Posts from a Pacific Paradise
by Bryan Jauregui, Todos Santos Eco Adventures
This article was originally published in Janice Kinne’s Journal del Pacifico
Lawyers, guns and money. For the last several hundred years these have been the tools employed throughout the Americas to resolve land use and land ownership issues, and the system continues to thrive in present-day Baja California Sur. If you have enough of all three deployed in the correct proportions, you can generally carry the day. So how could the staff of a resource-restricted, government-operated, conservation-driven institution face down a large multinational company aiming to put an open pit gold mining operation in the UNESCO-certified natural area that they are charged with protecting? If you’re the employees of CONANP (The National Commission of Natural Protected Areas) in Baja California Sur you look to the earth. You invoke the powerful forces of nature. You call in the botanists.
When the CONANP team first met Dr. Sula Vanderplank of the Botanical
Research Institute of Texas in 2014, she and her colleague Dr. Benjamin Wilder of the University of Arizona and Next Generation Sonoran Desert Researchers (N-Gen; www.nextgensd.com) had just completed a terrestrial biodiversity study of the lands surrounding Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park. Not coincidentally, these were the same lands targeted by a developer with plans to construct a massive 30,000-room hotel complex on the shores of the marine park. While there are likely many factors that ultimately lead to the termination of the project –massive protests, focused effort by leading local and international NGOs, international media scrutiny – it is beyond a shadow of a doubt that the findings of the team lead by Sula and Ben were a strong contributing factor. Why? In the area where they were to construct the hotel the botanists and their bi-national, multi-disciplinary team recorded no fewer than 560 species of flora and fauna. Of those, 100 (almost 1 in 5) are endemic to the Cape region of Baja California Sur, and 42 are on the Mexican endangered species list. Until that time, no one had any idea of the magnitude of the biodiversity of the area. As the authors of the study concluded, “Given the large number of endemic species present in the area, large-scale development projects risk the full scale and local extinctions of endemic species with narrow geographic ranges. Entire species could be lost forever (and their roles within the Sonoran Desert ecosystem) from the unique places where they evolved in situ during thousands or millions of years.”
Development ‘s deadly impact on biodiversity: CONANP was inspired. Gold mines operating in a protected natural area: N-Gen was invigorated. The opportunity to bring serious scientific scrutiny to Arroyo La Junta and the Los Cardones open pit gold mining project: it was too compelling to ignore. The CONANP/N-Gen team of Sierra scientific superheroes was born.
Now fictional superheroes like Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark conveniently come with immense family fortunes to back their earth-saving endeavors. Not so with reality-bound botanists and their colleagues. When Sula and Ben were first introduced to the Arroyo La Junta area in the Sierra foothills where the Mexican government had authorized the Los Cardones mining project, they couldn’t find much science on the area. A good bit of work had been done at the higher elevations of the Sierras, but the area around the proposed gold mine had remained a generally science-free zone. With the help of CONANP, Sula and Ben set out to change that and, as they had done in Cabo Pulmo, created a proposal to bring rigorous scientific investigation and analysis to determine the magnitude of endemism and biodiversity in the area. CONANP was thrilled. Potential funders were silent.
“Then an interesting thing happened” says Ben. “When the government approved the MIA (environmental impact assessment) of the Los Cardones mine, the people of Todos Santos and La Paz rose up in protest and staged rallies and marches against the mine. This public outcry really gave new life to the importance of understanding the potential impact to the biosphere reserve.”
Anne McEnany, president of the International Community Foundation, had been involved in educating people about economic activities in the Biosphere Reserve for years, and immediately grasped the importance of the N-Gen project. “ICF has been working with local organizations to educate and inform the general public about the Biosphere Reserve and the La Paz watershed by developing curriculum, analyzing potential economic activities, and convening workshops. When the N-Gen research team approached ICF to finance a biodiversity assessment there, we knew it was the right next step. How can CONANP appropriately manage such a large area without knowing what is there?” The CONANP team breathed a sigh of relief. The botanists got busy.
Sula came down in September 2015 to scout out the area and to work with the director of the Sierra La Laguna Biopshere Reserve, Jesús Quiñónez Gómez, on the permitting required for the team to conduct its research. The scouting trip a little scary. Recalls Sula, “The Los Cardones people had guards and check points at several spots in the Arroyo La Junta area, and it was definitely a little intimidating. So when we came back with the whole team in December 2015, we were apprehensive about the type of reception we might receive.” The “whole team” consisted of 46 participants, including 29 scientists from 19 institutions (10 from Mexico and 9 from the US). Everyone was a little nervous, but by the time the team arrived to conduct their 8 days of investigation starting on December 4, 2015, the roadblocks and guards had been removed and the team worked without interference.
And apparently without much sleep either! The group, many of whom had worked on the Cabo Pulmo study and are part of the N-Gen network of investigators, consisted of 5 main teams of scientists: 4 botanists (the plant people), 6 entomologists (the insect folks), 8 herpetologists (the snake and lizard researchers), 7 mammologists (self-evident) and 4 ornithologists (the birders). Specialists for each taxonomic group worked almost around the clock, systematically surveying different areas as daytime collections gave way
to nocturnal studies, which in turn rolled into bird surveys underway well before dawn. A CONANP management team of 10 people kept the whole project going, while the Rancho Agua de Enmedio family kept them all well fed, and Niparajá assisted with local logistics.
It couldn’t have been more perfect: a CONANP-inspired, ICF-funded, N-Gen-executed project with a multinational team of scientific rock stars to assess the biodiversity of an area that has been consigned to the ravages of open pit gold mining. It is the people of Baja California Sur’s dream team, and if ever salvation were at hand, it is now. But “now” is December. The rains of summer are but a distant memory so few annual plants persist, and the perennials are not sporting many of their distinguishing flowers and fruits; the botanists are challenged. The weather is cool and the cold-blooded snakes are not inclined to come out; the herpetologists find solace in the amphibians. There’s water in the arroyo so land mammals are around, but volant mammals (AKA bats) are the least likely to be active in the Sierras in December; the mammologists scan the night skies with few catches. Aquatic invertebrate communities often show great seasonal variability, and there are substantial taxonomic limitations to larval identification; the entomologists take pleasure in the huge number of harvestman spiders around that freak out all the other scientists. Lots of birds are in residence, but several important species frequent the Cape Region only in summer; the ornithologists make do with what they have.
All of which makes it even more impressive that in the 500 hectares (1,235 acres) of land currently petitioned for use as the Los Cardones open pit gold mine project, the N-Gen team found 877 (eight hundred and seventy-seven!) species of flora and fauna, including 107 species endemic to the Cape Region alone, and 29 species listed as endangered by the Mexican government. Not only that, entirely new species were documented, including 2 insect species (and possibly more), and a completely new plant species record for the entire Peninsula, Brickellia diffusa, part of the sunflower family. And given the limitations of their research – they only had 8 days at a relatively unproductive time of year – the results are all the more astounding. In fact, the scientists reckon that their study represents only 25% (invertebrates) to about 50% (reptiles and amphibians) of the total species present in the region. It’s the frickin’ Garden of Eden on a 500 hectare lot.
But everyone knows that the Garden of Eden comes with a fast-talking serpent (apologies herpetologists) who doesn’t have the happiness of mankind at heart when he offers temptation to the innocent. As Exequiel Ezcurra, Director of the California Institute for Mexico and the United States (UC MEXUS) and co-editor of the study writes in the introduction to the soon-to-be-published study, “At the end of ten years of operations, the Los Cardones mine would have extracted about 173 million tons of rock, 135 million of which will have been deposited as waste in large pilings, and 38 million tons will have been accumulated in tailings in the form of sediments saturated with cyanide solution. In those ten years the project would have consumed about 300 million kilowatt-hours from the local power grid, releasing about 150,000 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere generated by the consumption of about 100 million liters of fossil fuels. In return, the project would generate only about 200 jobs for the entire region and only a meager eight tons of gold for the benefit of a private company.”
Scarier still, like the Garden of Eden, Arroyo La Junta is bounded by rivers, and its tributaries lie along the division of two watersheds. The ridge just to the north of Arroyo La Junta demarcates the boundary where water flows to the La Paz watershed, ending in the Gulf of California. Arroyo La Junta itself flows towards Todos Santos and empties into the Pacific Ocean. As Exequiel writes, “The mining project Los Cardones….plans to extract gold at the headwaters of the La Paz watershed treating the extracted rock with tons of cyanide, an amount sufficient to kill the entire population of Mexico.” Everyone on the peninsula knows that just one big hurricane could release a disaster of untold proportions from the mining site – it’s already happened in Sonora.
Of course it is the water that is the very source of the incredible biodiversity of Arroyo La Junta. The aquatic organisms that the water supports attract a vast array of predators like bats, birds and spiders, and the huge number of insects attracts reptiles and amphibians like frogs, who in turn attract larger predators like raccoons and coyotes. The arroyo is not just a source of drinking water for many of these species, it forms the actual basis for regional biodiversity. The humid air and damp areas extend the active period for many species, most especially reptiles, which means that they can extend their ecosystem functions for a larger part of the year.
CONANP discussed the study’s results. “When a company arrives to undertake a project in a protected area, the government wants to know if the project is compatible with the
mission of that area. In this case, the protected area is the Sierra La Laguna Biosphere Reserve, and the mission of CONANP is to protect its biodiversity for future generations. The results of this study reaffirm that mining is incompatible with that mission. The mining company says that it can restore everything as it was after it digs these huge holes in the earth, but this study proves that restoration would be extremely difficult, if not impossible.” Ben is more direct. “The biodiversity numbers of the mining company’s MIA (environmental impact assessment) don’t even come close to what we documented. Restoration to what we see today after 10 years of mining would be impossible.” Exequiel agrees. “…we want to remind ourselves again, extinction is forever; our children will never be able to see the species that our generation pushes to oblivion.”
Lawyers, guns and money. In some cases these tools bring clarity, but in others they are employed to obfuscate, intimidate and renumerate away obstacles. And therein lies the beauty of the N-Gen study – it is pure, crystal clear, science. Every fact fully documented and not subject to dispute. And the timing could not be better as there is now a precedent for scientific institutions setting environmental parameters for mining operations. On February 8, 2016 Colombia’s Constitutional Court repealed Article 51 of the National Development Plan that had allowed the Environmental Licensing Authority to authorize mining projects in the Andean paramos, tropical alpine ecosystems. It ordered the Ministry of the Environment to use the map created by a scientific research institute, the Alexander von Humboldt Institute, as the basis for demarcating the boundaries of the paramo habitat. As Exequiel writes, “This was the first time a country had so explicitly put the human right to a safe water supply above the interest of big mining companies. It was also the first time that a nation had given such importance to a scientific research institute in the decision making process.”
Arroyo La Junta is in the part of the Sierras that was designated a Biosphere Reserve by the Mexican government in 1994 and by UNESCO in 2003. So the area’s value has long been suspected, but now, because of the inspiration of the CONANP team to bring in the scientific star power that is the N-Gen network, the true natural wealth of the area has finally been documented and all the players know exactly what is at stake: “Hundreds of species, many of them rare and endemic, others new to science or yet to be described.” The incredibly high rate of endemism is a result of the extreme isolation that the Sierras enjoyed for possibly millions of years. It is the natural heritage of the Mexican nation, and the very source of life for the residents of the Baja California peninsula. All the gold, all the lawyers and all the guns in the world cannot replace it. The botanists showed us that.
Endangered Species List
|Reptiles & Amphibians||24||6||16|
|Mexican Institutions||US Institutions|
|@Lab||Botanical Research Institute of Texas|
|CIBNOR||Next Generation Sonoran Desert Researchers|
|CICESE||Orma J. Smith Museum of Natural History, The College of Idaho|
|CICESE, Unidad La Paz||San Diego Natural History Museum|
|CONANP||San Diego State University|
|Fauna del Noroeste||San Diego Zoo Global|
|Niparja||Sky Island Alliance|
|Rancho Agua de En medio||University of Arizona|
|Terra Peninsular||University of California, Santa Cruz|
|University of Guadalajara|
Vanderplank S, BT Wilder, E Ezcurra. 2016. Arroyo la Junta: Una joya de biodiversidad en la Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra La Laguna / A biodiversity jewel in the Sierra La Laguna Biosphere Reserve. Botanical Research Institute of Texas, Next Generation Sonoran Desert Researchers, and UC MEXUS. 159 pg.
The study was published in June 2016, and you can find it on the N-Gen web site.
Todos Santos Eco Adventures operates trekking and cultural programs in the Sierra La Laguna Biosphere Reserve, working with local ranchers and their families. For more information please visit www.TOSEA.net