Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Baja bye-bye?

Several years ago I went to Baja, after a life-long desire to see the Sea of Cortez and a unique, mythic place. I found all that, and plenty of the usual                                                                                                
      Imagine a Galápagos-like finger of land nearly 800 miles long—and right next door to the United States. Or picture Florida in the 1940s, before all the coastal development—but without the fresh water. These are two descriptions I'm hearing of Baja California, the arid peninsula stretching from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas, on one side the roiled Pacific Ocean and on the other the glassy Gulf of California. There flourish a dozen species of migratory whales, herds of mobula rays—the manta's occasionally airborne cousin—leatherback and other sea turtles, a healthy billfish population despite relentless overangling, hundreds of species of birds including the elusive blue-footed booby, and numerous other indigenous, even unique, aquatic and desert life-forms.
     Into this Edenic world has stepped the full force of coastal development. The tread was heaviest at Baja's tip, known collectively as "Cabo." More conscientious but problematic is tourist and residential building outside the lovely former colonial outpost of Loreto, up the east coast. And farther up yet lies a beautiful, undiscovered gem of astonishing biological fecundity, Bahía de Los Angeles, where development was still mostly rumor. What's to become of Baja is an increasingly loud debate in both Mexico and the United States, and underlying the argument is the worrisome question: Will it end up being trashed because of its unique appeal?
     "Cabo" meant very different things to different people: spring-breakers sucking down tequila Jell-O shots in El Squid Roe and the Gigglin Marlin. Wet T-shirt contests without the T-shirts. McDonald's, Häagen-Dazs, Costco. Hotels walling off the beach while sewage trickles into a crowded harbor. Golfers seriously paying to play in parched air, on unnaturally green signature courses. Gated communities with shotgun-slung guards and personal infinity pools. George Clooney and Gwyneth Paltrow in secluded über-resorts. Forests of rebar and embryonic condos swarming with laborers trucked in from poorest mainland Mexico—people who sleep in remote canyons without running water or services. Sun, fun, beauty, fame, oblivion, squalor.
     On one side of the 20-mile development corridor is Cabo San Lucas, and at the other San José del Cabo and the so-called cape region, all of it ringing with the sounds of hammers and snorting diesels. A parallel American vacation dream is rapidly being created down here that's transforming one of the world's most remarkable maritime landscapes and raising questions about environmental damage.
     "What environmental damage?" asked Johnny Vaughn, a partner in Grupo Questro, one of Cabo's big, multinational developers. We were tooling around Cabo San Lucas in his SUV to get some perspective on the real estate boom. "If somebody can show me how we're hurting the environment, I wish they would."  Plump and affable, Vaughn smoked a cigarette as he toted up the usual superlatives: fastest-growing resort community in Mexico; most expensive annual boat race; biggest charity events. He pointed to a lot facing the harbor, where a museum commemorating Mexico's culture and 1910 revolution was to be built. "This is the last open space on the waterfront. The museum's going to be a huge, beautiful monster."
       "Huge" is the adjective of choice here. "Look at those houses," he says, pointing to the stone palaces balanced on the ridge between the Sea of Cortés and the Pacific Ocean, in a literally over-the-top development called Pedregal. "They're huge." The biggest belongs—naturally—to the developer who put together this particular collection of conspicuous views. "They all belong to Californians, Arizonans, and Texans."
     No one is on the cobbled streets other than maids waiting for the Pedregal bus. Vaughn grew up in Sonora, far to the north, and I ask him why all the projects here are built by outsiders. "The locals aren't very good at managing things," Vaughn says. "A lot of them are descended from pirates, you know." And ranchers along the coast never paid much attention to the sea, "until we discovered it."
     "We" is Cabo's tight, seemingly autonomous, catalytic real estate community. The population of Cabo San Lucas grew exponentially when the Mexican government fingered it as the next big opportunity for tourist development. It then hovered between 60,000 and 100,000 residents, depending on who you ask.
       Vaughn marched me through a partially completed mansion to view the surging Pacific far below. Concrete was being poured 24/7 down there, facilitated by a tunnel dug through the mountain to speed up logistics. The retaining wall of one new hotel looks like a mere line drawn in the sand. "They might have a problem with a hurricane down there," he says, without condemnation, for most anything can be attempted in Cabo.
        I ask how southern Baja's going to provide water for all the multiplying thousands. "De-sal." He draws the word out. "It's a piece of cake."
     And what about the briny by-product of desalination, and all the various runoffs? Vaughn just smiles. "Look at that ocean out there. I don't think we have a problem."

        "I'm just one woman, and the developers have great power. If they want to squash you, they can."
     Her name was Norma Sánchez, and she founded Angels of the Estuary, a grassroots organization that opposed the digging of a marina near San José del Cabo by Vaughn's Grupo Questro. It was dug anyway, part of the $1-billion Puerto Los Cabos development now in full swing. A bridge being built just upstream of the San José Estuary was to bring the expected tourists and residents to four planned communities and what resembles a giant, boat-filled keyhole punched into the desert's green verge, where crops were formerly grown. The marina has berths for 400-plus boats, including, according to the website, "luxury mega yachts," and will have the usual suspects: golf courses, hotels, spas, beach clubs, condos.
     Many of the town's former residents sold out and moved to the outskirts, or away, as Sánchez had. Her soft brown eyes, under the brim of the straw hat, belied determination but also a touch of fatigue. She'd been sobered by the loss of her particular development battle to a well-oiled legal machine and what she considered the government's inability, and unwillingness, to monitor the rising tide of concrete.
"There are better ways to build than by disrupting whole towns, using up a lot of scarce water, and creating huge waste issues. Why can't developers understand that they can still make money if they do the right thing environmentally?"
     We walked across a blindingly white beach on the west side of the estuary, through what amounted to a living mirage: fresh water, dense marsh grass, gallinules and other aquatic birds, and a distant row of palms that seemed to sway in the rising thermals. "This is a very important place," she said. "It has fresh water where that's rare, and provides habitat for waterfowl and many other species," including people.
     The effect of saltwater let in by the nearby marina was still an open question. Baja's small but tenacious Mexican Center for Environmental Law up in La Paz assisted Sánchez in opposing it, and several international organizations weighed in, among them Greenpeace, whose activists chained themselves to heavy earthmoving equipment in 2006 in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the marina dig.
     The marina, and Puerto Los Cabos, had the early backing of the Mexican government's Fonatur (National Fund for the Development of Tourism), the powerful agency that identifies potential tourist spots and provides infrastructure, all at public expense. These projects were then handed over to the private sector, part of a strategy that had produced some economic benefits for the country but also led to social and environmental problems like those in woefully overbuilt Cancún and other well-worn tourist venues. "Fonatur," said Sánchez, "is a partner in all these developments."
      Another spot in Baja was identified years ago by Fonatur as a prime tourist destination, Loreto, 318 miles north on the gulf and the oldest permanent Spanish settlement in the Californias. Mission Nuestra Señora de Loreto was established there in 1697, and Franciscans under the well-known Padre Junípero Serra launched the chain of missions in 1769 that would extend far up into mainland California.
     Loreto avoided much notice in Mexico City for about two centuries until, in the 1980s, Fonatur drilled wells into the one aquifer originating in the dry Giganta range, built roads on an undeveloped stretch of land 12 miles south of the town, and put in streetlights. The bay it faced was full of fish, could boast of six species of whales in season and beautiful islands just offshore in a sea alternately bottle green and cobalt blue.
     It took years for a group of investors to come up with a workable plan for a new community, Loreto Bay, and to take over where Fonatur left off. This unusual development plan called for a resort hotel, golf courses, 6,000 houses and condominiums of neocolonial design built largely of organic materials, walkable streets, shops, canals, and native flora: a "sustainable" vision on a grand scale. When complete, the community was expected to grow from 15,000 people to 120,000. Sufficient water for all this, the developers said, would come from desalination plants, power to run them from windmills to be built on Baja's west coast, everything funded by investors from the United States and Canada.
      This enormous, new-constructed "old" Mexican village was meant to function as an upscale, new urbanist retreat in the unblemished air of southern Baja.
     "Okay," says Peter Clark, squeezing lime juice into his can of Tecate, "here's the sustainability story."
     He was the director of sustainability for the Loreto Bay development and obviously loved his job. "The gnarliest problem," he confided, "is the social one."
     The Loreto Bay Company imported thousands of men from the impoverished mainland to do the manual labor. But they clashed with townspeople and contributed to already chronic housing, trash, sewage, and water problems. To address them all, Clark said, "we had to be flexible."
     For instance, the development was making its own adobe bricks that unfortunately absorbed moisture, held in the heat of 110-degree summers, and required 2,000 additional workers to create and install. "So we came up with walls made of panels of recycled Styrofoam that cut the price, shortened production time, and reduced by half the number of strange workers swimming in their underwear and chasing local girls."
       One contribution the Loreto Bay Company made to the sustainability debate was to seriously put forward the idea that it could be done on such a massive scale. But Loreto Bay had yet to fully emerge. Distant cranes stand against droughty mountains, and in the foreground partially completed streets and man-made "lagoons" snake among new foundations in the Agua Viva neighborhood, lending it, according to a salesperson, "a Venice feel." The completed houses were close together even by new urbanist standards. Local plants—mesquite, palo blanco, cordon cactus, and other species—provide the community with what Clark refers to as "a native palette." Some brackish water from the estuary was being used on the golf course.
     I wanted to believe that sustainability could do all this, but every claim gives rise to questions similar to those in Cabo: Can desalination really provide the vast amounts of freshwater required to augment the aquifer? What will be the effect of various sorts of runoff on Loreto's fragile bay and the whales that swim there? Taking tourists out to watch the whales has become one of few new economic opportunities for Loreto's fishermen.
     The development uses, and pays for, treated waste water from the town of Loreto, Clark said. Although a sewage treatment plant is nearly complete, there was still no desalination plant. Ditto the landfill. The Loreto Bay Company currently recycled cans, but it trucked garbage as far as Tijuana for disposal, at great expense. These questions had occurred to others. So far only 788 homes had been sold, and of those only 294 sales had actually closed.
     This evening, the Inn at Loreto Bay had lots of happy American guests drinking margaritas out of frosty fishbowls, paddling in kayaks near the beach, and loudly playing ping-pong under the palms. The view out to sea was hard to beat. "We have to make this work," Clark says. "In the end it's all about caring. It's about love."
      Later, the Loreto Bay Company ran into financial difficulties because early investment in the new houses lagged, so Citigroup Property stepped in and assumed controlling interest. Now the question was whether a major multinational will continue to back the original, expensive vision in hard economic times. As a member of Loreto Bay's management team told me, "Loreto's going to be the next big thing. It's going to be the next Cabo."
      Next: Loreto's whales and the end of a dream

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