Mexico cancels salt plant project with Mitsubishi Corp.

Gain for environmentalists as international players


MEXICO CITY -- Mexico learned last week that it cannot be half-global.

After five years of pressure from an environmental movement that is more transnational every day, the government canceled plans Thursday with Mitsubishi Corp. of Japan to build a gigantic salt plant on the shores of a lagoon where gray whales give birth.

It was a decision Mexico never expected to make when the battle began, in the early stages of the country's broad opening to foreign commerce under the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. Up to that time, Mexican leaders had been able to dismiss complaints of foreign environmentalists as an intrusion into national affairs.

But in the war for Laguna San Ignacio, a tranquil inlet in an unblemished Baja California desert, the nationalist arguments no longer packed any punch. And as Mexico received $11.6 billion last year in long-term investments from abroad, it also discovered that it could not ignore the other forces, such as the environmental movement, that are crisscrossing borders and making politics into a global game.

"It took a million people to do it," said Jacob Scherr, a director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U.S. group that led the campaign. "But we showed that we can work together worldwide to compel even the largest corporations to respect nature."

Mexican and foreign conservationists united behind the campaign, organizing support from the humble Mexican fishing communities on the shores of the lagoon to the offices of several U.S. mutual funds that agreed to shun Mitsubishi stock.

Mitsubishi received at least 750,000 letters calling for it to scrap the project, and a boycott of its products was getting under way in California. Bus stops in Mexico City carry posters showing a regal fin rising above the lagoon's waters and asking riders if they want the whales to belong to "a corporation" or to humanity.

The Mexican government owns 51 percent of the salt company that proposed the salt plant, and Mitsubishi owns 49 percent. The company already runs a big 50-year-old salt evaporation plant in another lagoon up the coast from San Ignacio.

If Mexico and Mitsubishi had gone forward with the new plant, they would have been stuck with the image of profit-happy predators that the environmental movement had spun around them.

Environmentalists were aware that their victory did more than guarantee peaceful swimming for the whales at Laguna San Ignacio. It proved that they could be leading players on the international stage.

President Ernesto Zedillo lashed out last week when he announced the decision to dump the project. "Frankly, it infuriates me that some groups used this project to gain fame and even, I have to say it, to reap economic and political profits," he said.

Mexico's embrace of the global economy has forced it to be flexible on trade issues with the United States, on whose economic fortunes Mexico depends more than ever. It has begun to observe international standards in human rights, another area once considered off-limits to foreign pressure.

But no issue has been as open to direct influence by international groups as environmental protection.

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