The Fate of Cabo Pulmo National Park Remains Uncertain

By Dawn Pier

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about Cabo Pulmo, the Jewel of Mexico. The reef and marine animals living inside Cabo Pulmo National Park may be protected from direct impacts like fishing, aquarium collectors and boat anchors, and it may be the most successful marine park on the planet, but in 2008 a potentially devastating impact to the reef and its inhabitants began to gain momentum.

2.5 tons of manure dropped in protest against the Cabo Cortes development. Image courtesy of Greenpeace/Prometeo Rodríguez

That impact is a massive resort complex that Spanish-based developer  Hansa Baja planned to build directly north of the park.  The proposed development would create a sprawling new city on a scale comparable to Cancún that covers 9,800 acres and includes 29,000 hotel rooms and residential housing units, at least two golf courses, a 490-boat marina and a private jet port. A development of this type and scale would include the operation of a desalination plant to produce fresh water, application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to the golf courses and grounds, anti-fouling paints and other chemicals used in the marina and the city’s own creation of pollution (gas, oil, sediment and domestic garbage) which would flow south on ocean coastal currents toward the reef.

Upon learning of the developer’s intentions, WildCoast, Greenpeace Mexico, World Wildlife Fund, Natural Resources Defense Counsel (NRDC) and a consortium called Cabo Pulmo Vivo that consists of Baja-based conservation organizations like Amigos para la Conservacion de Cabo Pulmo (Friends for the Conservation of Cabo Pulmo), came together to fight the megadevelopment. The campaign against Cabo Cortes has been gaining momentum over the past year with articles almost universally condemning the project appearing in CBS News Online, the San Francisco Chronicle and National Geographic. Jean-Michel Cousteau, oldest son of biologist and explorer Jacques Cousteau, publicly criticized the project in March, and in April of last year, the Los Angeles Times published an Op Ed penned by none other than Robert Kennedy Jr. of the NRDC and Mexican poet laureate and founder of the environmental group Grupo los Cien, Homero Aridjis.

In the end, the economy dealt the developer a greater blow, with parent company Hansa Urbana forced to declare bankruptcy in 2011. The company’s assets, including the land and development plans for Cabo Cortes were acquired by regional Spanish bank, Banco Sabadell. At present it is not clear if the bank will sell the project or develop it.

The campaign against the development reached fever pitch on March 28th when, in an unprecedented move, the minister of the Mexican Environmental Protection Agency (SEMARNAT), Juan Rafael Elvira Quesada, stood before the Mexican Senate to answer charges that permits for Cabo Cortes were obtained illegally, through the use of bribery and fraud. Greenpeace Mexico was there representing concerned citizens and activists all over Mexico. The event was covered by a wide array of national media. On April 25th, frustrated with SEMARNAT’s recalcitrance to charge Elvira with fraud, Greenpeace Mexico dumped 2.5 tons of manure in front of the SEMARNAT office buildings in Mexico City and hung banners emblazoned with the words “Algo Huele Mal,” something smells bad in SEMARNAT.

Whether Elvira is charged or not, the larger question that remains to be answered is who will end up with ownership of the large expanse of land and development plans? Will the Mexican government step up to the plate and purchase the development from the Spanish bank owner in order to protect its conservation success story? Will the community of Cabo Pulmo be given a say in what kind of development is created on its Northern border? Or will it be sold off to the highest bidder? The fate of Cabo Pulmo National Park remains in the balance.

What about you? Do you think that the benefits of a development on the scale of Cabo Cortes outweigh the costs to the environment? We’d love to hear your comments!