June 26, 2009

Destroying Baja?

Surfers have been traveling to Baja California since at least the 1960s in search of waves, an escape from urban crowds, and solitude. As someone who grew up surfing in San Diego, that was certainly the case for me. Baja California was a place where my friends and I would travel to in an attempt to find isolated beaches and good waves far away from the freeways and congestion of home. I remember many trips to places like Cuatro Casas, San Quintin, and K-181 back when I was in my late teens and early 20s. I always looked forward to exploring and traveling down here. But I never put too much thought into the effects that I might have had upon the places I was visiting, or the power differentials that existed between myself and many of the people whose pueblos I passed by.

These days I am in Baja for completely different reasons, and it's pretty fascinating to look at many of the same places from an anthropological perspective (a little more maturity doesn't hurt either). Sometimes I look back and wish that I was different when I was younger. I wish I had paid more attention and been more aware of the realities that I could so easily pass right through. I realize that when I was down here 15 years ago as a kid, I usually bypassed many of the local pueblos and just headed right to the beach (except when we needed gas, food, or beer). While I did speak a fair amount of Spanish back then, I was by no means fluent, and I certainly did not interact with many local Mexicans to any great extent. Trips to Mexico were more about finding waves and empty beaches and being "away from everything."

Oceanside, 2009. An illustration of the crowded beaches that surfers and others travel to Baja California to avoid. Photograph by Veronica Miranda.

Surfers have been coming down here for a long time, and were part of an early wave of travelers who seek out places that are more remote and less accessible. This was the case back in the 1970s when Cabo San Lucas was just a little fishing village (I´ve heard about those days but have a hard time imagining them), and it's definitely still the case these days.

Surfers are of course still traveling all over Baja today. Although I think that many have had to travel to more and more "off the grid" parts of Baja (and others parts of the world) to find what they are looking for. Because what usually comes after the surfers, fishermen, divers, off-roaders, and other more rugged travelers are the real estate agents, developers, and tourists. And when more and more people come to a place, when "development" occurs and once isolated destinations become popular, well, that's when the dusty little village can quickly turn into a mega tourist zone jammed with boats, resorts, cars, and traffic. The transformations can be pretty staggering, as places like CancĂșn illustrate:

CancĂșn, 2008. Photo by R.A.

One of the last things that most surfers want to see built in front of their favorite out of the way surf spot is a massive tourist resort. Yet, eventually, that's often what happens. Hawaii is just one example. I just came across an article on Surfline that talks about Baja, development, conservation, and the role that surfers can play in the process. Although it was written in 2005, it's still pretty relevant today. Here is the opening paragraph:

Summertime's coming and just about everyone who lives for the long point waves of Baja believes in the Pristine Myth -- the conviction that Baja will be empty, desolate and wild -- forever. This delusion is at erroneous at best and dangerous at worst. The Baja California that drives us to live for that frenzied first round-the-bend glimpse of a pumping swell at a "secret" point we've surfed for the past quarter century is going fast and could disappear in ten years.

This has me thinking about not only what development really means (I have been doing this a lot lately), but also what conservation means as well. Who is development for, and what are the results of development processes? And conversely, who is conservation for? Is conservation something that benefits local communities, travelers, and tourists? Are the benefits of conservation shared equally? When surfers, or fishermen, or even scientists proclaim the desire to "protect" a place, what does that really entail? What is really being conserved? Is it the "natural" environment, privacy, or some mental construct of what a place is supposed to be?

Right now I am in the middle of doing some preliminary research on the histories and development and tourism in Baja California Sur, where new projects and soaring land values are certainly huge social and political topics. Many of the people that I have talked with have mentioned the changes that are bound to happen. Drastic changes sometimes seem inevitable. But is it? This goes back to some of the articles that I have been reading by the anthropologist Arturo Escobar, who urges readers not to stand back and accept development as an assumed reality.

At the same time, development and increased tourism are often seen as highly positive changes that will provide jobs, growth, and security. Tourism is sometimes seen as a kind of magical solution to poverty and lack of opportunities. It is, of course, a lot more complicated. There are certainly success stories in tourism, just as there are plenty of disasters and failures.

Ironically, I have found myself involved in two completely different endeavors that have a history of seeking out distant places: first surfing, and now anthropology. And both are closely related to that category that so many travelers want to be disassociated from: tourists. What does that mean? Not only am I studying the processes of change and development here in Baja, I am also part of the wave of people who have traveled here for so long seeking diverse experiences--and I am a part of the change that is coming to these places. I know this is true. In many ways, even as the anthropology student who studies tourism and development, I am part of the process of change. Now what matters is what I do with that knowledge, and the choices that I make as a scholar and student of anthropology.

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