While Whales Mate In A Lagoon...The Locals Debate A Big Salt Project

With its endless desert scrub, its remote beaches, and its single humble dirt road, Baha de Ballenas has its own stark beauty. To the east, salt flats glisten under a strong sun. At the bay's end, the ocean reaches into the desert in a lagoon only a few kilometers wide and 30 kilometers long. In this finger of the sea, gray whales end their annual migration from the Arctic to mate and calve in the warm, shallow waters. The high salinity of the Laguna de San Ignacio helps the baby whales float while they nurse and learn to swim.

Once close to extinction, the gray whale was removed from the endangered list two years ago, thanks to protections spurred by international treaties. Now, environmentalists charge a proposed salt-by-evaporation project will threaten the whale again. Exportadora de Sal, a joint venture between Mitsubishi Corp. and the Mexican government, wants to flood 20,000 hectares of salt flats with water from the lagoon. In large, shallow pools, the water would evaporate, allowing the company to harvest the salt and ship it to the Far East through Baha de Bellenas, named for the 30-ton mammals. Activists say the plan could affect salinity levels and that whales could be disturbed by ships loading salt at a huge pier 25 kilometers from the lagoon.

The environmentalists concede no one really knows what the project's impact will be. And the developers point out that a 40-year-old salt project at Ojo de Liebre, one of the two other lagoons favored by the whales along the Pacific coast, has not affected them--and new wetlands created by the flooded salt flats are a hit with migratory birds. "We've seen whales come up to the salt barges in Ojo de Liebre and scratch against them," says Julio C. Peralta, the company executive in charge of environmental issues. "And in San Ignacio, we're not even going to be working inside the lagoon."

But San Ignacio is a much smaller lagoon than Ojo de Liebre. Both are inside the 2.5-million-hectare Vizcano Biosphere Reserve, home to other valued wildlife such as antelope and osprey. "If this is approved, then the concept of the biosphere disappears," says Homero Aridjis, a poet who leads the Mexican environmentalist Group of 100. "You might as well build condominiums at the pyramids of Teotihuacn."

INFLAMMATORY. The debate marks the green movement's coming of age in Mexico. "Before, industry treated environmental-impact studies as mere bureaucracy," says Pedro Alvarez-Icaza, who approves the studies at the Environment Ministry's National Ecology Institute. "But we're making them an instrument of policy." Regulators also face savvier local activists. Angry letters flooded President Ernesto Zedillo's office in response to an inflammatory ad placed in The New York Times by the Group of 100.

Approving the project would "send the wrong message about how to manage a protected area," says Guillermo Castilleja, the World Wildlife Fund's Mexico representative. The current law's wording about development in the reserve is hazy. To many people's surprise, regulators rejected Exportadora's environmental impact statement, despite the government's 51% share in the company. A second one is in the works.

In Guerrero Negro, where Exportadora de Sal is based, residents work for the company or live off tourism from whale watching on Ojo de Liebre each January to April. Restaurant owner Mario Maya Abarca is so proud of the local attraction that he has mounted a display of whale photographs in the dining room, but he cautiously supports the San Ignacio project. "We need the jobs," he says. "I don't see any problem--except maybe with the dock and big ships" disturbing the whales.

Not everyone wants the jobs, however. In the fishing village of Punta Abreojos, which has about 1,000 residents and is closest to the pier site, fishermen worry that the shipping would damage lobster harvests. "They talk about development, but for whom? For them," observes Mayor Refugio Arce Camacho, 52. On the beach, younger fishermen weigh both sides. "Maybe in the future, it might be a source of work," ventures Francisco Javier Arce, 24, a distant cousin of the mayor. "The village is growing." If the project is approved, it may grow a lot faster than he expects.