UN takes steps toward saving Laguna San Ignacio

World Heritage Committee says proposed Mitsubishi salt factory could "threaten" protected site ... more on the ongoing saga.

provided by World Heritage Committee

he World Heritage Committee of UNESCO unanimously adopted, at its meeting in Marrakech, Morocco, a report concluding that Mitsubishi's plan to build the world's largest salt factory at Laguna San Ignacio, Baja California Sur, Mexico, "could threaten the conditions of integrity" of the World Heritage site there. A team of international and Mexican experts, who visited the site of the proposed 116-square-kilometer project in August, compiled the report.

"The World Heritage Committee's conclusions today confirm our fears about the Mitsubishi project," said Patricia Martinez of Pro Esteros, Baja California's largest environmental group, speaking on behalf of the Coalition for the Defense of Laguna San Ignacio. "This project would destroy one of our most valuable natural areas and poison our fisheries, the greatest economic resource that we have."

According to Jared Blumenfeld of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), "this is the beginning of the end for Mitsubishi's plans to build an enormous salt factory at Laguna San Ignacio."

"If Mitsubishi continues with its plan," added Joel Reynolds of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), "it will do so as an environmental outlaw of global proportions. No company, no matter how wealthy, can be allowed to destroy a World Heritage site of another country."

Addressing the Committee, the Canadian delegate, Murray McComb said his country, "notes with concern the observations of the report and of the NGO community regarding the potential impacts of the proposed saltworks at Laguna San Ignacio." The Belgian delegate seconded the comments and added that, "there is tremendous public interest in this issue." The delegate referred to the over 50,000 letters of objection to the saltworks that the World Heritage Committee has received, and to the nearly one million letters received by Mitsu-bishi.

The Mexican government would not allow the World Heritage Committee team to consider the specific impact of the proposed saltworks project because a new environmental assessment for the project has yet to be submitted to the Mexican authorities by the project's developers. In this context, the team's report could only note that in its present condition, the sanctuary was not threatened, stating, "under present circumstances (it) is not in danger." The team, however, did obtained data from ESSA on the planned facility and determined that, "such a project could threaten the conditions of integrity of the World Heritage site."

"The World Heritage Committee has reached the same conclusion as the Mexican environmental authorities, which rejected the same proposal in 1995," said Mark Spalding, an advisor to IFAW and NRDC. "Namely, that the saltworks would be incompatible with the sanctuary's conservation objectives."

Besides its designation as a World Heritage site, Laguna San Ignacio is a whale sanctuary, a migratory bird refuge, and officially part of El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve -- the largest reserve in Latin America. The value of the region's fisheries has recently been estimated at between $60 million and $120 million. Most important for gray whales, it is their last undisturbed breeding and calving lagoon on earth.

Mitsubishi has proposed to build a 116-square mile salt factory at Laguna San Ignacio. The facility would generate billions of gallons per year of toxic salt brine, introduce diesel fuel and spills into the nearly pristine region, require construction of a 1.25-mile pier in the midst of the gray whale migration path, and bring large tankers into the region on a regular basis. Last summer, 34 of the world's most highly honored scientists, including nine Nobel laureates, urged Mitsubishi to abandon the project, calling it "an unacceptable risk."

The Coalition to Save Laguna San Ignacio has made the expert team's full report available on its web site at www.savebajawhales.com. The World Heritage report includes a map showing that the proposed ESSA saltworks facility would disturb 60 percent of the Laguna San Ignacio section of the Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino.