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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.

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"They can do most anything that does not put the environment at risk," says Fernando Ochoa Pineda, a Pronatura lawyer. Ecotourism is fine, for example, but a mega-resort with a golf course is not - because of the pesticides, the immense water usage, and the sewage. Fishing and farming is allowed, but a marina would be rejected, as would a salt factory. "We are aware there needs to be development," says Mr. Ochoa. "The only question is what kind of development."

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The monetary incentive is meant to offset the rising tide of offers that are tempting many poor landowners. Nine years ago, Mitsubishi Corp. came here proposing a 500,000-acre industrial salt-harvesting factory. It would have drained the lagoon, but paid well. The plan was eventually scuppered after a long campaign by conservationists. More recently, other salt companies, along with oil-exploration groups, have expressed interest in the land.

"The seduction of a quick buck is enormous, especially in these poor areas," says Richard Kiy, president of the San Diego-based International Community Foundation (ICF), which will maintain the alliance's trust fund. "What we are trying to do is take a proactive approach and give the ejidos an income stream, which allows them to achieve community goals and control their own future ... while at the same time protecting the whales' habitat," he says.

In the course of hammering out the deal, members of a former land collective in Cabo San Lucas, a tourist destination south of here, met with the communities at the lagoon. They told a cautionary tale about selling their land.

"Those people used to own their land, too," says Kiy. "Now they are working there as busboys, or cleaners - and so are their children."

Most landowners still want to sell

Still, not everyone is convinced, and it seems that getting more ejidos to join the project will be a tough battle. Up to 60 percent of landowners in the region want to sell, according to a recent ICF study.

"My ejido does not seem interested in this plan," says Francisco "Pachico" Mayoral, a boat mechanic and tourism camp owner who is a member of the San Ignacio ejido. "They want to be able to sell and do whatever they want with the land, because they have heard that North Americans are coming to buy here and they have a lot of money. Mr. Mayoral says he personally has nothing against the project, but ejidos must make the commitment as a group, not as individuals.

Over at the center of the Luis Echeverría ejido, children gather among scattered old truck parts and painted tire fences to watch their fathers and brothers bring in the week's catch of lobsters.

"Of course we could always do with more money in our pockets," says Victor Ramirez Gallegos, an ejidatario with rough hands and sunburned lips. "But on the other hand," he says, "We have a school. We have light with our solar panels and a small water-purification plant. We eat lobsters. We even have a satellite hookup for Internet," he says, packing the lobsters in a truck for the long drive up the coast.

Mr. Gallegos fishes for lobsters in October and November, leads whale-watching tours from December through April, and dives for scallops the rest of the year. "God willing, I will pass this life along to my children," he explains, picking up his 1-year-old son, Victor, who is playing with a trash bag on the sand. "It's good to have money," he says chuckling to himself, "but tranquility is worth a lot ... and not only for the whales."

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