Jim Conaway’s feature in this month’s issue, “Is Baja on the Block?” looks at how the spread of tourism and development is threatening the integrity of Baja California in Mexico. Here, he introduces some of the people trying to help sustain the marine heritage of the region.
Peter Patterson looks more like an American teenager in designer sunglasses and a blue Coastkeeper T-shirt than a 27-year-old Mexican biology student holding a battery-powered device for measuring the temperature, oxygen content, and salinity of water. A wire dangles from it into the Bay of La Paz. Until recently, the view to the west was of blue water and, far away, dry and dusky mountains floating in a haze of heat and ambient yellow light.
Now the long sandy expanse in the foreground, with its necklace of green mangroves, supports the skeletal gray ramparts of a hotel and condos rising in the literal middle of nowhere, another baleful mirage in a desert seascape. This one has no drinking water, sewage treatment, or a direct link to the city. And strollers along La Paz’s waterfront malecon, if they want to watch the sun set, must also look at a development on what was recently a federally protected beach and wetland.
Patterson is just one of a large collection of activists and attorneys involved in preserving Mexico’s coastal treasurers, and that’s good news. Among others offering crucial assistance is La Paz’s Center for Environmental Law, where Pablo Uribe and Agustin Bravo challenge the despoliation of wetlands and other ecosystems from Cabo to Ensenada. La Paz is also the headquarters of Baja Expeditions, which provided this reconnaissance boat, and Lindblad Expeditions, both environmentally-minded guides to the fragile treasures of the Sea of Cortez (aka Gulf of California).
Until fairly recently, Mexico’s unique and fragile environmental treasures were on their own, which meant subjected to the depradations of developers acting in concert with government agencies interested only in low-end tourist bonanzas. That is changing. The once lonely cohort of Mexican environmentalists has been heartened by some recent successes in preserving marine mammals and pristine stretches of the coast of the Sea of Cortez. They have received help from agencies in the United States, among them the Natural Resources Defense Council, Wildcoast, and the Ocean Foundation.
But that help couldn’t have produced results without the dogged, and at times, risky activities of people like Uribe and his colleague Bravo at the Center for Environmental Law, and Patterson of CoastKeepers, as well as the support of Manuel Vazquez at Lindblad and Tim Means, founder of Baja Expeditions. Anyone interested in assisting in these efforts would be welcomed by this small but determined cadre of the green-minded in whose hands is much of Mexico’s marine heritage.
UPDATE: Our friends over at the NG Maps division Contours blog has all the details about their two new Adventure Maps of North and South Baja peninsula. NG Maps partnered with local governments, UNESCO, and the Nature Conservancy of Mexico to create such cartographic genius, and we encourage you to check them out.
Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins, from the November/December 2008 issue of Traveler