of the lagoon. In exchange for payments of $25,000 a year from a group of conservationists, the ejido also will limit industrial and tourist projects in favor of low-impact developments.

The deal marks the first time a private land trust has been negotiated for an ejido's entire territory. The legally binding deal is being touted as a model for conserving both the environment and the area's cultural and traditional identity.

The Laguna San Ignacio Conservation Alliance, which includes the conservation group Wildcoast and the Natural Resources Defense Council, raised nearly $1.8 million for the project. It hopes to eventually bring the other five ejidos in the region into the program as well, and so preserve the entire 1 million acres of pristine ecosystem around the lagoon, which has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site.

"Businesses are not necessarily interested in whales," says Serge Dedina, Wildcoast's executive director, "or in the communities living around the lagoon as they go about their effort to build the next Cancún. Our goal is to empower people and ensure they can protect the land. We care about the whales, but we are also motivated by social justice and ethical responsibility."

Preserving whales and a lifestyle

José de Jesús Varela Galvan, a member of the Luis Echeverría ejido that struck the deal, is also the director of Kuyima, an ecotourism company that takes tourists out on whale trips. He echoes this sentiment: "Whales are charismatic, enigmatic, smart, and basically marvelous," he says. "But in this case, they are a means to an end for us - preserving our way of life for our children and grandchildren."

The money from the fund will be used for an array of projects, explains ejido president Raúl Eduardo Lopez. Suggestions so far include building an ice factory for packing fish, giving the middle school its own building, expanding the oyster factory, bringing in a pharmacy, and maybe starting a pig farm. "We need these projects to succeed, and we want to pay back into the fund ... in order to prove to ourselves - and to our neighbors - that this is the way to go," Mr. Lopez says.

All project proposals will have to be approved by Pronatura, Mexico's largest conservation group, which is part of the alliance and charged with monitoring the agreement.

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