Alarm over threat from huge new 22,000 resort in Baja California

Gulf of California residents, environmentalists say waste and run-off from development could harm reef, and ecotourism that depends on it

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 May, 2014, 6:27am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 May, 2014, 6:27am


Environmentalists say the only living hard coral reef in the Gulf of California is once again under threat, just two years after activists persuaded the Mexican government to block construction of a huge 30,000-room resort.

Marine life around the Cabo Pulmo reef just outside Los Cabos, once an overfished area, flourished following a decision nearly two decades ago by local residents to stop commercial fishing and instead develop ecotourism activities on the Baja California peninsula.

But environmentalists are alarmed by renewed plans for a 22,000-room resort, this time led by Chinese investors. Jeering and arguments erupted at a public comment session last week on the proposal, which is at the earliest stage in the approval process.

The developers, in one of their few public statements about the Cabo Dorado resort, say they have eliminated about one-third of the hotel and apartment accommodation proposed in the earlier project, and abandoned plans for a marina and a desalinisation plant that caused controversy. They have offered to reuse water from existing aquifers.

But opponents say there isn't enough freshwater on the bone-dry peninsula to support even the reduced plan, and that the project gives little consideration to how the reef could be affected by resort waste and run-off from golf courses. Critics of Cabo Dorado also highlight concerns over the project's Chinese backers, whose relationship with Beijing is unclear.

An advert placed in Mexican newspapers by one investor, Beijing Sansong International Trade Group, suggests the project is backed by the Chinese government, and says it has US$3.6 billion to spend on the resort.

"In accordance with the agreements signed in recent months between Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and the President of the People's Republic of China, Xi Jinping ... we announce that the La Rivera Desarollos BCS company, in which we are investors, will carry out a new project on the Cabo del Este," it said.

That's what scares local residents around Cabo Pulmo, like Judith Castro, whose family began fishing in the area about a century ago, but now offers diving and other activities. Unlike the cash-strapped European bank behind the last project, Castro fears the Chinese have the money and "will start building the minute they get any permits".

"We're not against development," Castro said, "But we are against unchecked growth."

Neither Beijing Sansong nor La Rivera responded to requests for comment, but the company's website lists as partners two Chinese state-affiliated companies. One, China State Construction Engineering Corporation Limited, was barred from World Bank construction contracts for "collusive practices" on a previous project.

"This is one of the things I find most concerning at the end of the day," said Exequiel Ezcurra, the former head of Mexico's National Ecology Institute and a professor at the University of California, Riverside. "This is a company you can't know very much about at the end of the day, that's the big problem."

The developers say in the newspaper ad the project will be "a touchstone of environmental sustainability," but critics say its sheer scale makes that ambition impossible.

"The amount of water that they need ... doesn't even exist in the region," said Octavio Aburto, a researcher at the San Diego-based Scripps Institution of Oceanography.