“Water is more precious than gold here in Cabo Pulmo” says Paulina Godoy Aguilar, a local activist. I understand why as we cut through the majestic mountain range. The landscape is scarred by aridity screaming out for forgiveness. The cactus plants, wizened by the scorching sun, are silhouetted shadows, custodians of this unrelenting terrain.
As we enter the sleepy town I half expect to see the ghosts of Pancho Villa and his revolutionary army charging out of the undergrowth to defend this Mexican heritage.
Stuck on the tip of Baja California, along the coast of the Bay of Cortez, my eyes fall upon the sapphire sea, streaked with azure and turquoise, with carved boulders like ancient sentries standing guard in this, God’s Paradise. The pristine beaches hold some of the most treasured coral reefs in the world. How untouched and unspoilt by human progress this place looks.
Cabo Pulmo hosts the largest marine protected reserves in Mexico, covering over 7,000ha. It was declared a National Marine Park in 1995, driven by the determination of the small community of just over a hundred residents, which recognised that overfishing had depleted the fish stocks and that the marine life and coral reefs that had amazed generations were in danger of extinction. A small band of activists mobilised the community to oppose the commercial fishing trawlers of powerful Mexican and foreign companies. They sought to educate the community and visitors, and 10 years ago they agreed to a total ban on fishing. For the locals who lived on the seafood from the local waters, this presented a challenge which they only overcame by the participation of every community member in the conservation effort.
Outside the local restaurant flutters a piece of paper in the fresh breeze as it sticks precariously to the wall next to the tap: “Please preserve every drop of water.” I hesitate guilty about flushing the toilet and followed the old adage: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow.”. That saved six litres and I wonder why we still use such an obsolete mode of sanitation. Our sophistication seems such a perversion here.
The meal we share with the local campaigners is modest and delicious. Chili and avocado started growing in Mexico over 9,000 thousand years ago. It reminds me of the gardens of my childhood. The guacamole is stunning, as is the nachos baked from burritos. Beans are the staple here and the primary source of protein. The Mexican flavours are fragrant and spicy. I have no problem here. Everything has the simplicity of my mother’s kitchen.
The discussion over lunch centred on a huge challenge faced by the Cabo Pulmo community. The government has recently granted permission to a major Spanish real estate company, Hansa, to build a tourism complex with over 35, 000 units, two golf courses, a private landing strip, desalination and water treatment plants, and a marina for over 500 boats. This will have a devastating impact on the marine park and its fragile and coastal ecosystems. The aquifers, nature’s natural filtering system, are very sensitive .
The community has mobilised, uniting with NGOs in Mexico and globally to lobby policymakers to review the decision by the Ministry of Environment. Major international NGOs like Greenpeace have waded into the battle. As one of the local activists remarked “The big guys from Greenpeace came down from Mexico City. We were a bit intimidated. They proposed actions which got us into problems with the authorities who accused us of causing trouble. We sat down with Greenpeace and agreed what we would do and what they should concentrate on. We had a division of responsibilities and they respected that. They would concentrate more on mobilising international opinion against the big Spanish housing developer Hansa. We work well together now.”
Clearly, human activity and commercial exploitation are threatening the survival of the land and ocean systems. As Baja Life Foundation states: “There are too many people who consume too much, who have limited knowledge of the fragile marine biosphere and who do not recognise the value of the Earth’s natural resources.”
How simply and powerfully put this is. Judith Castro, whose great-grandfather started this village as a fishing camp and is one of the founders of Amigos para la Conservacion de Cabo Pulmo (Friends for the Conservation of Cabo Pulmo) in 2002, brings together the dive guides, residents, housewives and the local communities to promote the conservation effort.
‘We are not against development, but the one that brings destruction and negative consequences to our community we will oppose. We are the custodians of this unspoilt beauty. Our forefathers recognised that their activities had nearly destroyed their livelihoods and their community. We will not let this happen again. There will only be poverty and the environmental degradation left when the owners of these big companies have built their developments and then banked their profits. We will be left to pick up the pieces” she says.
The local community has spent the last decade monitoring the sea turtles, sea lions and coral reefs. Recently, experts have measured a fourfold increase in fish stocks because of their conservation efforts, they proudly proclaim. They have just cause to be filled with pride. They have a deep sense of ownership. This is their community and ancestral lands they are protecting.
I think back to the crisis we face in the environment debate. Powerful vested interests in the “dirty industries” are pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into challenging the science and empirical evidence. If all the reserves in publicly listed companies in the extractive industries including coal, oil, and construction and mining companies are unlocked we can say goodbye to the world as we know it. Our children will inherit a fundamentally different world to the one we know. Water, land and food security will become the new resource wars.
This is already happening. Africa and Asia, which hold the bulk of the poor in the world, will be the hardest hit. Already climate change has accentuated the conflict in the Horn of Africa crisis and has driven tens of millions into poverty and famine. It has fuelled local skirmishes as pastoral farmers clash over grazing lands and water. Similar conflicts are breaking out in Mali and Niger, where the drought is chronic and systemic. Low-lying coastlines in places like West Bengal and Bangladesh as well as island states face disastrous floods, hurricanes and tsunamis.
But our leaders are still in denial. Nothing has changed in how they handle the crisis facing us. Increasing political elites are fused at the hip with the predatory economic elites. Big capital funds many of the political campaigns we see of modern day political parties.
As the small community of Cabo Pulmo and others across the world know, there are very few in power that can be trusted to carry the interests of the people, especially the poor. And that is the lesson of modern democracy. We know that well in South Africa. An iconic leadership under Nelson Mandela, a robust civil society, the most progressive Constitution in the world and a set of institutions that guaranteed a rights-based democracy where people were centre stage was insufficient to ensure that we won the battle over poverty and social inequality. Civil society was marginalised and people, who were the engine of our freedom struggle, became bystanders in their own development.
So what is the model of development? Where do we begin?
I believe we need to go back to basics. We need to question the rules and systems that perpetuate inequality and increase the divide between the global rich and the global poor. A new apartheid has reared its head, violently, and we need to unite our communities in a shared solidarity of networks that recognise our interconnectedness to fight back. We need to link the community of Cabo Pulmo to those in Lake Turkana, in Kenya, where the fish are dying because of the impact of climate change. We need to connect the shack dwellers of Mexico City to those of Diepsloot outside Johannesburg and Mumbai in India. We need to assert our right to our humanity and demand an accountability and transparency from our political and corporate leaders.
As an old native proverb says: “We did not inherit our Earth from our ancestors. We borrowed it from our children.” And so I learn the important lessons from these communities. It is my journey to share these with others, to dialogue with the next generation, like the activists I met in Cabo Pulmo. Paulina and Judith were with their sons; beautiful boys, carefree and confident, running along the beautiful coast with us. Curious, they would bring back shells, strange, prawn-like creature from the sea. We were going to the spot where sharks were mating. The boys clamoured over the huge boulders with ease. This was their land, their legacy. I thought about the selfishness of my generation. Will we change our lifestyle even if we know that we are robbing these innocent children of their legacy?
I looked at Paulina and Judith and in their faces I saw etched a fierceness and passion. They were mothers and they would die defending the land and the future of their children. The future of the world, I realised, lies in the hands of women like these amazing mothers. DM
In other news...
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Watermelons were originally cultivated in Africa.