Baja mega-resort project given yellow light


In 1995, the fishermen of the Baja California village of Cabo Pulmo decided to stop fishing. Alarmed by depletion of their Sea of Cortez stocks and concerned about the area’s coral reef, they switched to ecotourism.

Joined by scientists and environmental groups, they successfully lobbied the Mexican government to set aside 7,000 hectares (27 sq. miles) of the coastal waters encompassing the reef as a national marine park.

Fifteen years later, Cabo Pulmo National Park bursts with wildlife. Scientists say Cabo Pulmo has the Sea of Cortez’s highest concentration of fish both in terms of numbers and size, and that migratory species such as whale sharks and humpback whales have rebounded.

But a massive new resort planned for the coastline seven kilometers (four miles) north of the park could threaten the reef’s recovery, say scientists and environmental groups. In addition, the resort will pump water from the Santiago aquifer, the last untapped aquifer in a region already short of water, they say.

Partial approval

The resort, Cabo Cortés, won partial approval this month from Mexico’s environment ministry, Semarnat. Simultaneously dismaying environmental groups and complicating the developer’s plans, Semarnat approved Cabo Cortés proposals concerning housing and land, but ordered two years’ study on all project phases related to water and a separate environmental-impact study after that.

The ruling halts construction, for now, of the resort’s marina, as well as work on desalination and water-treatment plants. The developer, the Spanish company Hansa Urbana, effectively can build houses, hotels and golf courses, but with no assurance the property can be sold or used until the water and impact studies are completed and final approval is secured.

“What we did was to allow the first part of a project that may or may not go ahead eventually,” said Sergio Ramírez, a spokesman for Semarnat, in a radio interview. “The developers will decide if they take the risk . . . We are imposing environmental conditions that are stronger and more numerous than have ever been required of a tourism project in Mexico.”

Hansa Urbana says work will begin soon.

Behind the Cabo Cortés fight is a broader argument about how tourism growth should occur on the relatively undeveloped coasts of the Sea of Cortez. Since the 1970s, Mexico has attracted tourists to large, glitzy beach resorts, with development growing fastest on the country’s Caribbean coast. A vision of more such resorts underlies President Felipe Calderón’s drive, announced at the end of February, to move Mexico from the tenth-most-visited country in the world to fifth place by 2018.

It’s a vision many experts here find frightening. Scientists worry that a proliferation of mega-resorts on the Sea of Cortez would destroy the region’s marine environment. Says Exequiel Ezcurra, a professor of ecology at the University of California Riverside and the former director of Mexico’s National Ecology Institute: “We already have the experience with Cancun and Cozumel. All the reefs are dead.”

Environmental groups argue that Semarnat’s decision on Cabo Cortés flouts a 1995 land-use plan for the local Los Cabos municipality that they say requires lower-density development. “Nobody has the right to build on sand dunes,” says attorney Agustín Bravo of the Mexican Environmental Law Center (Cemda), which with other groups has fought Cabo Cortés in court. “Nobody has the right to secure a supply of water from the aquifer.”

Controversial reading

Semarnat denies violating the plan, arguing its guidelines are open to interpretation and are not obligatory. But critics counter that while there is no overall management plan for the Sea of Cortez coast, assorted measures, such as the Los Cabos land-use plan and a 2006 marine zoning plan, are in place for a reason. “Nobody can say the instruments don’t exist,” says Octavio Aburto, a Scripps Institution of Oceanography researcher who has studied the Sea of Cortez for 15 years. “We have rules, regulations, planning zones.” The problem is, he adds, “they have all been violated.”

By its sheer scale, Cabo Cortés represents a bet that economic pressures dogging some other Sea of Cortez mega-resorts can be overcome. Its 15-year plan calls for 6,000 hotel rooms and 7,000 houses, including workers’ quarters, says Jesús Guilabert Boyer, Hansa Urbana’s Mexico representative. Guilabert counters opponents’ concerns by citing Hansa Urbana’s plans to set aside 70% of its 3,800 hectares (14.7 sq miles) for conservation, provide monitoring support for the park and help protect sea-turtle nesting grounds. The company also contends local sea currents flow from south to north, meaning treated wastewater from the development will be swept away from the park. Environmental groups cite research suggesting the opposite.

Ezcurra says Semarnat apparently believes that by not authorizing water-related phases of the project, “they are delaying the risk to the reef.” But ultimately, he argues, nutrient-rich wastewater from Cabo Cortes will reach the sea, and “put the reef at immense risk.”

- Elisabeth Malkin

Octavio Aburto-Oropeza
Scripps Institute of Oceanography
La Jolla, CA, United States
Tel: (858) 822-3765
Agustín Bravo
Mexican Environmental Law Center (Cemda)
La Paz, Baja California Sur Mexico, Mexico
Tel: +(52 612) 165-5091
Exequiel Ezcurra
UC Institute for Mexico and the United States (UC MEXUS)
University of California, Riverside
Riverside, CA, United States
Tel: (951) 827-3546
Jesús Guilabert Boyer
Hansa Baja Investments
San José del Cabo, Baja California Sur, Mexico
Tel: +(52 624) 130-7166
Sergio Ramírez Robles
Mexico City, Mexico
Tel: +(52 55) 5490-0900, ext. 12104