Published on Friday, March 3, 2000 in the Washington Post
Environmentalists Persuade Mexico To 'Save The Whales'
by John Ward Anderson  
 

MEXICO CITY - "We are absolutely, totally thrilled and elated," said Jacob Scherr, an official of the Natural Resources Defense Council, part of an international coalition formed to stop the proposed plant from being built at the remote Laguna San Ignacio, on the Pacific side of Mexico's Baja Peninsula.

"This is a victory not just for the lagoon, but for the planet, and it's a triumph of an empowered citizenry over one of the world's most powerful companies."

The $100 million saltworks was a joint venture between Mitsubishi and the Mexican government, and the decision to cancel it is apparently the first time either has relented on a project for environmental reasons. The salt plant would have been one of the largest in the world, covering an area about three times the size of the District of Columbia. It would have sat adjacent to the lagoon, where shallow ponds of salt water would evaporate in the hot desert sun, leaving pure salt.

Environmentalists attacked the proposal principally because of its potential impact on the gray whale, which uses the lagoon as a winter breeding ground, and on more than 300 other animal species that live in the vicinity. The area is considered so ecologically valuable that the United Nations declared it a World Heritage Site and the Mexican government created a "biosphere reserve" to protect it.

Mitsubishi director James E. Brumm said that a recent $1 million, 3,000-page environmental study found the saltworks would have no adverse impact on the region's ecology.

But, he said, Mitsubishi and the Mexican government agreed that the project was not compatible with the surrounding landscape.

Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo said the proposal was killed because the lagoon "is a unique place in the world, because of the species that inhabit it and its natural beauty, which we should preserve."

The salt plant project galvanized environmentalists, celebrities and artists around the world, who turned it into an international public relations disaster for both Mitsubishi and Mexico. Full-page ads in U.S. and Mexican newspapers blasted the project. Mitsubishi received more than 700,000 postcards opposing the plant.

"The government had to apply environmental laws above and beyond their economic interests," said poet and environmentalist Homero Aridjis, head of the Group of 100 intellectuals, who started the lonely anti-saltworks crusade and developed it into an international cause celebre.

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2000 The Washington Post Company