In report after report, NOLS Mexico instructors submitted similar comments: “Wilderness characteristics on the course have become significantly compromised by development.” Students, too, noticed the growth. The past 15 years have brought a lot of changes to Mexico, to Baja California, and to NOLS Mexico’s home in Conception Bay. While there is no immediate and direct threat to the NOLS location at Coyote Beach and the courses in the area, the steady pace of development is apparent and undeniable.
What for years has been a hidden treasure for NOLS students and the few quiet villages in the area has become a selling point for investors. One developer, touting Conception Bay’s “tall mountains and towering Saguaro Cactus,” brags that, “in time, resorts, golf courses and amazing vacation homes will occupy the entire perimeter of the bay.”1 One hundred kilometers to the south, the villages of Loreto, Nopolo and Puerto Escondido have been slated for development since 1976. At that time the area’s lack of investment and remoteness saved it from major changes.
Today it is less certain that these towns can be saved from the new “Subregional Urban Development Program for the Loreto-Nopolo-Notri-Puerto Escondido-Ligui-Ensenada Blaca Region,” proposed by the municipal government and backed by the National Tourism Promotion Fund. The program proposes the creation of hotels, villas and condos to attract international tourists and increase Loreto’s population from 15,000 to 124,000 by 2025, creating a tourism mecca with international appeal.2
NOLS Mexico in Mulegé has been the base of operations for the school’s Baja courses and part of the local community since 1971.
Photo: Amy Rathke
At the center of investment activity is the Loreto Bay Company, based in Scottsdale, AZ. Emphasizing its own green building principles, this developer has made a commitment to creating a “sustainable community” in Loreto Bay by pledging, for example, “that we harvest more potable water than we consume, which will enhance the existing natural streams and marshes.”3 The company plans to construct a desalination plant, but locals are skeptical that this will be enough to supply the influx of workers as well as “The Villages of Loreto Bay,” a 6,000-home planned community.
To understand the sudden rush to develop that is happening around Conception Bay, it helps to consider the history of land ownership in Mexico. With the Constitution of 1917 the “ejido” system of land ownership, dating back to the time of the Aztecs, was re-established. Implementation of ejidos was delayed until 1934, when community groups were at last given rights to communal lands that were owned by the government, providing its members with arable land. The system persisted until 1991 when President Carlos Salinas eliminated ejido rights, citing “low productivity.”4 Since that time, ejido lands have had the ability to become privatized, subdivided and sold. Many have taken that path.
Back at Coyote Bay, NOLS Mexico Director Liz Hammond notices intimations of the rapid development happening to the south. In Ensenada Blanca, a beach that had been a traditional camping spot for NOLS sailing and kayaking courses was closed off by a developer claiming to have an exclusive concession (all beaches in Mexico are public land to 50 meters above the high tide mark). All courses were locked out until “locals purchased their own concessions and gained access,” says Hammond. “Now we camp on the beach with a guardhouse to our backs.”
“Fortunately, NOLS Mexico has a land trust and the branch itself is not threatened,” notes Hammond. The unexploited mountains and beaches of Conception Point jutting into the sea across the bay are not so fortunate. The ejido that controls this stunning swath of land is attempting to sell off its rights.
Jeff White, an American with a vision and a history with The Nature Conservancy, saw change on the horizon years ago and created “Reserva Concepcion” in 1990 to hold that lease. White hopes to keep the lease in legal limbo for as long as possible. “I have a good, solid lease,” says White, “and the ejido would have to break it.” Two years later, White met with Dave Kallgren and Leslie van Barselaar, co-directors of NOLS Mexico at the time. Quickly finding common ground, the three have been working together ever since. In a very direct way, they have sustained NOLS’ ability to operate in Bahía Concepción for the past 15 years. Ultimately, they are hoping to put enough money together to buy the leased land outright and turn it into a nature reserve. There has been similar success at Laguna San Ignacio, a major mating and birthing ground for gray whales, which was successfully protected through broad support.
As development in Conception Bay has intensified the issue has moved onto the radar screen at NOLS Headquarters, where it will become a focus of the public policy department’s attention in the coming months. Hammond and White both hope that an increase in pressure and visibility of the plight of NOLS Mexico can help protect the rich biodiversity and natural state of Conception Bay that has made it so memorable to thousands of students over more than 30 years of operation.
For more information or to get involved in efforts to save the bay, contact WildCoast, an organization dedicated to protecting coastal ecosystems in the Californias and Latin America. Visit www.wildcoast.net or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
1www.level3dev.com; 2americas.irc-online.org; 3www.loretobay.com; 4www.wikipedia.org