The People and the Land

There are no people in these photos, but here, as every place in the world, you cannot but see their presence in the land. Even in Baja California, a place with hundreds of thousands of hectares that are “pristine” by standards that might apply north of the border, the landscape reflects human history. In many places here, you can say “this is what the Padres saw when they crossed the land”, but you have to search for years to find a place where you can say ‘this is what it looked like before there were cattle, and fire control, and European plants.’ And to find a place that is untouched by man after more than 10,000 years of settlement here? That is truly impossible.

But just as we change the world around us, it changes us. The modern period of settlement of Baja California dates from sometime early in the 20th century, when over 300 years of loss of population turned into steady growth. Now the ends of the peninsula, Tijuana, Ensenada, Los Cabos, have some of the highest growth rates of human population seen on the planet, with high rates of immigration from the country with the most intensive use of resources of any in the world.

What do the people who live in this land want for themselves, for their children and grandchildren, for the other organisms with which they share the land? Some want security, to avoid the ravages of winter storms followed by droughts. Some see the landscape as square meters to be sold as “waterfront view” housing lots. Others have formed a connection with the land, often as the third, fourth, or fifth generation to live here, and they want their children and their children to be able to experience this place as they have. And there also those of us, like myself, who believe that the organisms that have evolved here, shaped by and shaping the landscape, have an inherent right to continue to stay here and we must share the land with them. How do we find space for all these views? This land is fragile and the climate is spare, but do we need to clean every plant off the land to make way for something else? The views of the ocean are spectacular, and land with these views can be some of the most expensive in the world, but is the Tijuana-Ensenada corridor an example of the best way to develop it? And those who love Baja California face the same question that puzzles all of us throughout the world: how do we make a living here while not destroying the beauty and natural wealth that is the basis of our love?

Mexico: the best preserved and the least protected

I am an American, and my view of the world is by necessity formed by my experience. In the last few decades, Americans have wrestled with the need to balance conservation with development. Southern California is now home to over 16.5 million people, over 5 times the population of the Baja California peninsula. Unchecked, US settlement patterns would cover the area with a sea of houses on 1/2 acre lots. In response, local citizens have pushed for ‘habitat conservation plans’ that have put in place a network of protected areas–for the next 50 years–that purport to give enough space for the native plants and animals to survive the human impact on the land. When you come to Mexico you see a much different land use pattern. Houses are clustered in cities, the “seas of red roofs’ are not found here. Water use is lower, and even the agriculture is more compatible with wildlife. Only a few miles from downtown Ensenada, wild and natural places are still easily found. And the natural land is much more “natural” here–with less disturbance, a historic pattern of fire, and fewer invasive exotic weeds. But, at the same time, one wonders whether this will last. Mexico has an endangered species list, the NOM 059, that supposedly protects the plants and animals of Mexico–but why are nearly none of the rare plant species of coastal Baja California protected? Mexico has an enviable network of protected areas, including the Valle de los Cirios and the Vizcaìno–but why are the protected areas only the areas where there is no development pressure? Areas are zoned for protection, but when a multinational corporations want to build a LNG terminal in them, why is the red carpet is laid down? Baja California, from the coast to the mountains, from the border to El Rosario, is considered part of one of 25 “global biodiversity hotspots’, representing the most important areas on the globe for conservation. And Mexico’s part of this hotspot is probably the most biodiverse part. Yet currently zero acres of coastal habitat are protected by Mexican laws.