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
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
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
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
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