August 16, 2010

A summer in Baja California Sur

I spent a good portion of this summer in Baja California Sur, doing some preliminary fieldwork in preparation for my upcoming dissertation fieldwork. This was the second summer in a row that I was able to travel to BCS to get a head start on my research, which is about some of the politics of tourism, land ownership, and development in the southern part of the peninsula. It's a place that has many of the elements that appeal to large scale tourism developments--Cabo San Lucas is a case in point.

Development of the region is rapidly expanding as hoteliers, tourism companies, and investors seek new places to create resorts, golf courses, and hotels to appeal to tourists from all over the world (although BCS is primarily visited by US citizens at this point). While many of these development projects certainly have their supporters (the Mexican government sees exclusive, high-end tourism zones like Cabo San Lucas as the perfect model for future development), there has also been plenty of social and political resistance. One recent example includes members of the small coastal community of Cabo Pulmo, which is caught up in a fight against a very large development project that many see as a threat to the local marine environment, as well as resources like water. Read more about some of the issues at Pulmo here, and check out a video posted by COSTASALVAjE, here .

During this trip I met three people who are involved in projects that take a close look at some of the politics and histories that Baja California Sur faces at present. One was the documentary filmmaker Carmina Valiente, who made the film "Baja All-Exclusive," which explores many of the conflicts and social inequalities that surround some of the development projects along the southern tip of the peninsula. Carmina's work treads some very similar ground to the research that I will be starting in the same region, and I was fortunate to meet her and get the chance to talk with her about some of her ideas and projects. Here's the trailer:

I also met the talented photographer Elizabeth Moreno while I was attending a conference on environmental history at the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California Sur (UABCS). Moreno's photography--which is really well conceived and executed--was displayed in one of the main conference rooms, and I was immediately impressed. The photographs on display were from a series about human imprints on environments, called "Traces: Landscape Transfiguration." A description of this series from her site:
This work is a visual compilation of traces that our civilization leaves in the continuous transformation of the world that surrounds us. It is an attempt to set aside the kind of landscape photography that is just a visual placebo for the eye and create a purposive work. Through this images that make obvious the contrast between what is a human trace and the natural landscape I invite you to thoroughly observe our environment, to reflect on how we are altering the planet we will inherit to future generations, and if you consider it valuable I also invite you to do something about its preservation.
Take the time to look through Elizabeth's photography on her website, here. Here are a few of the photographs from the "Traces" series that I found particularly poignant, especially considering the current political and environmental climate in Baja California:

Finally, I was lucky to meet Sandino Gamez, the editor of a local magazine called Alternativa de BCS. These publications, which focus cultural, political, environmental, and social issues in Baja California, are available online here. Sandino is heavily involved in many local issues, and his active involvement and creativity definitely gave me some ideas about how I can write about some of my work in a public sphere. Communication of experiences, histories, and ideas is a main priority. That's what impressed me most about some of the people that I met over the summer--the fact that they are working hard to explore and investigate difficult issues...while also working just as hard on exposing those issues to wider audiences.

The issues that I am just starting to look at in BCS are certainly complex and difficult to understand in many regards. There are many different perspectives and understandings about the importance of development, and the very direction in which people want to see BCS head. Some people that I talk with are excited about the possibility of new jobs that tourism development promises. Others are weary--to say the least--about the long term effects and sustainability of some developments plans and goals. There is definitely money to be made in tourism development, but the real question is about benefts--and costs. Yes, tourism development generates revenue, but where do those gains go? And what kinds of communities are created in the long run? Who is really behind these development projects, and who is against them? More importantly, the question might be why?

Baja California Sur is often sold as a wild, pure, pristine place where tourists can travel to experience romantic, idealistic, and adventurous environmental landscapes. But, as the work of Carmina Valiente, Elizabeth Moreno, and Sandino Gamez shows, there is a lot more to the picture than the promotional videos that the Los Cabos Convention and Visitors Bureau promulgates. While many powerful institutions, such as the United Nations World Tourism Organization, see tourism development as a clear solution for socio-economic development, there are many reasons to remain cautiously skeptical. This doesn't mean that tourism development automatically results in social inequality, environmental degradation, and local political conflicts. It means that there is no reason to assume ANYTHING about this kind of development without taking a closer look at the specific historical, political, environmental, and social experiences of the people who deal with the results of tourism for a lot longer than the typical tourist vacation ever lasts. Tourists come and go, while the altered social and environmental landscapes that result from tourism development tend to become a reality for the individuals and communities who call places like Baja California Sur home. While the macroeconomic possibilities of tourism can be quite alluring, it is critical to pay close attention to the kinds of communities that result from large-scale tourism development projects.

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