Baja Standoff: New Age Resort vs. Mexican Fishing Village

Practicing “mindfulness” with lawyers, bulldozers, and lots of cash

At first the fishermen paid little attention to the news of a luxury megadevelopment looming over their rural Mexican town.

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The Americans had already for years now been trickling into this quiet and traditional sliver of the Baja California coast– building beach homes for retirement, upscale music lounges, galleries, even a film festival. The fish didn’t seem to mind, and life in Todos Santos continued for the fishermen largely as it had for the past two hundred years.

Certainly this upcoming development, “Tres Santos”, was magnitudes larger than any previous American venture into the town. It had plans for hotels, organic markets, orchards, farm-to-table restaurants and thousands of homes. But it also seemed more generous to locals than any foreign tourist development in Mexico the fishermen had ever heard of. At a public meeting, a company spokesman had announced plans to build a satellite campus of Colorado State University, which would be the first site of higher education in this rural area.

So while the local elite bemoaned the coming flood of Americans, and some activists railed about an imminent water crisis, the fishermen simply carried on.

Then one morning in late September 2014, the chief architect of the development drove down to the beach. She was the company’s usual liaison to the fishermen, not only because she was one of the only Mexicans on the team, but also as one of the few Spanish speakers.

She caught the men back from the dawn’s haul. Her meeting with them was cordial at first, if not slightly stifled. She talked while they hauled their catch into trucks.

What kind of fish do you catch, she asked.

Mostly snapper and yellowtail, they said.

Ah, she said.

She politely informed them that the fishing cooperatives, both of them, would need to relocate to a new location at the margins of the beach. The company had bought the commercial rights for the shoreline, and planned to build the Hotel San Cristobal where they were now standing– that is, right where the fishermen historically worked. The company hadn’t needed to negotiate with the fishing cooperatives, she told them, because municipal documents showed their claims didn’t actually cover the beach. One cooperative’s entitlement actually pointed halfway up a distant hill. The other cooperative’s, a mile out into the ocean. This was almost certainly a surveying error from the 1970’s, but business is business.

This, she continued, was quite a good development for the fishermen. Not only would the company build them new gutting tables and a pavilion, but they would be valued as an important part of the hotel’s functioning. Their morning labor would provide a majestic sight for the hotel guests to observe during their stay. These tourists would marvel at the “real Mexican fishermen.”

Ah, the fishermen said.

The next morning, as a construction truck rounded a curve on the only access road to the beach, it was met with a barricade. A dozen fishermen stood guard at the ramshackle checkpoint made of oil drums and hung tarp. The rest of the men were down at the shore, continuing their work where they always had. This was the beginning of the blockade.

Construction on the hotel, the fishermen declared, would not continue until their demand was met: a promise that they would be able to continue fishing where they always had. The margins of the beach, they said, are too muddy to launch their pangas. The sea wall did not leave them enough room to shore their boats. Above all, they did not want to be jostled about by an executive board no one had even met.

Three months passed, and the blockade remained. A bulletin board nailed to a post listed the scheduled shifts for all the members of the Punta Lobos fishing cooperative. For 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at least half a dozen fishermen stood at guard. Only three, two ill men and a man in his seventies, were not listed. The other fishing cooperative had decided to sit the whole business out.

“This company has broken all their promises, and we’re here because we’re taking a stand,” Antonio Salvatierra shouts in Spanish. The other fishermen nod their heads. A beachside breeze blows, and it’s a warm January evening in Todos Santos. With me at the barricade is Ricardo Madraza, a documentary filmmaker for BajaSurTV. “We will not let them take what little we have left,” Salvatierra continues. “We are demanding only for what is ours– our traditional livelihood, and the assurance that we can pass this on to our children. Tres Santos can do what they want because of their money. They have the government in their pocket.”

A stout, leathery man with a thin moustache, Salvatierra has long served as a mouthpiece for the cooperative. When the company first came and placed decorative rocks on the beach, he was the one who told the architect that many of the rocks had washed out into the shallow waters and ruined several of their pangas. The company bought the fishermen new boats. When the company built a seawall—with special permission from the government—Salvatierra again trekked to the Tres Santos office in the town square. The beach was eroding rapidly, he told them, and he had not seen the shoreline so low since the time a hurricane hit in the early 1970’s. The company told him this was natural; it had nothing to do with the seawall.

The cooperative’s legal counsel, a local environmental lawyer named John Moreno, said otherwise. Although the company’s own preliminary environmental impact study, called an “MIA” for its abbreviation in Spanish, had suggested that the erosion caused by the seawall would be minimal, several environmental NGOs in the area had cited studies showing that without expensive maintenance, seawalls inevitable cause a substantial amount of shoreline loss.

One NGO, CEMDA, began investigating the MIA and found over 300 pages of language and data that exactly matched, word-for-word and number-for-number, an MIA for an area nearly one hundred miles up the coast, belonging to an unrelated development.

Moreno says the company merely copied and pasted the data. “I doubt they did much research at all,” he told me. At the barricade and in the townside bars, dark and conspiratorial mutterings about Tres Santos ran freely: the old ranchers’ ejido has secretly sold all the water rights to the Americans; the company was waging a covert Facebook war to turn the local population against any activists; even that the entire real estate project is a fraudulent investment scheme.

Such rumors are common here in Baja, where clean officials are an oddity and bribes an almost necessary ledger item in any business venture. But, Madraza told me, “here there’s something different. The fishermen know it. Everyone can smell it.”

The company had already broken their promise not to draw from the town’s fragile water system. The school turned out to be a research program for students already attending Colorado State University. The way Salvatierra and the other fishermen spoke of the company, there was no depth it would not stoop to in pursuit of the development’s construction. Even violence.

“Did you hear the architect came to Ramon Orozco’s house?” Salvatierra points to a man by the barricade’s makeshift grill. “His sister was there, and the architect strongly suggested that she tell her family to abandon the protest, that it wasn’t safe for women there because the federales would come and and hurt people. They were threatening us.”

Moreno assured the cooperative members that their blockade was legal. It was a peaceful protest on public land, he said, and no one–not even Tres Santos–could own the road to the beach.

That night the barricade brimmed with celebrating fishermen and their families. The presence of journalists and Salvatierra’s forceful speeches had instilled a new air of confidence. Salmon, normally reserved for the high price it fetches on the market, was grilled in piles on the makeshift grill. A boombox blared traditional norteño and Santana as the trash cans piled higher with empty Corona bottles. Maybe Todos Santos, Moreno said, could become the second Punta Bravos— a town a few hundred miles up the Baja coast where fishermen had successfully driven developers off their beach. Rumors had already began that many of Tres Santos’ investors were expressing hesitation, looking for ways to get out. Chip Conley, the project’s head salesman and principal face, had unexpectedly quit on New Year’s Day. Maybe others would soon follow suit, and the whole development would collapse.

Four weeks later the Federales came to the barricade.

Dozens of riot police clad in black military armor arrived by the truckload to clear out the fishermen. Moreno stood in front of the police line, “What you are doing is not moral, you know it in your hearts!,” he shouted. The Federales marched forward.

Roughly fifty fishermen, forty supporting family members, and twenty sympathetic townspeople stood between them and the Hotel San Cristobal’s construction site. But five hours and two broken arms later, the barricade was dismantled. It had lasted four months. Construction on the hotel resumed the next morning.

The story of Todos Santos is in many ways a familiar one: real estate developers transform a picturesque, traditional outpost into a tourist boom town. Some locals resist the way of life, sometimes with force, while others embrace the new job opportunities. The company usually prevails one way or another. Here, there’s one important difference.

Tres Santos bills its 4,700-home project as the subversion of that business-as-usual.

“Come live in authenticity,” their website beckons. “A free-ranged, locally sourced life.” The brochures depict yoga classes on the beach, blonde little girls and the occasional leathery fishermen.

“Instead of golf resorts, think farm to table restaurants, yoga retreat centers, and cottages in the middle of organic fields of produce, all connected to the local community,” Chip Conley said in an interview. This is a development appealing to more conscientious sensibilities with its low-key tourism, sustainable focus, and above all else– mindfullness.

~~~

Todos Santos has two paved roads, Juarez Street and (Leon) Street. Their collected 14 blocks of storefront make up the main drags of the town, and Juarez hosts the presently humble tourism district: upscale lounges with menus in English; folk art gallery shops run by locals who—very authentically—don’t speak English; and of course, sombrero stores.

Standing tall in the middle of Juarez, between the old fruit market and a taco shack, is the Hotel California. With its stucco walls, colonial archways and thick mahogany doors, you could be forgiven for mistaking it to be much older than sixty-nine years. The weekend tourist runoff from Cabo San Lucas come here for a selfie with the sign out front—HOTEL CALIFORNIA—and stay for the two hundred peso margaritas. Many of these visitors tell me this is “the” Hotel California from the famous Eagles song. It’s not. A clever American owner in the 1990’s started the rumor, but the front desk staff don’t correct anyone.

At two and a half stories, the rooftop gives a commanding view of the local area. To the immediate west is the the Nuestra Señora del Pilar, the mission church built in 1733 by the Spanish. Its lime-washed walls tower over the central plaza, where the town holds it many public celebrations. The church can be seen even a few roads over in the arts district, a section of craft galleries and workshops marked by the colorful flags strung between balcony windows. Beyond this small paved section of the town spreads a lattice of dirt roads and thoroughfares filled with cinderblock homes and one-room stores, fruit markets and fish stands– all interrupted by the occasional sandlot and soccer field. At some intersections, one finds makeshift fire pits and Christmas trees decorated with Cerveza cans. Pickup trucks cruise carefully around the many dogs and children that play in the street.

This is Todos Santos the town. A coastal oasis of 5,000 people nestled between the desert mountains of the Sierra de la Giganta. The last cold beer at the southern tip of the Baja peninsula. The “puebla magica,” as it was designated, of a land only incorporated as a state in 1974. Today its a curious meeting point of old world agriculture, West Coast counterculture, and frontier opportunities.

The executives of Black Creek Capital, the Colorado real estate investment group behind Tres Santos, were first brought to the area in 2013 by Jim Brinkerhoff. A freelance travel agent who sometimes did contract research for the company, Brinkerhoff knew Todos Santos would be an easy sell. Two months later the CEO of Black Creek approved the first plans for a project then called “Playitas Punta Lobos.” Brinkerhoff was paid handsomely.

“Off-the-beaten-path. Unspoiled. Perfect. All the things you’d dream about when you dream about a place to live, to grow, to meditate, discover, and explore. Over time, word has gotten out. As enthusiasts and expats sought and rediscovered an authentic way of living, others were drawn in. Different kinds of people for different kinds of reasons. All with a common desire for a kind of primal and authentic connection–to the earth and to other people.”

Still standing atop the Hotel California, one could see beyond Todos Santos proper great swaths of concrete foundations and frame constructions extending outward in all directions to nearly horse-shoe the original town.

This is Tres Santos the megadevelopment. With permits for over 4,700 homes, the hills surrounding Todos Santos might soon be filled with hundreds of sun-washed adobe houses for conscientious Norteamericanos to buy and rent, to live and retire in. They will eat in Tres Santos restaurants, buy from the Tres Santos farmers markets—which are sourced from the Tres Santos organic farms—and maybe blog about it from Tres Santos’ coffeeshop. If all the permits and funding for the desalination plant are secured, Tres Santos residents might even drink water from a completely separate water infrastructure.

By the end of construction, Tres Santos as a development will be three times larger than the original town. For some local leaders like Elena Moreno, this is not a problem of natural growth as much as is it of intentional planning. The head of real estate company Amerimex, Moreno sat on the Urban Planning Commission in 2007 with a dozen other community members to plot the development of Todos Santos over the next fifty years. They meticulously zoned the town and created guidelines for all future buildings. No building, for example, shall exceed three stories. The course of infrastructural development they charted was one that closely tracked the projected natural growth of the town. A rate largely based on migration from the mainland and the slow stream of Norteamericanos moving into high-income housing eeking out along the coast.

“When we started on the planning, we didn’t want the unorganized growth like what happened in Cabo,” she said.

Without an adequate water infrastructure, garbage collection system, hospital, emergency services or even a complete school system, Todos Santos could not afford uncontrolled development. An explosion in population, she said, would be disastrous.

“If you look at census for Cabo San Lucas, for every hotel room or vacation room, it results in a population increase of 16 people. If they built all 4,700 homes, and times that by 16 for the auxiliary people, that’s 71,000 people. If they built just 2,000 [homes], that’s 32,000. And that would be from just one development. We all know development never happens in a vacuum.”

Cabo San Lucas casts a long shadow over Todos Santos’ future. The city, an hour and a half away, was once quiet and slow-paced. Beginning around the same time that Baja became a state, the government opened the region up to unrestrained development. The trickle of contractors and tourists soon became a downpour, and the sleepy little fishing town exploded into a vacation megapolis. It’s now called Los Cabos, as the city bleeds into neighboring San Jose de Cabo. Over 68,000 people live there in permanent residence, most to accommodate the floating population of 1.6 million tourists that expect a round-the-clock party. It’s at once expensive and unaffordable, crammed with impoverished people all walled off from the ocean by the uninterrupted line of high-rise condos.

The ease of the comparison to Cabo San Lucas is not lost on the Tres Santos team.

“We don’t want to be an extension of Cabo,” says Jimmy Mulvihill, the president of Black Creek in a recent interview.”We want to be the anti-Cabo.”

“I doubt they were even aware of the plan. They didn’t consult anyone,” Mrs. Moreno says. “I doubt they’re aware of it now. Most of them don’t even speak Spanish.”

The blueprint approved in 2013 by Mulvihill overrode the zoning regulations set by the Todos Santos’ urban plan, which had been finalized in 2012 after five years of deliberation.

“Our plan is designed to keep Todos Santos from being overrun by large, high-rise hotels and the kind of rampant, unchecked growth that is present elsewhere in the region and would destroy the magic of a place we love and want to protect.”

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