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The Other Immigration Problem: Gringos in Baja By Valerie Rapp

The Other Immigration Problem: Gringos in Baja By Valerie Rapp January 31, 2012 | (0) Comments Share | | Baja California is a stark, surreal landscape, a desert peninsula surrounded by saltwater on three sides. Its mountainous backbone is as sharply serrated as a horned lizard’s back. Mexico Hwy. 1 traverses rocky slopes with cardón cacti that look like saguaros on steroids; gnarled elephant trees, four hundred years old and twenty feet tall; and boojum trees, an odd plant in the Fouquieria family that looks straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. These desert plants, which spend their lives in constant, patient quest for drops of moisture, overlook abundant water of the most brilliant turquoise and deep blues, all of it saltwater. Rain, when it falls in the Baja desert, is a blessing or a problem. Precious rainfall allows the cacti to blossom -- and it cuts gullies, convulses in flash floods that deepen arroyos and runs off to the sea. This time of year, Baja’s Hwy. 1 has a steady flow of gringos crossing the border in California and Arizona, heading south. By “gringos” I mean U.S. and Canadian citizens; the term is merely descriptive, not negative. Gringos are driving south in giant RVs, camper-vans, pickups towing trailers, beat-up cars, and expensive jeeps. They travel in caravans, as independent travelers, short-stay visitors, and long-term residents. Others are flying down or taking cruise ships. The numbers are hard to come by, but clearly it’s enough to be an invasion. I’m one of them; my husband and I have been in Baja four weeks now. We’re pulling a small tent-trailer with our Subaru Forester and camping. Gringos travel with money. Even retired school teachers or kiteboarding beach bums have money by Baja standards. Money, of course, can be a blessing, or a problem. Money can buy gas, fish tacos, and pay for goods that provide Mexican jobs. And money can build McMansion homes and condos on beachfronts that used to belong to ordinary Mexicans. Few gringos stop in the arid mountains. But with gold at record prices, mining industry scouts have taken the time to recon the El Triunfo and San Antonio area, and the ruins of their nineteenth-century silver mines, to sniff out any precious metals left in those mountains. They’ve found gold, and Canadian companies are proposing several open-pit gold mines in the northern portion of Sierra de la Laguna, Baja’s southernmost mountain range. Sierra de la Laguna is a biosphere reserve because it has dozens of endemic Baja plant species and sources of rare desert freshwater that support the communities below the mountains. The Pitalla mine, proposed by Argonaut Gold, requests an exemption to use “only” 1,900 acres of the biosphere reserve for an “environmentally responsible” mine. Environmentally responsible open-pit gold mine? Argonaut Gold proposes to build a desalination plant to provide the millions of gallons of water that the leaching process requires to extract gold from the ore. In their public meetings in small Baja villages, company reps have not said what would be done with the millions of gallons of cyanide-infused water after the leaching. In a desert where water is hungrily absorbed by thirsty roots or flashes down arroyos to the sea, where does cyanide-infused wastewater go? What happens when flash floods wash cyanide, arsenic, and toxic metals into the Gulf of California, waters that are biosphere reserves themselves for their incredible marine biodiversity? Fouquieria, as the boojum tree would say. “I love Baja,” most gringos down here say. Gringos in Baja are generally friendly and helpful. They’ve organized groups that help pay for Mexican kids to go to high school (which is not free in Mexico). They rescue stray dogs and cats and sponsor neuter and spay programs. A few years ago, gringo environmental groups rallied to protect the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve when a large salt mine was proposed on a lagoon critical for gray whale calving. Gringo ecotourism has been vital in supporting the whalewatching business and giving village fishermen a significant income source and reasons to protect the gray whales. But what will gringos do for gold? Will we be a blessing or a problem?
Published Wednesday, February 1, 2012 10:45 AM by Zinnia Q.


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