A victory for the community of Cabo Pulmo
Mexican President Felipe Calderon announced he was cancelling the Cabo Cortes project (http://bit.ly/LSVBcR), a mega development project financed by Hansa Hurbana. President Calderon explained his decision came after analyzing available information and seeing that Cabo Pulmo is the most important Mexican reef and it deserves protection.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to spend a few days with Celine Cousteau during the Mesoamerican Reef Leadership Program (http://liderazgosam.org). I spoke to her about how her grandfather had a great influence on Mexican pride by naming the Gulf of California “The World’s Aquarium.” I also shared with her mi concern for the great challenges facing the region today. In only three decades, the Gulf has suffered a devastating transformation resulting from an overexploitation of its natural resources. In fact, in a simple and direct description of this sad situation, writer Tim Folger has paraphrased Jaques Cousteau saying that the Gulf of California could be named today “Mexico’s Fish Market” (http://bit.ly/JeiEzl).
Fortunately, the tenacity with which communities and individuals have fought to achieve change –to go in the opposite direction of devastation, –has kept hope alive in many of us to recover the Mexican Seas and the world’s seas in general. Clear examples of this are the residents of a small locality in the southeastern region of Baja California Sur called Cabo Pulmo. For a century, the Castro family has dedicated their lives to diving in this region, first as pearl fishermen, and now as leaders of the local recreational diving industry. In June of 1995, in an initiative that brought together the Castro family, the University of Baja California Sur, and the Federal Government, Cabo Pulmo was declared a Marine National Park. After 17 years of protection, Cabo Pulmo is a success story. The community maintains a high quality of life and the marine ecosystem is healthy, with dense fish populations, several of them endangered species. These people –these great visionaries –took their chances on a different coastal development model. They protected their reefs, their community, and their natural resources.
History is not as “rose colored” as I have described it. The people from Cabo Pulmo suffered. It was not easy. The transition to other employment sources, other than fisheries, the economic crisis, and the new regulations as part of the identity as a Marine Park represented great challenges, with high costs. They decided to keep moving forward and they have not given up. In May 2011, I wrote an article, together with my colleague Enric Sala, where we concluded that “if the community of Cabo Pulmo faced an enormous challenge to restore marine life over 15 years, now they face an even bigger one: avoid the destruction of great efforts and convince decision-makers that the model the people from Cabo Pulmo chose is not only ecologically sustainable, but that it is also economically viable and socially responsible” (http://bit.ly/LNALLf). Today, they have taken another step in this direction. The Mexican government has recognized their efforts and has pointed to the great deficiencies in the environmental impact report for the Cabo Cortés Project (http://bit.ly/L0RL2b; http://bit.ly/LrW9lK).
The great lesson that the visionaries from Cabo Pulmo have taught us is that not only do marine reserves have great ecological benefits (http://bit.ly/qb0Qxq), but that they are also an example of the huge economic paybacks that healthy ecosystems provide to coastal communities. The people from Cabo Pulmo have made a great effort to obtain savings that will generate interests for the coming generations. They have well understood that so well, now they carry out the evaluations of the reef and monitor their marine resources on their own. Through the association “Friends for the Conservation of Cabo Pulmo” (“Amigos para la Conservación de Cabo Pulmo”), they have demonstrated that non-governmental organizations can have a great impact on public policy. GreenPeace Mexico, Niparajá, Pronatura Noroeste, DAN, CEMDA, Costa Salvaje, NRDC, Comunidad y Biodiversidad A.C., WWF, among others, have all joined their cause to create a coalition that helps “Keep Cabo Pulmo Alive!” (¡Cabo Pulmo Vivo!; http://www.cabopulmovivo.org/).
As if that was not enough, informed citizens, artists, scholars and public servants have also joined the defense of the coastal model that the people from Cabo Pulmo have implemented. Thousands want a new direction for coastal development (http://salvemoscabopulmo.org/). Cabo Cortes is only the tip of the iceberg that represents an outdated model that has destroyed Mexican coasts. The great question now is if we will be able to, as a society and government, replicate the example of Cabo Pulmo.
I told Celine Cousteau that with all of her grandfather’s experience, and all the reefs that he visited around the world, I suppose that he was a diver who was not easily impressed. To coin a nickname like the one that he gave the Gulf of California was surely because of the underwater wonders that he saw. I have been diving for 18 years and I have visited a great number of places from the north to the southern tip of the Gulf, and only after I dove in Cabo Pulmo I understood what inspired her grandfather.
Author: Octavio Aburto-Oropeza is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO), the 2010 recipient of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Kathryn Fuller Science for Nature Fund Fellowship, and a professional photographer associate with the International League of Conservation Photographers. Dr. Aburto-Oropeza obtained his PhD at the Center of Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at SIO, and was awarded the Jean Fort Award by the University of California, San Diego, for his significant contribution to an issue of public concern through his doctoral research. His research has focused on marine reserves and commercially exploited marine species and their fisheries in Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, and the U.S.