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Espíritu Santo Out to Conquer Eco-Tourism

By Pilar Franco*

This beautiful Mexican island, a protected area for more than a quarter century, is being promoted as an international model for ecological tourism.

MEXICO CITY - Civil society groups are the driving force behind the reclamation and protection of Mexico's Espíritu Santo Island, in the southern Gulf of California, and they hope to launch the country to center stage of international eco-tourism, a pending goal despite its wealth in biodiversity.

Buying out the 36 former owners of 9,500 hectares on the island, a concerted endeavor carried out with funds from private donors paved the way for the project.

Espíritu Santo is the largest of a group of 900 islands and islets, declared a natural protected area in 1978 and which the late French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau referred to as "the world's aquarium".

The extensive complex of islands was recognized as a biosphere reserve in 1995. According to official figures, the area holds more than a thousand flora and fauna species, 64 of which are afforded some level of official protection.

The archipelago is home to 11 species that are not found anywhere else. Some 300 sea lions make up a colony there.

These traits "make it Espíritu Santo's natural vocation to become a center of attraction for travelers coming from all of the world who are concerned about protecting the environment," Rodolfo Ogarrio, director of the Mexican Foundation for Environmental Education (FMEA), told Tierramérica.

The conservation group and other Mexican and U.S. organizations collected a fund of two million dollars with the two-pronged objective of enjoying and protecting Espíritu Santo, he said.

The plan to preserve nature in its most untouched state, at a site that has remained scarcely populated, aims to add Mexico to the list of countries that have successfully developed infrastructure and organization for eco-tourism, said Ogarrio.

He mentioned Argentina and its southern Patagonia region, Ecuador's Galapagos Islands, the northwestern U.S. state of Alaska and its vast unexplored areas, and particularly Costa Rica, where eco-tourism has been established as a vital part of the economy.

Environmental tourism in Costa Rica is the economic sector reporting most rapid growth -- 10 to 30 percent annually -- and is the principal source of revenues.

In Mexico's Espíritu Santo live marine mammals, reptiles and birds. The conservation of its unique ecosystem means dealing with the changes caused by the introduction of other species, such as rats, goats and cats, as well as the problems caused by intensive fishing activity.

In 1997, the small landowners built eight cabins on the island within the legal framework o community property in that area. That served as the trigger to motivate the environmental groups to create the fund to transfer the 36 privately owned parcels into the hands of the Mexican state.

After five years of negotiations with the former landowners, private donors for the first time contributed in order to but the vulnerable natural area under state protection.

President Vicente Fox led a ceremony Feb 23 in which the 36 owners were given compensation for giving up their land.

The project to reclaim and protect the island is in a phase to reinforce "management methods to ensure the respectful use of such fragile natural resources," said Ogarrio.

The National Commission for Natural Protected Areas reports that just 20 percent of the land indicated for conservation in Mexico is in the hands of the state, making the commission's task difficult.

Scientific and technical studies will serve as the base for regulations that establish the conditions for conducting tourism activities without creating undesired changes in Espíritu Santo's natural surroundings.

The regulation and control of tourism will include an environmental code of ethics and practices, and the designation of tour routes that respect the archipelago's environment is already under way, said the FMEA director.

The application of these instruments will maximize the potential of Espíritu Santo to become a global model for sustainable tourism, according to Ogarrio.

For the past several years, tours have been conducted to show of the area's beauty and biological wealth. There are also areas for camping and diving, aimed at tourists staying at the nearby city of La Paz, capital of Baja California Sur state.

Taking part in the conservation plans for one of the best-preserved ecosystems in the region are the local Conservation of Mexican Island Territories and the Sierra Madre Association, as well as the U.S.-based Nature Conservancy and Wildlife Foundation.

* Pilar Franco is a Tierramérica contributor.

Copyright © 2003 Tierramérica. Todos los Derechos Reservados

Antigua es patrimonio cultural de la humanidad. Crédito: Photo Stock
Aerial view of Espíritu Santo Island, Mexico


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