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