Thursday, November 8, 2012

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.


Anonymous said...

Well presented Ryan. So many questions and so few answers.

Mrs. Smith said...

Ryan, thank you for your work on this paper. I am very interested in following up on the progress. Is it possible to on tact you?

Anonymous said...

thanks Ryan, and Dawn, too. This is insightful and a good reflection of the reality. Please keep up the good work. Linda Neil