This article is from the December 2001-January 2002 The Mexico File newsletter.
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The Nautical Ladder

by Homero Aridjis and Serge Dedina

Homero Aridjis is the president of International PEN and the author of “Eyes to See Otherwise,” and Serge Dedina is the director of WILDCOAST and the author of “Saving the Gray Whale.” This article originally appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune and is reprinted with the permission of Serge Dedina.

The aquamarine waters of Bahia de los Angeles, on Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, confirm Jacques Cousteau’s statement that the Sea of Cortez is the world’s aquarium.  

Thousands of dolphins chase sardines. Sea lions breed on islands among plants, mammals and reptiles that exist nowhere else on Earth. During summer and fall 40-foot long whale sharks fill the bay to feed on plankton.  

Bahia de los Angeles is unique. If President Vicente Fox and John McCarthy of Mexico’s National Tourism Fund (FONATUR) have their way, the natural beauty and marine wildlife of the bay could disappear. Whale sharks will be replaced by an 1,800-slip yacht marina that a dredging permit was recently issued for by Mexico’s Environment Ministry. Jet skis will stop the dolphin’s underwater ballet. The world will lose a marine area considered by scientists and conservation groups to be among the planet’s most important.  

The yacht marina and a mega-tourist resort with hotels, golf courses and trailer parks planned for Bahia de los Angeles – an area that under Mexican law should be off limits for development – is one of 22 marina-tourist projects planned for Mexico’s Sea of Cortez and the Baja California peninsula...despite the significant impacts to one of North America’s most sensitive marine areas.  

The $1.6 billion chain of marinas and tourist resorts – called a “Nautical Ladder,” proposed by President Fox, threatens some of the world’s most visually stunning and ecologically significant wildlife reserves. These include the Upper Gulf Biosphere Reserve, Loreto Bay National Park, Sea of Cortez Wildlife Refuge and the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve.  

These four sites have been targeted for development without consultation with the dedicated specialists responsible for managing some of the world’s greatest marine, island and coastal wildlife hot spots. They certainly did not consult the ordinary fishermen who depend on the natural resources of these areas to feed their families.  

During Fox’s first visit to the United States as Mexico’s first democratically elected leader, he highlighted his government’s commitment to democracy, free trade and immigration reform. However, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the United States, immigration reform – the centerpiece of Fox’s economic development policy – has been abandoned by the U.S. Congress.  

The Fox administration is now only left with the Nautical Ladder – a classic example of a state-funded environmentally destructive policy based on faulty economic data. A FONATUR document promoting the Nautical Ladder cites 1997 growth forecasts for the yacht industry to illustrate the potential for tourism development in the region – a year in which the U.S. economy was booming. Now that the United States and Mexico are facing recessions and the golf and yacht industries are in decline, there is little chance that FONATUR will succeed.

Government-financed projects litter the Baja California peninsula. An abandoned FONATUR marina in Loreto is testament to the lack of a need for new marinas in the region. Deserted government trailer parks that dot the Baja California’s Trans-peninsular Highway highlight the inability of bureaucrats in Mexico City to plan successful projects.  

The Nautical Ladder is a clever publicly financed land grab that promises to enrich a small cadre of public officials and a select group of private investors. It would damage some of Mexico’s most pristine wilderness areas. The support by the Fox administration for the Nautical Ladder sadly exposes the tradition of authoritarian and anti-democratic decision-making among presidents in Mexico that was the hallmark of the 71-year rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI. Little has changed. 

The Fox administration learned nothing from the five-year campaign carried out by a coalition of Mexican and international environmental groups to halt the Mitsubishi Corporation and the Mexican Salt Exporting Company from building a 500,000-acre industrial salt facility next to San Ignacio Lagoon – the world’s last undeveloped gray whale lagoon. In fact, President Fox inaugurated the Nautical Ladder project in La Paz almost a year after President Zedillo killed the salt project.  

A recent map of the Nautical Ladder project published by FONATUR shows that one marina would be built in exactly the same location, in Punta Abreojos (just north of San Ignacio Lagoon and in the path of gray whale migration corridor), that a mile-long concrete pier associated with the salt project was planned. The marina site is located within the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Environmental groups are gearing p to mount a campaign to halt the Nautical Ladder.  

During a recent visit in Bahia de los Angeles to promote the Nautical Ladder, Environment Minister Victor Lichtinger and FONATUR’s John McCarthy derided local fishermen who publicly argued that the project would destroy the local eco-tourism and sport fishing industries – their main source of jobs in the town. Since Bahia de los Angeles barely has enough water for the town’s existing 800 residents. , it is hard to believe that water will magically appear for the hotels, golf courses and marina planned for the town and the 12,000 hotel rooms planned for one of the world’s driest regions.  

And Baja California’s fragile ecosystems will soon face additional pressures from two huge liquid natural gas terminals which Sempra and El Paso Corporation plan to build south of the border, largely to satisfy California’s insatiable hunger for energy and to avoid opposition by local environmentalists if the plants were sited in California. 

The World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development have granted millions of dollars to the Mexican government to protect the very wildlife reserves that President Fox and FONATUR plan to develop. We can hope World Bank and USAID can convince the Fox administration that investing in eco-tourism, sustainable fishing and biodiversity conservation will create more opportunities for rural communities than wasting public funds on tourist mega-projects that are relics of Mexico’s corrupt past.   

The Sea of Cortez International Preservation Foundation

The Sea of Cortez International Preservation Foundation (SOCIPF) plans to serve as the watchdog organization during the construction of the Nautical Ladder.  

For more information on SOCIPF’s work or to join as a supporting member, go to