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.

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.

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.

"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."

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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