Thursday, November 8, 2012

Issue 15

The Baja California Issue
November 2012

~ Contents ~

Pamela Weiant

Shane Macfarlan

Marissa Shaver

George Bergin

Ryan Anderson

George Bergin

Cover Image: Cabo Pulmo 2010 by Veronica Miranda.

The Challenges of Community-Based Conservation

Between 2002 and 2005, I worked on a community-based conservation project on the southeast coast of the Baja Peninsula. My re-examination of the experience has led me to conclude that conservation efforts in this region, particularly in smaller communities, have exhibited surprising levels of success over the last decade, considering the challenges faced by those promoting such projects. Below, within the confines of this format, I’ve tried to describe my experience to illustrate what I see as the greatest challenge faced by those who would conduct projects of any type in the region.

I first visited Cabo Pulmo National Park (CPNP) in 2001 as a tourist drawn to the area because of its remoteness and its status as a national marine park--I intended to get SCUBA certified while there and was planning within the year to move to Costa Rica to work in its national parks. The Baja Peninsula was not even on my radar when I stumbled across an Outside magazine article describing the East Cape within which there was a short section dedicated to Cabo Pulmo. I noticed, however, that the majority of the photos in the article conveyed a quaint village of thatched roof bungalows painted in bright colors reminiscent of the Caribbean. Similarly, the sea was the transparent, bright aqua you might expect to see on the East coast of Mexico rather than the Northwest.

The drive to Cabo Pulmo from La Paz turned out to be more of a challenge and took much longer than either my sister or I had anticipated, but just about the time I began to think we were hopelessly lost, we drove up onto a rise on the mountainside that overlooks Cabo Pulmo Bay and the village. What a feast for the eyes! The edge of the bay undulates back and forth a long way from a point at the North end to a large, light grey headland in the South with the village, near the center of this stretch, made plain by a large patch of palm trees towering above the native vegetation. The village seems to belong there – it is not a jarring presence in the desert, in large part due to the number of homes that have palm-thatched (palapa) roofs. It is a tiny development like none I’d ever visited. Beyond the shoreline lay the tranquil azure waters of the bay where several fingers of the reef were visible both due to the transparency of the water and the intermittent appearance of white water as swell lines broke across the reef. It was more beautiful than any magazine article could possibly convey.

Figure 1: Location of Cabo Pulmo National Park.
In the research I’d conducted in the weeks before our trip, I’d discovered that the park was officially declared in 1995 and was the third marine protected area (MPA) to be designated in the Gulf of California. The village of Cabo Pulmo (population approx. 200) is located an hour’s drive and Northeast of the San Jose del Cabo International Airport in a sparsely populated region dominated by undeveloped scrub desert (see figure 1). Neither municipal services nor cellular phone services extend into the region and households are reliant on solar, wind or gas/diesel generated power. Traditionally, the local population subsisted through cattle and goat ranching. Fishermen were typically temporary residents from more populous areas like La Paz and San Jose.

While small in total surface area (7,111 hectares) in comparison to the marine parks at Loreto Bay (206581 ha) and the Gulf of California Islands (358000 ha), the bay at Cabo Pulmo is the site of the only hard coral reef system in the Northeastern Pacific and as a result exhibits an unparalleled level of biodiversity and abundance in the Gulf.  Steinbeck wrote famously in The Log from the Sea of Cortez of the vast and various wildlife he and his traveling companion Doc Ricketts found on the Pulmo reef during their 1940 voyage to collect marine specimens.

Conversations with the owner of the dive shop where we took our course revealed that six years after receiving special designation, the park still lacked infrastructure, staff or a place in the national budget. When I related to the shop owner that I intended to move to Costa Rica within a year’s time to volunteer in the national parks there, he suggested that I join him in his efforts to protect the park at Cabo Pulmo instead. When he found out I was a scientist, he gave me a fancy title “Director of Research” of the foundation bearing his name. It sounded ideal and when I returned home to tie up loose ends I began doing the legwork to start looking for funding for “our” NGO. I might have been a bit more circumspect about his proposal, except that the internet was awash with glowing reports of the grassroots conservation efforts he’d been making on behalf of the park and he counted among his supporters and friends a California Supreme Court justice, a critically acclaimed environmental journalist/author (both of whom owned property in the area) and several heads of successful environmental organizations. I figured his vetting had already been seen to by them.

My "other" reason for deciding to leave eastern Canada for more tropical climes, aside from the obvious ones, was to learn to surf. And there was surf not too far south of the village.

I returned to Cabo Pulmo to live full-time in March of 2002. It took me less than a month, during which I conducted interviews with as many residents as possible, to realize my associate was widely vilified by members of the community. [2] Discouraged, but not defeated, I decided I just needed to change tack and get someone else on board whom the community trusted and respected to champion the cause of park conservation.

In the meantime, I began to realize that there was a lot more going on in Cabo Pulmo than meets the typical tourist’s eye. The first thing one notices is a concrete wall running west to east between two sections of the community. On one side are the ex-pats’ mostly single-story vacation homes. On the other side you find most of the Mexicans’ homes. I’ve heard various reasons for the presence of the wall – during the day the Mexicans’ dive shop’s compressor is too loud, at night their generators are too loud (because they can’t afford the solar systems the ex-pats use), a Mexican was caught stealing from a ex-pat home, a Mexican was caught spying on an ex-pat woman, etc. Differences in socioeconomic status, not to mention tolerance, clearly contributed to the construction of the wall.  

Furthermore, my interview with the American developer of the ex-pat community revealed a long and complicated history of dispute between him, his family and the largest of the three Mexican families. The greatest conflict arose from a land dispute, in which the Mexicans argued that the head of their family was the rightful owner of a large chunk of the land this developer bought. The land south of the dividing wall was originally part of his development. However, after a long drawn out legal battle, he gave it up. Over time, he took on almost mythic status among the Mexicans as the devil who tried to steal all their land.

In a strange twist of fate, the developer's son got one of the daughters of the Mexican family pregnant. They were married, a la shotgun and the two feuding families were joined, sort of.  I don’t know if the developer attended the nuptials.

When the developer designed the expat community, he encouraged his friends from Idaho to come and join him. The result is that many of the people living closest to the Mexicans were personal friends who supported him in his disputes. It’s quite possible that wall stopped a real war from breaking out.

Several months after parting ways with the first dive shop owner, I was still looking for my advocate.  The developer's son, who was the owner of one of the two remaining dive shops, was supporting my work by letting me use the internet in his office.  But due to his family ties and own personal history with the local Mexicans, he clearly wasn’t the right choice. I didn’t know the owner of the third dive shop and was intimidated by him and the guys who worked for him. When his sister, a nun who spoke excellent English, was visiting that September, she was enthusiastic about what I was trying to accomplish and offered to introduce us.

After introductions were over, I asked him if he would like to accompany me to a sea turtle conference being held in San Carlos (about 200 miles as the crow flies, but a six hour drive from Cabo Pulmo) as a community representative. Despite his sister’s encouragement, Pablo [1] initially regarded me and my motives suspiciously. He told me he’d think about it and that I should come back the next day. For the next several days, I visited him at the dive shop every afternoon to ask him if he’d come. The day before we were to leave, I’d given up on him and was in the house where I was staying when he appeared at the gate and said he would go.

On the long drive I explained and clarified my motivation to protect the coral reef and its inhabitants and described the sea turtle conservation work that was being done all over the peninsula by fishermen and regular guys like himself. Thankfully I had a captive audience and we were able, through a mix of English and Spanish (mine was improving), to get our points across. Nevertheless, as we pulled into San Carlos, Pablo remained unconvinced. He said, “I’m sorry, but you will never convince Mexicans not to eat turtle. It’s part of our culture, part of our heritage.”

Fortunately, a few conference participants turned out to be his cousins and close friends. But it was a presentation by a World Wildlife Fund scientist about endangered species that concluded with a focus on sea turtles that finally turned the tide. Hearing for the first time in his life about how close so many species are to becoming  extinct, including the sea turtles he’d seen in the waters off the Peninsula his whole life, Pablo underwent what I can only describe as a “conversion.”  I met him as he left the conference room, eyes wide. He took me by the shoulders and implored, “Dawn, we have to do something! I had no idea so many animals were in danger of extinction!” I had my advocate.

Charismatic by nature, sea turtles offered the means by which I finally engaged the community in what I hoped would become a broader conservation ethic and ultimately create the necessary push to improve park management. Over the course of the following year, Pablo and I organized a small contingent of volunteers, most of whom were members of Pablo’s immediate family. Together we started two projects: a SCUBA-based in-water adult sea turtle monitoring program (the first of its kind in the Northern hemisphere) and at everyone’s insistence a sea turtle nest care and monitoring program. Through my ongoing networking, word got out and, gradually, volunteers appeared from elsewhere in Mexico, the United States, and France. They patrolled the park beaches looking for turtle nests and created fun educational programs for the local children that produced the first park infrastructure – hand-painted signs notifying visitors they were entering a national park.

Between meetings to discuss these efforts, I began the bureaucratic hoop-jumping necessary to formalize our group into a legal non-government organization or “civil association,” as they are referred to in Mexico, so that we could legally receive donations to support our work. Until that point, everyone had to chip in and provide everything we needed out of our own pockets. Pablo piggy-backed trips to La Paz for business purposes with those for the organization and donated all of the dive equipment and gasoline necessary for the SCUBA project. I fortunately was given a place to live in exchange for property management services and family and friends were generous with invitations to dinner and loans when my truck started to fall apart. Through the adversity, Pablo and I became increasingly close friends. I got to know and ate with his wife and three sons. We carpooled and supported one another when the chips were down. I brought tourists to his dive shop and explained what we were trying to accomplish as they suited up for their dives.

Much of my time, though, was spent communicating via satellite internet with other organizations and foundations, writing our first small grant proposals and newsletters in an attempt to get funding. Slowly we were getting the attention of major foundations, several of whom sent people down to see what we were really doing. A private citizen from San Francisco, when he heard about our plight, donated an Isuzu Trooper. What we needed most though was a substantial operating grant. And to get the grant we needed to get the organization registered.

I’ll be the first to admit that my motivation for seeking an operating grant was not altruistic. My funds had dwindled to nothing and debt was accruing. If I was to continue working as ACCP’s director, we needed a multi-year grant large enough to pay me and, ideally, one of the other volunteers a salary. We also needed the funds to buy equipment and to cover the cost of local travel.

In September of 2003, Amigos para la Conservación de Cabo Pulmo (ACCP) was legally registered as an Associación Civil with the mandate to protect the natural resources in and around CPNP, with special focus on sea turtles and the coral reef. We were getting closer to our goal.

Then a dengue hemorrhagic fever epidemic broke out in the community leaving one person dead and Pablo in the hospital minus his pancreas. In late October I succumbed. It took me about three weeks to fully recover, others were far worse off. Pablo, exhausted and feeling that his business was suffering from the conservation work, threatened to quit as ACCP’s president. The mood in the community was generally morose. Things were unraveling and I began to think all our efforts might be for naught. Dengue took the wind out of our sails for many months and was but one of the many speed bumps we encountered along the way to realizing our goals.

We weren’t even aware of one obstacle in our path: Cabo Pulmo was blacklisted among US Foundations in the late 90s due to negative reports from other organizations and individuals who tried to initiate conservation projects that due to community resistance were unsuccessful. Nevertheless, in January 2004 we received word that we’d been awarded a significant operating grant with the proviso that all fiscal management be carried out by an American-based organization we had already partnered with. It took six months for the money to actually arrive and for me to receive my first, very modest paycheck since moving to Mexico, but I could finally breathe a little and focus on what I considered the ultimate goal – a reef monitoring program the likes of Reef Check. [3]

Early in 2004, even before the funds had arrived in the bank account of our American partner organization, I began to hear murmurs of concern about the nature of my position and responsibilities within ACCP. The problem was that I was more often than not invisible when I worked, tucked away in front of a computer in a house on the other side of the village, making it difficult for people to appreciate how much time I devoted to the group. It didn’t help matters that I surfed most mornings and worked afternoons and many evenings. I discovered that belief in the “lazy surfer” image is not the exclusive domain of uptight  American parents. The fact that I had initiated the effort and worked pro bono for over two years seemed to be ancient and forgotten history. Each time it came up, I calmly explained the nature of my work and Pablo, as ACCP’s president, backed me up, at least initially.

I don’t know if it was purely coincidental or if the incremental success of our little group had created a stir, but nine years after its creation, the park had its first government appointed and salaried director. We were, however, disappointed to learn that he would be based in Cabo San Lucas, a two hour drive away.  In addition to CPNP, he was to be in charge of the Cabo San Lucas Flora and Fauna Reserve, an area that received thousands of visitors a day, compared to the handful frequenting Cabo Pulmo. The result was that he was rarely in the community and would typically turn up unannounced, stay only briefly and leave. He did however interact with the community enough to stoke the fire of discontent among those who felt I wasn’t making significant enough of a contribution in return for my salary. [4]

The Park Director was a staunch Nationalist and did not believe that foreigners should receive financial compensation for conservation work in Mexico. He disparagingly referred to it as “mammando a la teta de la conservación,” [5] and asserted that there was a chronic problem with American NGOs “preying on” their Mexican counterparts by taking a percentage of the funds they accepted from American Foundations on behalf of the Mexican AC’s, who were unequipped to receive the funds directly. Charging a 10% fee was, and I believe still is, a standard practice to cover the costs of administering the process. In my specific case, the Director didn’t seem to see the irony of his position considering that I was directly responsible for us getting the funds, nor did he care to acknowledge that the organization only existed because of my early efforts to organize the community around the cause. The fact that I was a Canadian working independently, not as part of a larger American NGO, also went ignored. [6]

That September, after almost two and a half years of living and working in Cabo Pulmo, Pablo called me into his dive shop and accused me of stealing all the grant money. I was not alone in the hotseat however. Pablo and the rest of the community had earlier that day accused his uncle of being part of the conspiracy. His uncle, who as an exemplary volunteer, was the other person the membership agreed should receive a salary. Suddenly, I realized with dismay that the grant money had made everyone question my motives for being there and that I was mistaken when I believed I’d earned their trust and respect.

Eventually, the accounting and bank statements were produced by our American partners and both of us were cleared of any wrong-doing, thankfully without the involvement of the law or immigration. The entire affair turned out to be nothing more than a rumor-fueled accusation and I continued to work as the group’s director for several months, but it left a bitter taste in my mouth. When I realized the work had become a chore and I was avoiding going to the dive shop, I knew what I had to do. I resigned in April of 2005.

A dedicated and enthusiastic young Mexican woman who’d volunteered throughout much of ACCP’s history took over my post. Less than a year later, she too would find herself embroiled in a similar rumor-tainted predicament and quickly resigned. ACCP went on to falter, fold and then experienced a resurgence in 2009 to fight a Spanish developer who proposed the construction of a mega-development, Cabo Cortez, along the northern boundary of the park. In 2009, when I heard ACCP was involved in the fight against the developers, I contacted them, wishing to do what I could to fight it too. I was welcomed back with open arms as though nothing had happened. I remain a founding member and, as such, according to the statutes am a lifetime member. In 2010, I watched online as ACCP won a prestigious national award Iniciativa Mexico! If it was pride I felt, I admit it was tinged with a hint of sadness and disappointment.

I believe this story illustrates how efforts to conduct research or projects can be hampered by the pervasiveness of distrust.  This is of particular concern for those working in smaller communities. The deep distrust felt by many Mexican residents of Cabo Pulmo must be compounded by their history of battling the “rich” Gringo and the generally poor relations between the two community factions. Furthermore, the effects of perceived dispossession of their land have clearly had lasting effects on local psychology.

I was prepared for the “small-town” politics and rumor-mongering that constitute life in Cabo Pulmo because I was born and raised in a Canadian village. However, I was unprepared for and unequipped to deal with how the distrust exhibited by the Mexican Pulmeños did not erode even in the absence of evidence to support it. Throughout my experience in Cabo Pulmo, I believed it possible to gain the trust of the people I worked most closely with and that in turn, their trust in me would signal to their friends and family that they could trust me as well. That’s just not how it works in Cabo Pulmo, because no one trusts anyone.

It’s worth noting here that historically, a sense of ownership and control over the resources in the park made community members rabidly protective of them. It was selfishly motivated desire to protect the bounty of the park that ultimately saved it in the absence of any formal government management or enforcement. None but a few of the community’s most brazen patriarchs could get away with fishing on the reef for grouper. However, as interest in developing the land around Cabo Pulmo comes from increasingly powerful, multi-national corporations, the culture of distrust combined with the desire to stay in control of something that is increasingly uncontrollable (in this case land they do not own) has become the Achilles heel of conservation efforts. ACCP members resist expanding membership to the larger region not realizing that without the help of outside forces, Goliath will eventually squash David.  A developer who understands the existing social dynamic will soon pit Mexican against Mexican and while they are fighting amongst themselves, bulldoze them all.

Dawn Pier is originally from eastern Ontario, Canada. She has a Masters degree from Queen’s University, Ontario. In her work as a biologist, she traveled the Canadian arctic extensively. In 2002, she moved to a tiny village in Mexico to follow her dream to learn to surf and ended up founding a conservation organization to protect the only hard coral reef system in the Sea of Cortez. In 2005, she left science behind to become a writer. Currently, she writes for, maintains a personal blog  and is working on a memoir related to her adventures in Mexico. She lives on an isolated, but beautiful sandy beach in Boca de las Vinoramas, Baja Calfornia Sur where she surfs, kitesurfs, writes and looks after a tribe of five dogs.

[1] Not his real name.
[2] My interviews at this point were mainly with the ex-pat community due to my limited understanding of Spanish, however there were a few Mexicans who spoke English with whom I spoke – their feelings towards my associate were expressed more subtly than those of the ex-pat community, but were similar.
[3] This project became a reality in the summer of 2005, thanks in great part to the NGO Comunidad y Biodiversidad, A.C. (Community and Biodiversity).
[4] Guidelines for ACs were in place that dictated what my salary must be. It was the equivalent of $15,000 US annually.
[5] Translation: sucking at the teat of conservation.
[6] The fact that I did not speak Spanish particularly well did nothing to help the situation.

Baja: My Symbol of Mexico

"The bodies of at least 43 men and half a dozen women were found Sunday in plastic garbage bags near the town of Cadereyta Jimenez." [1]  "Mexico gunmen set casino on fire, killing at least 53.  The attackers apparently used gasoline to torch the crowded Casino Royale in Monterrey, which has been the setting for a brutal turf war between drug gangs." [2]

The above headlines are examples of what comes to mind when people think of Mexico.  Brutal violence, corruption, and drug cartels are synonymous with Mexico today.  Gone are the days when tourists would flock to the beaches of Cancun, Cozumel, or Acapulco.  While these images of Mexico dominate the minds of the majority of Americans, they are not the images that dominate my mind.

When I think of Mexico, I think of the Baja Peninsula.  Starting in Tijuana and ending in Cabo San Lucas, Baja is about 800 miles long and bordered by the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez.  Outside of the large towns such as Ensenada or the tourist depots like Loreto and La Paz, Baja is sparsely populated.  Traveling down Mex-1, the only highway that runs the length of Baja, one drives through open landscapes dotted by ranchos, briefly passing through a small town only to be greeted by the open landscape once again.  Nowhere in the whole peninsula is the beauty and vastness of the peninsula better seen and felt than in the central part of the peninsula, which straddles the two states of Baja California and Baja California Sur. 

Home to the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, which includes the land and ocean, central Baja is dominated by mountains, desert playa, and, of course, beaches.  Enormous Cardon cacti, elephant trees, the unusual Cirio or Boojum tree, along with a myriad of other desert fauna dominate the central Baja landscape.  While the landscape is amazing, the people who call Baja home are even more incredible.  An industrious people, the residents of Baja are always friendly, welcoming, and upbeat.  I am always excited when I stop at Mama Espinoza's, a famous restaurant in El Rosario, to have a meal and talk with Mama's daughter Rolli.  She greets you warmly and open-heartedly, like you are family.  I am continually amazed that she remembers who I am when she meets thousands of people every year.  In addition to seeing old friends, I am always eager to meet new friends.  I want to tell you about a young lady I befriended in July of this year.

A ranchera living at San Borja Mission, Nanni is a 19 year-old girl, who knows her Baja environment like any ranchera would, intimately.  Her family owns the ranch at the mission, remote even by Baja's standards, which was built in the late part of the 18th century.  An oasis in the middle of the desert, San Borja is maintained by Nanni's family.  Nanni speaks English and even sarcastically joked with me.  She opened the gates for my companion and myself to tour the mission.  Usually the rancher who maintains the mission does not give a tour, but during our tour Nanni rambled on about the history of the mission.  When we went into the little museum she explained the differences between the Jesuit, Franciscan, and Dominican missionaries.  She had a detailed knowledge of the artifacts created by the now gone Cochimi Indians.  Nanni highlighted her fathers Indian heritage when discussing the Cochimi artifacts.
As I walked through the mission, I took a copious amount of photographs.  But, the most amazing photograph is of Nanni standing in front of the original baptismal font.  Hand-carved out of stone, it is a testament to the craftsmanship of the indigenous Cochimi who built the mission.  The reason this photo is so powerful, is because Nanni, like countless generations before her, was baptized in this font.  The photograph embodies the long, strong ties of the people of Baja to the region.  It demonstrates how the Baja identity is inextricably linked with the missions and the desert oases that surround them.

Nanni showed us her favorite place to hide out and read, the balcony of the mission.  She said that she spends hours at a time reading up there.  She gave us a tour of the hot springs and told us the names of all the plants along the path.  She gave us the life histories of her family's dogs.  Nanni was a walking encyclopedia.  Even more importantly, Nanni conveyed who she was to us, how she herself connected with the missions and the desert landscape.   

I asked her where she went to school.  She turned toward me with a perplexed look on her face and said she had not gone to school.  Surprised, I assumed she meant she had not gone to university.  When I asked what grade she had gone to in secondary school, she turned toward me looking even more perplexed.  Once again she told me she had not gone to school.  Finally, I got it.  Nanni never attended school, ever.  The nearest pueblo was an hour and a half away.  In order to attend school, she would have to board with family in town during the week.  It just was not feasible or necessary for her to go to school.  Nanni taught herself to read and write Spanish and speak English.  Talking with gringos helped her learn English and she would watch TV in English sometimes.     

When we arrived at my truck, I thanked Nanni, gave her a bunch of food that they were unable to get unless they traveled about three hours, and a donation for the Mission. Even after departing I was completely intrigued by Nanni; a young lady living on the family ranch, an oasis in the middle of the Baja desert, who had a wealth of cultural and natural history knowledge but had never stepped foot into a classroom.  Nanni is but one of the many extraordinary people I have met and am honored to call a friend in Baja.

This brief description of Baja and the vignette of Nanni were meant to convey a portrait of Mexico in opposition to the violent image readily seen in the media.  Baja is a place where people are living their lives uncomplicated by the drug cartels of mainland Mexico.  Instead of violence and drugs being the symbol of Mexico, for me the symbol of Mexico is Baja, a place of spectacular landscapes and incredible people.  

Marissa Shaver


[1] Wilkinson, Tracy. "Dozens of Bodies, Many Mutilated, Dumped in Mexico." Los Angles Times. 13 May 2012. 27 Oct. 2012. <>.

[2] Ellingwood, Ken. "Mexico Gunmen Set Casion on Fire, Killing at Least 53." Los Angeles Times. 26 Aug. 2011. 27 Oct. 2012. <>.       

Fade to Black

Drought in a desert is almost an oxymoron but most deserts have seasons and many of the same variations of weather as non-deserts. Only those who live in the desert see and feel a drought; tourists can only judge things as they appear in the snapshots they take home. Satellites can show us anomalies but you’ve got to get nearer to be a good reporter. High-flying birds can see the pea-green patches around well ranches, seep corrals in the canyons – they can judge the drought from the stark contrast between these tiny oases and the burned-out look of whole mountain ranges. Airplane passengers might remember those tiny slivers of quicksilver, ponds and streams, are not where they were seen on the last flight several years ago. Worst drought in Mexico in 71 years, worst in Baja Sur in 7 years.

Most weather systems in the western part of Mexico stay on the mainland so the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula is like an offshore island and is affected only by ocean borne systems. Tropical storms and hurricanes begin off the western shores of southern Mexico and Central America. As many as 15 to 20 each year march west where most dwindle and die far out in the Pacific thousands of miles from our parched and tortured mountains. So a drought here is a condition caused by a long period of time when none of the storms drift far enough north to give us rain.

In drought condition, as hand-dug or uncased wells dry up or cave in, the roaming browsers like goats, burros, cattle and horses are in great peril. The vultures have a time of plenty. Where there are people there will be water. Wild birds and animals are drawn to ranches and villages with deep wells and natural tinajas, waterholes. Villagers with overflowing pilas can sense the drought. They begin to see the coyotes and snakes, skunks and badgers, hawks and rabbits in their yards at night. The civet cat, the babisuri, spreads his awful musk, marking new territory in small pueblos like his Ice Age progenitors did when they made their homes in the rocky scarps of North America surviving among saber-tooth tigers, lions and sloth bears.

In the mountains and plains the deadly desiccation is insidious. One cannot see little things die; like watching a small clock tick away the hours, the days. Droughts are silent, unseen killers, hard to mark and remember. They weaken, ruin and kill like earthquakes and Tsunamis but without the terrible surprise of sudden death and destruction. Life-forms begin to slowly slip away while waiting for the impossibly faint promise of salvation, droplets from a cloudless sky. It is horror in slow motion.

When botanists say desert plants and animals are hardy they do not mean they can live forever without water. Plants can store water, most animals cannot. Many desert animals do not drink water. They get all the water for their entire lives from their food. When the food-water is gone they stop having babies, then, those that can, aestivate to conserve calories. They wait. Every thing waits for water. Uncountable living things die while waiting. It would be unkind parsing to say they starved to death. Food or water deprivation ends the same way.

Here, now, in San Isabel we are witness to another kind of withering starvation; the trickle of pesos that dribbled into the pockets of the people of the pueblo has all but dried up. There are many things to blame – no single thing stands out. Like the shriveling water-starved plants the signs are subtle, agonizingly slow. They are things that cannot be seen from the airliners, from the window of a bus. Those lucky enough to still have money for table food get a hint at the change as they walk from one little store to the next to find eggs, tomatoes. The electric cold boxes are empty, unplugged, their doors ajar; some stores are dark except for the current to run the register.

There are many empty desks at the school, the clinic is well lit, well staffed, empty of patients. The dentist has moved to San Jose, a local fishing resort closed its doors after five decades of successful operation. The fishing fleet that in good times boasted almost 500 charter boats is but a skeleton, unable to support a once busy bait business. The relic tourists who can still afford to vacation here don’t need reservations for rooms, cars, dining, excursions. Our carwash; Carlos, hose, rag, under a tree, is closed. Rancheros are selling half their stock to buy hay for the few that remain alive and healthy enough to move about, take food, feed their calves. The ranch horses are left to wander, browse and die in the brush.

This piece of reportage is nothing more than a sad little benchmark, a very low spot in the history of a proud place, a proud people. I am humbled by the task of describing a single tiny fish floundering in a cruel convergence of crippling happenstance because I lack the will and the skill to tell the whole story --- to somehow let the reader know how the misery has spread to the furthest reaches of the place and its inhabitants. I give you this snapshot to spare you the unbearable sight of an endless panoply of suffering.

If and when the pieces that fell apart right themselves, find their places, when the rains and the pesos return, I’ll do my best to offset these words of shallow consolation with special words of celebration, exaltation and awakening.

George Bergin retired with his wife Lynda to La Ribera, a small village at East Cape, Baja Sur in 1996.  A former insurance executive in Las Vegas, Nevada, George’s love for the desert, outdoor living, drew him south to roam the Laguna Mountains, fish and write books, short stories and news items for Southern Baja California periodicals.

Vacationing in Baja California for thirty years, George learned more than what bait to use, the best lures -- his curious nature took him deep into the local culture until he was ineluctably drawn to live full time in what he sees as his own private desert playground.

Send opinions on articles/stories to:

The politics of (uneven) development on the East Cape of Baja California Sur

Large scale development in progress in La Ribera, Baja California Sur.  Spring 2012.  Photo by Ryan Anderson.

A Gringo Invasion?
It is the summer of 2010, and I am driving along a hot asphalt road in the southern Mexican state of Baja California Sur.  It’s early June and already heating up.  Alongside the highway, a young man in his 20s waves his hand as I approach, indicating that he needs a ride.  Since it’s a common courtesy to give people rides around these parts, I pull over.  He says he needs a ride out to Cabo Pulmo and I reply: Jump in.  Within a few minutes the paved road ends, and my over-priced rental Jeep starts bouncing around on the dirt, gravel, and sometimes rock-strewn road.  I need to watch out for cows, speeding vehicles, horses, and the occasional tire-popping sharp rocks as I talk to my temporary traveling companion.  He works out in Cabo Pulmo, a former fishing community that now makes its living primarily through ecotourism.  It hasn’t been an easy transition, and since the crash of 2008 things have been pretty tough, but people are making it work in these difficult economic times.  I turn to him and ask: So what do you think about all the gringos coming out here?  He answers simply: Everything gets better when the gringos come.  Gringos mean money.


Dennison Nash once characterized international tourism as a form of neo-imperialism in which the throngs of tourists impose their worldviews, economic power, and desires upon destinations worldwide (Nash 1989).  Are the gringos who find their way to places such as the East Cape of Baja California Sur merely imperialists who impose their politics and interests upon the landscape and local people? Do Mexican residents view incoming gringos in monetary terms—as harbingers of jobs, revenue, tips, and nothing else?  Or can these gringos play a positive—if not vital—role in tourism development?  Can they, in fact, work to support and participate in the critical process of community development rather than just the commercialization and marketization of tourism sites? Throughout this paper, I examine the relationships between Mexican and non-Mexican residents on the East Cape in order to tease out some possible answers to these questions, while working to break down some of the generalizations about the tensions and differences between gringos and their Mexican neighbors.

I am working on the East Cape of Baja California Sur, which is located about two hours north of the Los Cabos tourism zone.  My research focuses on how the communities of Cabo Pulmo and La Ribera are responding to a proposed large-scale development in the area, a project called Cabo Cortes.  This project, which includes plans for a marina, multiple golf courses, residential lots, and high-end hotels, has generated considerable conflict in the region.  The project proposal calls for the construction of approximately 30,000 rooms, which, if implemented, would result in a massive new tourism site that would rival the current scale of Los Cabos or Cancun.

For this paper, I focus primarily on the community of Cabo Pulmo, which is located about 15 km south of the proposed site for Cabo Cortes.  Cabo Pulmo is a small community of approximately 180 people (80 Mexican- and around 100 non-Mexican residents) that shifted from subsistence and commercial fishing to an economy almost completely focused on eco-tourism. Historically, the Mexican residents of Cabo Pulmo made a living through ranching, fishing, pearling, and the exploitation of other marine resources (see Gamez 2008; Weiant 2005).  But their way of life started to change in the late 1980s and early 1990s when it became apparent that the fisheries were being depleted because of overfishing (from the effects of both local and international fishing).  This led to the creation of a protected marine park in 1995: the Cabo Pulmo National Park (see Weiant 2005; Gamez 2008).  While contested by various parties (Mexican and non-Mexican alike), in the ensuing seventeen years the Cabo Pulmo National Park has become a solid fixture in the local ecological and political landscape.

The following paper explores some of key issues I have discovered in my research thus far.  Several themes speak to the relationships, histories, and politics that exist between the gringo and Mexican residents of Cabo Pulmo.  These include conflicts over access to water, concerns about the loss of public space, disagreements about the promises of development, and serious language barriers between the two sides of the community.  For this paper, I will focus on the local politics of water and the impending threat of a large-scale development project as a way to begin talking about the politics of development on the East Cape.

Fault Lines: The unequal flow of water in Cabo Pulmo
Carla* is one of the key members Amigos for the Conservation of Cabo Pulmo (ACCP), a community-based organization that focuses on conservation, education, and community development.  She is also one part of the dominant Mexican family in the pueblo.  She is one of the most active voices in the community when it comes to environmentalism and conservation, along with many other community members who are also deeply vested in protecting Cabo Pulmo’s reef and local ecology.  During an interview, Carla explained the water situation in the community:

Look.  The Mexican community has a well…but unfortunately, this well is not sufficient.  We have been fighting for a long time because we did not have a generator to pump water from the well.  It has been very difficult.  Now, the association [ACCP] received a financial grant, so with this money we bought a generator.  Now there’s a generator, and it’s pumping water from the well, but it’s not enough…So, what we are doing now is trying to dig a new well so that we can have the necessary infrastructure to be able to distribute water to every house with a good system.  However this is taking a lot of time because of politics, bureaucracy, permits and all that…But Cabo Pulmo has been officially declared as a zone that lacks water access.  But this is the Mexican part of the community.  The [non-Mexican] part of the community does not have to fight for water because…well, we understand that there is a system that [one of the non-Mexican residents] owns, and that people pay him for their water.  So this is an issue that many people from the non-Mexican side of the community continue to ignore—that there are many problems with water access.  It’s very unjust and illogical, but this is what’s happening.
Carla continued to explain that the community has tried to apply for a water permit, but the government kept creating many obstacles (poniendo muchas trabas) and making the process difficult.  What is most painful, she said, is that the non-Mexican (extranjero) side of the community was able to receive permits quickly and easily.  “You know,” she told me, “to me this is a little unjust.”  

Carla brings up an important point about the water situation in Cabo Pulmo: for many people water is not something that they think about, because it’s always there.  It is something they can ignore and take for granted because when they turn the tap, the water flows.  Ironically, when people come to visit or live in Cabo Pulmo, water is in fact incredibly meaningful and important.  Tourists and retirees come to Cabo Pulmo to enjoy water…the saltwater of the ocean, which is perceived as a rare, delicate, and highly meaningful resource.  They flock to Cabo Pulmo and the surrounding East Cape to access and enjoy this form of water--for diving, fishing, snorkeling, kayaking, swimming, and a range of other activities.  But when they go back to their rented casitas or second homes, many of them aren’t thinking about fresh water, where it flows, and more importantly where it doesn’t.

It's important to point out that the various factions of the community do indeed understand the water situation to at least some extent.  People on all sides know that water is scarce.  It's a desert afterall (but then, so is Los Angeles!).  But not everyone knows, or takes the time to think about, the tremendous gap that exists when it comes to accessing fresh water.  There are, however, people who are willing to address the issue and cross the cultural and economic barriers of the community in order to seek solutions.  At present, those people are in the minority.  What seems to be lacking on both sides is a sense of trust or faith in the “other” side.  This mistrust has a deep history in the community, which has experienced years of conflicts between the Mexican and gringo residents.  Another division stems from the socio-economic disparities between the two sides of the community. 

When it comes to water, the gringos have it—to be blunt—because they have enough money to pay exorbitant prices that are simply not feasible or even thinkable for the vast majority of the Mexican residents.  Also, there has been very little dialog or collaborative effort between the two sides of the community in an attempt to deal with this issue.  Many people—on both sides—seem to be waiting, watching, and listening for change, but unsure about what they can do to bring it about.  Meanwhile, the gardens on the non-Mexican side of Cabo Pulmo continue to suck up water through their collective roots, and many of the Mexican women in town keep shuttling back and forth along the dirt road to the nearby pueblo of La Ribera to do laundry when the water runs out.  Water flows one way in Cabo Pulmo.  This is how things work, for now.


Cabo Cortes: A disastrous blessing in disguise and the search for common values
There are many divisions and differences between the Mexicans and the non-Mexican, expat, second homeowner, or gringo residents in Cabo Pulmo.  Whether these divisions stem from water politics, battles over public and private space, or basic communicative barriers, they clearly affect daily life, community relations, and the larger development politics of the region in undeniable ways.  Some of the divisions stem from very personal histories and enmities that have existed for decades, and are often interconnected with battles over land ownership and tenure.  Many other divisions are rooted in habits and daily practice (some people just stay in "their side" of the community out of a deeply entrenched social routine).  For years, many of these divisions have remained in place, and community relations between the two sides have been difficult, to say the least.  Some people will tell you that the two sides hate one another.  Others put it more mildly, saying that just don't see one another very often.  However, sometimes something comes along that makes people on all sides rethink their positions, biases, habits, and alliances.

That something for Cabo Pulmo has been the proposed development at Cabo Cortes.  As Allison, a 10 year non-Mexican resident of Cabo Pulmo told me, Cabo Cortes has been a “blessing in disguise” that has radically changed the community because many people are now much more willing to work together to fight this common threat.  For years, many members of the community remained completely unwilling to cross the socio-cultural divide, but the imposing plans of Cabo Cortes have changed some minds.  When I asked Allison what she thinks about Cabo Cortes, she looked at the red recording light on my tape recorder, smiled, and extended her two middle fingers, flipping off the mere idea of the project.  Her summary of the project was this: “devastation" for the whole area. 

When I asked Carla about the role of the non-Mexican residents in the future of Cabo Pulmo, she said: “We have to involve them for the good of the community.  It’s difficult, but we have to involve them…the Mexican side of the community has to allow them to be involved, and the extranjero side of the community has to want to be involved.”  The seeds for this type of bilateral community involvement may be sown when and if both sides of the community realize that they do share common ground. 

Alejandro has lived and worked in Cabo Pulmo for the past 14 years.  He is originally from another part of the state, but moved to Pulmo when he married a woman from the community.  When I asked Alejandro how Cabo Cortes could affect or change life in Cabo Pulmo, he explained:
[T]here will be too many people from all over the state, all over the country, like [Cabo] San Lucas, and there will be robberies, assaults—things that are not here now.  We can sleep outside and there are no problems.  We can leave our bicycles outside and there are no problems.  But when they create this development, it’s going to come, all of this is going to affect us.
This kind of reaction to Cabo Cortes is very common, especially in the community of Cabo Pulmo, a place in which people are deeply connected with a particular way of life.  Tranquilo is the word that many people use to describe life in Pulmo.  On both sides of the community, this sense of security, tranquility, or peace, is highly valuable--and vulnerable.  When the subject of Cabo Cortes comes up, many people talk about water issues (where will the water come from?), they talk about public space (will it be effectively privatized like Los Cabos?), and many people talk about the potential of rising crime.  This fear of crime exists on both sides of the community in Cabo Pulmo.  And the narratives about these fears often focus on very similar elements: more workers will come because of the project, and they will be living in the area.  The workers will be from other parts of the country, people say, and will not have connections with the local communities.  They will bring drugs, violence, social chaos.  These dangerous, faceless, imagined young workers pose a threat in many people’s minds, a threat to the way of life that exists in Cabo Pulmo at present.  Here, while there is a considerable amount of social tension between the various factions in the community, there is also an implicit, if not somewhat contradictory, layer of trust.  Various people may hate each other, but they all feel secure enough that they don't have to lock their doors at night.  So there is discord, and peace, all at once.  For the most part, except for some minor incidents, crime is not a serious problem here—yet.

Despite all of their differences, many people feel they face a common threat, and this has made a desire to find common ground more attractive and attainable.  The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as the saying goes.  In many ways, Cabo Cortes is a kind of Rorschach test here on the East Cape of Baja California Sur.  When I ask people about the project, it helps to spark discussions about development, community, and the future.  The very idea of that development plan allows people to express their views about what development, or conservation, or community, is all about.  People use Cabo Cortes, with its plans for golf courses, a segregated community for workers (like Cancun), massive hotels, and a large marina, as a way to think about the kinds of places and communities they want to be a part of.  In Cabo Pulmo, there is a deep concern about what the future will bring, how it will affect life in the area, and who will come to the region.  Narratives about crime express not only fears about the future, but an attachment to particular values, ideals, norms, and community relations in the present.  There are a flood of rumors about Cabo Cortes—about government corruption, about the involvement of narco-trafficantes, and about development officials trying to bribe members of the community for support.  In a way, Cabo Cortes (which is not even in the building stages) serves as a representation of everything that many people do not want to see happen on the East Cape.  It has come to represent all that is wrong with development.

For the community of Cabo Pulmo, most of the residents seem to see the project as a dire threat to their social, economic, and even aesthetic attachments to the place where they live, work, and vacation.  This attachment to a sense of place cuts across some of the deeply entrenched social and political divisions within the community.  Suddenly, for many members of the community, the grievances and divisions between the Mexican and “gringo” seem surmountable, especially in the face of deep fears about social change, environmental degradation, the destruction of place, and rising crime.

These narratives serve as a medium for expressing anxieties about an unknown future.  Because of these common fears and concerns, many people have been more willing to listen, to seek out new allies.  For the time being, these “productive” narratives (see Caldeira 2000:19) have opened up a space for collaboration, dialog, and participation among the Mexican and non-Mexican residents in Cabo Pulmo…but how long will this last?  Will different members of the community use this opportunity to improve relations and take control of their collective futures, or will these fears about a greater common threat dissolve, once again, into the smaller divisions and conflicts that have kept them separated for the past thirty or so years?

Whether in the form of construction jobs, land sales, domestic employment, or the full wallets of arriving tourists, the waves of gringos translate to hopes for increased access to that all powerful medium of value: money.  In the end, for many residents of the East Cape, gringos do in fact mean money.  On the other side of the equation, for many gringo travelers and residents, the East Cape is a place to relax, invest, and escape from the worries and troubles of life.  It is literally a place where they seek to avoid the darker side of development: overcrowding, pollution, and crime among other things.

The issues I have discussed here--the local politics of water and the social reactions to the mega-development Cabo Cortez--are only indications, suggestions of wider, deeper problems.  Such examples are mere illustrations of a whole social landscape of challenges that communities on the East Cape-whether Mexican or gringo--will have to confront in the near future.  At present, while there has been relatively little development in the region, the prevalence of no trespassing signs, barbed wire fences, and real estate developments hints at one of the possible futures of this place.  The East Cape may be divided up, privatized, and sold bit by bit according to its market value, much in the same way as many other coastal zones in Mexico.  It may indeed be just another Cabo San Lucas someday.  It's hard to tell what will happen.  For a price, everyone can have their piece of this place—until, of course, it reaches saturation and investors, tourists, and developers look to more pristine pastures.  The question remains, at this point, whether numbers, markets, and money will determine the future of the East Cape, or whether its residents and supporters—who span a range of national, class, and cultural positions—will organize around different social and political values in order to push toward an alternative future.  That’s the question for the East Cape: will it be shaped by the detached, fickle values of the global tourism market, or the messy, difficult, sometimes competing values of its nascent communities?

Ryan Anderson

*All names in this paper are pseudonyms.


Caldeira, Teresa P.  2000.  City of Walls.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nash, Dennison.  1989.  Tourism as Form of Imperialism.  In Hosts and Guests, Valene L. Smith, ed.  University of Pennsylvania Press.

Gamez, Alba, ed.  2008.  Turismo y sustenabilidad en Cabo Pulmo, BCS.  San Diego: San Diego State University.

Weiant, Pamela A.  2005.   A Political Ecology of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs): Case Study of Cabo Pulmo National Park, Sea of Cortez, Mexico.  Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Santa Barbara.

Introduction: The not so forgotten peninsula

The above image is an aerial of the coastline of San Jose del Cabo in Baja California Sur.  Look closely at the parcel of land in the middle of the image.  To me, it is one of the most interesting, and emblematic, pieces of land in the whole Los Cabos Corridor.  It is a public access point, surrounded by an ever-growing jungle of coastline-blocking tourism resorts.  Notice the informal pathways that weave throughout.  And the two lines of palapas on the beach.  They were created for public use, unlike the large swaths of privatized coastal land, which has been cordoned off to create "exclusive" spaces.  And then there's this small bit of land, just sitting there: informal and open.  At least, in practice.  

I don't really know the official histories of this piece of land.  What I know of this place comes from experience.  You can enter on the south side.  The entrance itself is rough--you have to choose just the right path so you don't bounce around too much in your vehicle.  Of course, you can always walk in as well.  Many people park on the small access road that runs parallel to the adjacent hotel (on the left side).  If you look closely you can see vehicles parked near the entrance (at the top) and down by the beach (looks like there are 3-4 cars there).  In the central part of this piece of land, someone runs a business renting horses for tourists to ride on the beach.  The first time I saw this place, I was fascinated.  And it left me wondering: How did this fragment of the past somehow escape the fate of so much of the surrounding coastal land?

What's hard to see in the above image is the dramatic contrast between this parcel of land and the surrounding resorts.  The hotel on the left (to the south) is a massive u-shaped structure that swallows up the viewshed in its effort to capture the coastline for guests.  So many little rooms, all facing the ultimate commodity in this area: an ocean view.  This is what has transformed the formerly worthless coastlines of Baja California Sur into prime real estate.  Thinking about things this way, it's easy to understand why hotels are built the way they are, like massive amphitheaters that open themselves to the blue sea and white sand.  These factories of tourism experience are literally built to squeeze every possible dollar out of each bit of land.

Maybe this is why I find that open piece of land so fascinating: it persists.  I don't know how or why, but it has survived the geographic, economic, and architectural overlay of large-scale tourism development.  Its a remnant, a holdover of the days when the coast of Baja California Sur was part of the "forgotten peninsula" that Joseph Wood Krutch famously wrote about so long ago.  Clearly, this place is anything but forgotten these days, as the expanding tourism network attests.  The Baja Peninsula is no longer some backwater, some distant place, some geographic unknown.  It's on the radar, and year after year more and more people are coming here to live, work, vacation, invest, develop, and shape the landscape.  The irony of course is that many travelers found their way to Baja to escape the overdevelopment, crowds, and pollution of places like Las Vegas and Los Angeles.  What remains to be seen, however, is whether the forces of development will simply remake the peninsula into another overdeveloped urban blight, or if there's still time--and the political will--to forge another path.

This issue of anthropologies explores some of the many facets of the Baja California peninsula--past and present--through our latest selection of essays.  This month we have contributions from Don Laylander, Dawn Pier, Pamela Weiant, Shane Macfarlan, Marissa Shaver, and George Bergin (who has contributed a non-fiction essay and a short fiction story).  Since my research is in Baja California Sur, I included one of my recent essays as well. Thanks everyone for taking part.  Enjoy, and as always please feel free to post any reactions, thoughts, or comments.