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Saving the Gray Whale:
A Conversation with Serge Dedina
by Ron Mader


Serge Dedina's book Saving the Gray Whale: People, Politics and Conservation in Baja California is a long-awaited assessment of conservation, development and ecotourism in the gray whale lagoons. His organization Wildcoast promises to find cross-border connections in the conservation of the coastal areas shared by the Californias.


How did it feel to have the book published after so many years of research?

Having Saving the Gray Whale published felt tremendous. The book was accepted by the University of Arizona Press in 1996, however because of the salt project controversy, I ended up revising and updating much of the material and resubmitted the manuscript to the Press in Fall 1998. The support of the Homeland Foundation and the Wallace Research Foundation also helped defray publication costs, enhance production quality (e.g. color photos) and provide support for a West Coast book tour. I think the University of Arizona Press did great a job with the publication.

Does the book need an epilogue detailing the cancellation of the saltworks project?

Definitely. President Ernesto Zedillo's decision to cancel the proposed San Ignacio Lagoon salt project on March 2nd was an important victory for gray whale conservation in Mexico and validates the argument in Saving the Gray Whale that conservation in Mexico is about affirming national sovereignty.

Your descriptions of the Mexican government agencies in charge of environmental protection were more candid than anything I've read. However, descriptions of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and how they do business seemed less critical.

When I was carrying out the research for Saving the Gray Whale there was very little NGO presence in Baja. It was only after 1997 that regional NGOs became involved in the gray whale and San Ignacio Lagoon salt issue. However, overall they did a great job and took tremendous risks in opposing the salt project. Baja California Sur is much different than the rest of Mexico where you have a much greater NGO presence.

Why is this?

For years because of its isolation, conservation organizations took Baja for granted and the perception existed that there were few threats to natural resources. Existing NGOs in Baja focused on the heavily polluted border area and dealt with issues related to human rights and water quality (e.g. Tijuana River) rather than biodiversity conservation. However, the main obstacle to NGO involvement in Baja is the tremendous isolation of many of the area's biodiversity hotspots and rural communities. You need a good 4x4 or an excellent "panga" with an outboard to do effective conservation or community work in Baja. I spent half of my time in the field while doing the research for this book maintaining my Ford 150 4x4, hauling 55 gallon water drums back to our base camp, and digging out of sand traps and mudflats.

Some critics (San Diego Union Tribune, for example) charge that you were biased against the saltworks project. First, why was the debate so polemical and second, why is it difficult for people to accept that researchers have opinions?

The debate became very polemical because NGOs and communities were challenging the most powerful corporation on the planet and the most powerful people in the Mexican government (e.g. Commerce Secretary Herminio Blanco). The response by the Mexican government to opponents of the project was actually fairly similar to campaigns they carry out in other parts of Mexico--but actually less severe (i.e. Chiapas, Tepoztlan). While NGOs and fishing communities were called "vendepatrias" the anti-environmentalist campaign carried out by the Mexican government was not violent. Environment Secretary Julia Carabias receives a great deal of credit for using this project to open the environmental impact assessment process in Mexico and permit citizen groups to have input into the political process.

Saving the Gray Whale documented that the proposed San Ignacio Lagoon salt project would have been a violation of Mexican federal law. The book is based on information I obtained from more than 100 interviews with scientists, government officials (including former President Luis Echeverria), outfitters, and community members, archival research and three years of fieldwork. All researchers have opinions and since the book clearly states that I work professionally in the field of conservation, it would have been unusual if I believed that a project that would have destroyed more than 500,000 acres in the middle of a federal protected area would not have had an impact on the environment.

How do you assess the travel company Ecoturismo Kuyima and its work in the community of San Ignacio?

Ecoturismo Kuyima is largely a model of how ejidos and rural communities should go about working in ecotourism. This past season the Ejido employed 40 local residents in whale watching. Kuyima managers played a crucial role in opposing the salt project and have supported conservation projects for the lagoon. More importantly Kuyima has demonstrated that conservation and the economy can go hand-in-hand.

Is there any conflict due to the fact that the organizers of Kuyima aren't actually from the community?

Emily Young has an excellent discussion of conflicts related to whale watching and fishing in San Ignacio Lagoon in "Balancing Conservation with Development in Small-Scale Fisheries: Is Ecotourism an Empty Promise?" (Human Ecology 27 (4) 1999).

How did you create Wildcoast and what are the goals of this organization?

Wildcoast is a new international conservation team with the mission of protecting the endangered marine species and coastal wildlands of the Californias. I co-founded Wildcoast with Wallace J. Nichols. Together we have 17 years working in Baja California. We are currently working with ejidos, NGOs, and government park staff to make sure that coastal biodiversity sites and the endangered species they harbor in Baja California are protected forever. This will be done by working with ejidos to create community conservation trusts. We are also working with the Baja California Sea Turtle Conservation Network to reverse alarming levels of sea turtle mortality in the waters of Baja California.

Can you give some examples of the projects you are working on or that you would like to be working on?

Wildcoast is currently working with Ambiente, Cultura y Desarrollo A.C. and the Baja California Sea Turtle Conservation Network (Grupo Tortuguero de Baja California) to reverse the decline of sea turtle populations of Baja California.


Ron Mader is the responsible travel correspondent for Transitions Abroad and host of the award-winning website.


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