visit this island down in baja california


Mexico takes over pristine isle
Hopes to save island from development

By Lisa J. Adams
Associated Press
Feb. 26, 2003

ISLA ESPIRITU SANTO, Mexico - Facing pressure to build hotels and resorts, landowners Tuesday instead transferred an uninhabited, 23,800-acre island in the Gulf of California to the Mexican government, preserving "one of the last great places on Earth."

Conservation groups said the $3.3 million sale, funded by private, non-profit groups, could be a model for saving threatened wildlife areas.

President Vicente Fox signed a decree in January allowing the transfer.

The deal was a victory for the Mexican government, which has been criticized for its plans to upgrade and build 22 ports along the Baja California coast.

The island had been an ejido, or communal piece of property handed over to Mexicans under earlier land reform programs. The ejido owners requested the sale after deciding it was the best way to make money off land they could not develop.

The ejido members never lived on Isla Espiritu Santo, or Island of the Holy Spirit. It is inhabited only temporarily by passing fishermen from La Paz and tourists - kayakers, scuba divers, hikers and campers who are allowed to visit in limited numbers.

The barren desert island, whose sharp, rocky hills are dotted by cactus, has one of the most unspoiled ecosystems in the area. It boasts five species of mammals and reptiles, such as rabbits and snakes, found nowhere else on Earth, and is known for the rich sea life that surrounds it.

They include an endemic species of ring-tailed cat; a liebre negro, or black jackrabbit; and an endemic species of ground squirrel.

Archaeologists also want to continue research that has turned up evidence that humans lived on the island as long as 40,000 years ago.

About an hour's trip by boat from La Paz, Espiritu Santo is a long, skinny island a little larger than Manhattan. It is divided in two by a shallow canal, and its smaller section is known as Isla Partida.

The largest beach, La Bonanza, is a strip of pure sand fronted by calm turquoise waters.

"We call it one of the last great places on Earth because it is so unique and pristine," said Marianne Kleiberg, director of the Nature Conservancy's Southern Baja California program.

The island was designated a federally protected reserve in 1978 and was restricted to environmentally friendly uses. But conflicts arose over what those uses included, especially after 1992, when then-President Carlos Salinas pushed through a law allowing ejido members to sell their property.

The pressure to develop the tip of the Baja California Peninsula has intensified in the past decade because of a dramatic increase in tourism in La Paz and surrounding areas.

Developers began eyeing the island for tourism projects, and in 1999 one owner constructed several bungalows. The federal government later ordered them torn down.

The agreement to expropriate Espiritu Santo came after three years of negotiations led by the Mexican non-profit Foundation for Environmental Education, known by its Spanish initials as FUNDEA.

The money paid to landowners was raised by several nonprofit groups, including FUNDEA, the U.S.-based Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund, the International Community Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation donated an additional $1.5 million for the island's long-term management and protection.

The island will be managed by Mexico's Commission of Natural Protected Areas, which also is working with nonprofit groups to protect 10 other private islands in the gulf .

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