Notes from Baja California Sur
What would John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts find if they were able to return to the Sea of Cortés* today? What is the same and what has changed? Their expedition in 1940 took them to a place little known by science. They collected and took creatures from this place but they also left something of great value. Steinbeck was interested in going to Mexico to find inspiration for his stories. He particularly wanted to go to La Paz. Rickets on the other hand was keen to explore and study the tide pools of the region. That happy intersection of art and science had not only produced the beginning of intertidal ecology in this Mexican sea, it asked profound questions about man’s relationship with nature.
Today the Sea of Cortés is very different from what it was then. Almost all of what they saw has been changed in good and bad ways by the actions and decisions by those of us who live there and those that come to visit for whatever reason. The questions asked on board the Western Flyer or in tide pools back then are still being considered or ignored as is so often the case. It is more evident than ever that by ignoring theme we do so at our own peril.
The impact humans have had on the world’s oceans is devastating but in the Sea of Cortés it is calamitous. Mexico’s rapid development has placed the environment in jeopardy throughout the entire nation. Overfishing, unregulated coastal development, agricultural, industrial and urban runoff, to name a few, have taken this sea’s natural capital and resilience to a tipping point. UNESCO has issued a warning that the World Heritage designation it conferred to the Sea of Cortés and its islands in 2005 is at risk of being withdrawn because of this. We are still in time to address these issues but we don’t have much time left in which to do it. We all have to revisit the question of our relationship to this place.
Mexico is struggling under the punishing weight of poverty, corruption, impunity and the absence of the rule of law. The pandemic has exacerbated these problems to the point where government agencies charged with protecting the environment no longer have the necessary budgets and personnel to carry out their duty. The opportunities to ignore laws, rules and regulations are everywhere.
Civil society has been informed and empowered to speak out. Environmental activism is relatively recent in Baja California Sur, having sprung from the people of La Paz preventing the development of Puerto Balandra as well as wide spread rejection of toxic open pit mining in the region and society’s success in stopping it. From the smallest fishing village to large urban centers, people are influencing governmental decisions, practices and policies. There are a number of Mexican NGO´s working in the region to address these problems and creating change by providing viable and replicable examples of how to live in harmony with nature, prosper by doing so and be the stewards of our natural capital.
Steinbeck and Ricketts can’t go back, but the little wooden boat that took them there can, and it is returning. The story of the expedition’s voyage has been published in several languages and is well known in many parts of the world but not in Mexico. There is an edition from Spain but it is hard to find. Although we know and admire Steinbeck in Mexico, we don’t know about The Log from the Sea of Cortez, or of the importance of the expedition it describes and chronicles. We now have the chance to make it known to new generations who are eager to learn and be informed about nature. When she goes back, the Western Flyer will be a messenger, a symbol and a class room where the people who populate the shores of the Gulf of California can learn about their sea, how it was, how it is and how it can be.
Board Member, Western Flyer Foundation
*Note: In Spanish it is spelled Cortés. In English it is spelled Cortez and sometimes Cortéz.