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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

A Mexican parallel to the Gateway pipeline fight

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Grey whale in Laguna San Ignacio

The fight over the Northern Gateway pipeline isn’t the first one to bring about calls of “foreign radicals hijacking the agenda.”  The struggle to save Laguna San Ignacio, in the late 90s, has interesting parallels – and a happy ending.  It is chronicled in A Force for Nature, the 2010 history of the Natural Resources Defence Council, by John and Patricia Adams, a very inspiring read.

Laguna San Ignacio is a bay in the Sea of California, by the Baja coast in Mexico, used as calving grounds by grey whales.  In 1995 the Mitsubishi Corporation chose this area to build what was to be the largest salt producing facility in the world – despite the fact that it would be smack in the middle of the El Vizcaino Biosphere established in 1988 by the Mexican government.  Mitsubishi promised local people jobs, schools, roads – the usual progress and modernity.

The facility, to be located in a mangrove forests and tidal flats, would have sucked up 6600 gallons of sea water per second to produce salt by evaporation, rejecting a concentrated toxic brine effluent into the bay.

Alarmed Mexican environmentalists, scientists, and local fishermen called the NRDC, one of the largest and best connected environmental groups in the US.  Several members of the executive flew down, as well as Pierce Brosnan and Glenn Close, and other celebrities.  Footage of the Brosnan and Close children, frolicking near the whales on little skiffs made the media.  NRDC coordinated a letter writing campaign, deluging Mitsubishi and the Mexican government with over a million letters and emails.

NRDC also found that consultation with the locals had been non-existent, and local fishermen were worried about their lobster and abalone fisheries.

Mitsubishi, of course, countered that its salt works were environmentally safe, “a partnership with nature”.  But as if on cue, the start of their campaign coincided with news of a toxic brine release from another Mitsubishi salt plant at Ojo de Liebre, which killed nearly one hundred sea turtles.  Of course, through all this was whispered the complaint that this decision should be left to Mexicans – wealthy Americans and movie stars should just butt out.

Sounds familiar?  A large and powerful corporation is promising jobs to the locals and proffering assurances that the new technology is safe and spills very unlikely.  The project is located in a priceless environment and fisheries are threatened. But news of spills give the lie to the message; In the Enbridge case, spills keep happening, from the mega spill in Minnesota or the smaller one in Abbotsford.  Meanwhile, a large, modern, supposedly safe and unsinkable cruise ship runs aground, sinking off the coast of Italy, reminding everyone about the potential for human error in difficult waters (Can one not think of the Exxon Valdez or the Queen of the North in that context?).  Of course, the fight is portrayed as driven by “foreign interests trying to harm the Canadian economy”, “radicals enemies of Canada”, and “Americans trying to turn Canada into a giant natural park” – outdoing any of the rhetoric in the Mexican case.

How did the Laguna San Ignacio story end?  The Mexican president at the time, Ernesto Zedillo, went to see for himself and fell in love with the bay and the whales.  The project was cancelled as a result.  Work is still needed to ensure the ongoing protection of the bay, as described in the NDRC newsletter, but overall it’s a success story.

I don’t see quite the same scenario here – I have yet to see any indication that Harper has a heart.  But the opposition to the project is also quite different: a coalition of environmentalists, labour groups, and – most important – well organised First Nations.  But the lessons of San Ignacio are clear: when what is threatened is of global significance, local environmental groups must and do ask for help from their international counterparts.  NRDC is indeed involved in this fight, as are several other US groups.  Despite claims by the Tories, this is as should be; the northern BC coast is a natural treasure that belongs to all of humanity.

Another lesson is the need for awareness and response.  If Laguna San Ignacio was saved, it is in large part due to the millions of ordinary people who bothered to write letters and emails to whoever they could think of.  We are facing the same situation here on the coast.  And thankfully, the very attitude of the Harper government is producing an amazing groundswell of true grassroots resistance: ordinary pissed-off people, bless them all, making themselves heard.

This fight is far from over.  But there are plenty of reasons for optimism.

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