The Pearls of La Paz
At the tail end of Baja California, our Kiri blogger learns the perils of attacking global environmental issues as if they exist alone.
In La Paz in Baja California, our Kiri blogger attends the Waterkeeper Alliance conference and learns about hopes for improving coastal areas.
Location: Near the beach at Balandra, southeast of La Paz; a bay and wetland complex that was submitted for protected area status by La Paz residents.
Conditions: Hot and dry winds are gusty at night and calm during the morning. The water is cool and pleasant for swimming. Isla Espiritu Santo glimmers in the horizon as sailboats go by.
Discussion: La Paz was once rich in pearls. Expeditions financed by Hernán Cortés in the 1530s came back with tales of pearls worn by indigenous tribes, who also had an unfortunate tendency of attacking the intruders. Only 60 years later during a voyage by Sebastián Vizcaíno was he able to make peace with the locals, naming the area as the “Bay of Peace” or Bahia de La Paz.
Although pearl-diving was restricted during the Jesuit mission period, the 19th century saw a rush to cultivate pearls, so the abundant oyster beds became heavily depleted. A disease attacked the few remaining oyster beds in the 1930s, and by the time John Steinbeck arrived in 1940 in La Paz (recorded in his book The Log of the Sea of Cortéz) pearls were a thing of the past. It also inspired Steinbeck to write The Pearl, a story of human greed based on a Mexican folk tale.
The only pearls left are those of wisdom, if you are lucky enough to find them. My arrival in La Paz coincided with the annual Waterkeeper Conference, an event that brings together groups protecting watersheds from around the world. This was the first year the event was hosted in Latin America.
La Paz — where water and land come in all shapes and sizes: peninsulas, islands and sheltered coves — was a perfect geographic location. The four-day conference had representatives from the majority of the 197 Waterkeeper groups, which shared stories of Canadian dams being dismantled (and erected), the terrible impacts of the Gulf oil spill and intense confrontations over water in Bolivia.
How do Waterkeeper groups work?
During the opening dinner, the organization’s founder, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., expressed their philosophy in his compelling manner: “Others have forgotten to look after people’s interests, the grassroots. We haven’t.” They represent the fishermen and families that use local waterways, employing science and legal action to stop polluters and educate communities. By monitoring water quality for pollution, such as fecal matter, nutrient loads, toxic substances and plastic debris, they use data to support their cases. Their scale of interest is the entire watershed — the nearby mountains that gather rain, wetlands that filter toxins and rivers that spawn fish. The issues of climate change have made water resources even more critical, which has both complicated their task and given them renewed meaning.
I asked Kristine Stratton, the executive director of the Waterkeeper Alliance, what she thought of the latest climate change negotiations. “The focus is on reducing carbon dioxide, which has been a stalled negotiation. We’re forgetting to consider that the effects of climate are all related to water, such as sea level rise, droughts, floods and melting glaciers. Reducing greenhouse gases is important, but when we talk about climate, we must also talk about water.”
This struck a chord with me. I have been reflecting that many “climate solutions” might actually be detrimental and counterproductive.
Take the hydroelectric dams being proposed in North America. They are carbon-free energy sources that reduce global warming and supply water to cities. But dams do one thing really well — they keep water from going downstream. Less sediment is deposited on the coast and wetlands dry up, both of which are important to suppress storms (as well as many other ecosystem functions). The benefits accrued by being “carbon free” are negated by its impacts.
Or take the push for nuclear power — the proposal being to remove one pollutant from the atmosphere (carbon dioxide) to put a far worse one into the ground (nuclear waste). Say that a frenzy of nuclear construction is undertaken to replace coal power plants, with the unlikely hope of halting the melting of glaciers in the Himalaya and sea ice in the Artic. In the event of a nuclear meltdown, or any of the unforeseen possibilities of failure, will we have a net improvement in our planetary situation?
If the climate discussion were reframed, from the single-minded mitigation of greenhouse gases (GHG) to the adaptation of communities and water resources, what does that mean? First, there is no question that regulating GHGs is essential — like cigarettes, once thought benign but now considered insidious, GHGs are pollutants that mutate our atmosphere and life support systems. One glance at Mark Lynas’ book Six Degrees reveals the impressive possibilities of uncontrolled global warming. It is more a question of balance — any talk of clean energy should consider clean water. Similarly, any talk of development should consider ecology, to avoid undermining gains made elsewhere.
Several systems that support ecological balance can act as tools for climate adaptation. During the conference, a Mexican professor showed a series of remarkable photographs depicting “before” and “after” shots of Baja’s San Ignacio oasis. They clearly showed the valley becoming increasingly lush over the past 50 years, thanks to the stewardship of savvy farmers who capture rainwater and enhance the soil. They do so without piping water from afar or using energy-intensive technologies. This is a similar approach to permaculture, a set of principles that seeks to sustain living systems and human culture “permanently.”
Regenerative development, a concept somewhat related to permaculture, can also improve ecological and human well-being. For example, instead of using exotic species in a garden, native plants are restored, which are more drought tolerant and can serve as habitat for native animals.
Instead of producing run-off erosion with paved surfaces, permeable coverings like gravel and rock are used, along with smart landscaping to help control storm water and retain it for the aquifer. In an ideal situation, this type of development needs to be relatively small and community-based.
However, in Baja’s case in particular, since the status quo is mega-tourism development, pushed by the Mexican government and international banks, the smaller-scale approach has difficulties with financing and leveraging resources.
Chris Pesenti of the La Paz-based RED tourism program (RED means “network” in Spanish) doesn’t let these challenges deter him. “The tourism cooperative in Puerto San Carlos [Bahia Magdalena, Baja Sur] is a success because as people work together, their lives improve. They see that big developments, like the one in Cabo Pulmo are bad for the locals, blocking their access to public areas, bringing in immigrants and unrest.” With income from ecotourism and fishing, cooperative members now have better means as well as an incentive to protect the local ecosystem.
Protected areas are also a tool for climate adaptation. Offshore of La Paz, the area around the island of Espiritu Santo was declared in 2007 a marine national park by the federal government. The local nonprofit Niparajá, which helps set up protected areas around the state of Baja California Sur, was involved in the process.
Some people ask, why is a marine protected area necessary if there are fishing regulations in place? Hudson Weaver, the marine program coordinator at Niparajá, explained: “The protected area brings together many groups: commercial and sport fishermen, scuba and kayak tourism operators, and various institutions. It creates an integrated approach that a fisheries plan can’t achieve.”
I asked Weaver whether climate change might make protected areas more important in the future.
“Fisheries are an imperfect science, often based on trial and error. Reserves give us a ‘buffer,’ in case there are mistakes, so the population doesn’t collapse. Climate effects make this uncertainty even greater. Will fish migrate elsewhere, will acidification occur? The reserve also gives us a ‘control’ site, a baseline that lets us determine if the changes are due to overfishing or oceanographic variation. So yes, the uncertainty of climate makes protected areas more important.”
I was lucky enough to find some pearls of wisdom in La Paz, to conclude my journey down the Baja peninsula — a place that has made the value of water become all too apparent. In a warmer world with fickle (or excessive) rainfall, the lessons from Baja might become increasingly relevant.
I prepared for the second phase of the Voyage of Kiri, along the mainland of Mexico, where I would be traveling solo. While my companion Alyssum returned to the U.S. by plane, I loaded El Hippo in the beastly compartment of a cargo ship, which ferried me across the Sea of Cortéz. After 16 hours, I arrived in Mazatlán, and saw the first dark clouds I’ve seen in months. Rain might be on the horizon, a welcome relief.