Colorado State campus mega-development steals Mexican beach - you call that 'mindful'?

| 2nd November 2015
Punta Lobos beach, Todos Santos - with the 'mindfulness' development built out across the beach. Photo: Salvemos Punta Lobos via Facebook.

Punta Lobos beach, Todos Santos - with the 'mindfulness' development built out across the beach. Photo: Salvemos Punta Lobos via Facebook.

Resistance is growing in Todos Santos, Baja California, to a tourism and University campus mega-development of 4,500 homes that claims to be 'free range and locally sourced', writes Viviane Mahieux. It has already grossly disfigured one of Mexico most gorgeous beaches, while locals fear it will drain their aquifers and obliterate a harmonious community.
Tres Santos has already bulldozed endangered mangroves, disfigured a beach, built a private reservoir that holds more water than the town's own, and reportedly is requesting permits to build eight more private wells.

Mindful living conjures the image of socially responsible individuals practicing yoga and meditating as they envision a more equitable world.

Mindfulness has become a buzzword designating both a concern for individual health and an awareness of our environment. It's hard to see how it can be controversial.

But the term also works as a wily catchphrase to sell coastal real estate in a questionable new development in Mexico's Baja California peninsula.

A small town nested in an oasis on the Pacific coast of southern Baja, Todos Santos has gone over the past twenty years from being a quiet fishing and farming village to becoming a popular tourist destination. Words like 'quaint' and 'unspoiled' pop up in most articles written about it.

Considered a quieter alternative to its southern neighbor Cabo, Todos Santos is known for surfing, art galleries, film and music festivals, and is home to a growing community of American and European residents. In 2006, it was named Pueblo Mágico or 'magic village', by Mexico's Secretariat of Tourism, a designation meant to ensure governmental commitment to sustainability.

But it is not devoid of problems. Water scarcity has long been an issue, the transition from agriculture to tourism has brought its share of social ills, and more recently an open pit mine plans to operate in the Sierra de la Laguna Biosphere Reserve, the area's most important source of water, putting the region at risk of an environmental disaster comparable to the recent toxic spill in Colorado's Animas river.

And now, the 'mindfulness' mega-project

And now Todos Santos is getting both a mega-development that brands itself as mindful and an ethically murky university campus.

A real-estate project called Tres Santos has permits to build 4,472 homes over 25 years, leading to an estimated indirect population growth of more than 60,000 new residents - quite a leap for a town whose population in 2010 hovered just above 5,000. Divided into three sections, beach, townfarm and hillside, the project frames the southern edge of town, along both sides of the new double lane highway that connects Todos Santos to Cabo San Lucas.

The beach section, already under way, is located at Punta Lobos (see photos), the only sheltered location along the open Pacific Ocean where local fishing cooperatives can directly access the beach with their skiffs.

Tropical depression Linda, which struck on 6th September, was a mild storm compared to last year's Hurricane Odile that wrecked havoc in Cabo and much of the peninsula. Yet it caused serious beach erosion and flooding of the development's existing construction.

Over the past few weeks, the beach has receded to the point that large boulders, originally placed there as part of the sea wall, have been exposed. This has damaged motors and propellers, extremely expensive equipment that local fishermen can hardly afford to replace repeatedly.

Locals blame the scale of beach loss squarely on the development, disrupting the normal flows of waves, sand and seawater across the bay. Of course, no one can prove what the beach would be like now had it simply been left well alone. But it's easy to see a cause and effect.

And what no one can doubt is sheer, unbelievable, crass ugliness of the excescence that now disfigures what was once one of Mexico's most beautiful and unspoiled beaches.

The real estate-educational complex comes to Baja

The townfarm section, planned on a dry patch of land on the outskirts of town, next to the town cemetery and far from the area's agricultural fields, has already inaugurated Colorado State University's first international campus, which started operating this fall. Establishing a research center with a strong background in sustainable agriculture and water use in Mexico's driest state certainly seems worthwhile.

But the campus's coziness with Tres Santos and with MIRA, the Mexican affiliate of Colorado-based Black Creek Capital, led by prominent real estate mogul Jim R. Mulvihill, who spearheads the project, have unsettled both the Todos Santos community and CSU students.

The campus is supposedly built on gifted land, but CSU does not have full ownership of the trust.  CSU is required to allow Tres Santos to use its name for marketing purposes, and is expected to keep its research farm in bloom during peak tourist season. Higher education, it seems, makes for great greenwashing.

As one of the project's brokers in Todos Santos told me in an unguarded moment: "Other developments put in golf courses, we're bringing in a university campus."

Video: The 'freerange, locally sourced' dream promoted by Tres Santos.

"A perfect place for mindful living." That's the slogan a quick online search for Tres Santos will give you. Appropriately, their Todos Santos sales office promises "Bikes, Yoga, Info", and omits direct references to selling homes ranging from $233,000 to $1,545,000.

The online information form beckons: "Join us. Be part of the movement." Images of tanned blond children, fit bikers, surfers and yogis are interspersed with photographs of desert landscapes, solitary beaches and picturesque farmlands. Only the occasional fisherman or rancher reminds you that this "epicenter for well being" happens to be in Mexico.

But who benefits from such 'mindful living', and who pays the cost? Tres Santos has already bulldozed endangered mangroves, disfigured a beach, built a private reservoir that holds more water than the town's own, and reportedly is requesting permits to build eight more private wells.

Such a large-scale luxury project can only exacerbate inequality and result in various forms of displacement. The very notion of a mindful mega-development, the Tres Santos project proves, is an oxymoron.

Local opposition is growing

Meanwhile, local citizens are organizing to protest the project. Opposition has grown exponentially in recent weeks, both though social media and in the local press.

Video: an acrimonious confrontation between local fishers and community members with Tres Santos security.

On 29th October, fishermen and community members blocked the road to the beach development, halting the construction and pressuring Tres Santos to respond for their loss of livelihood and displacement. More protests have followed.

So far, the company has responded by blaming the weather for the beach erosion and by sending foreign private security to photograph the protesters.

But it must be slowly dawning on Tres Santos, Colorado State University and the project's financial backers that they are in deep, serious trouble - and that the only answer is to drastically scale down their plans and restore the ravaged beach and mangroves to their former glory.



Viviane Mahieux is Associate Professor of Spanish, Spanish and Portuguese, School of Humanities, University of California, Irvine.

This article is an updated and expanded version of one originally published on CounterPunch.

Help us keep The Ecologist working for the planet

The Ecologist website is a free service, published by The Resurgence Trust, a UK-based educational charity. We work hard - with a small budget and tiny editorial team - to bring you the wide-ranging, independent journalism we know you value and enjoy, but we need your help. Please make a donation to support The Ecologist platform. Thank you!

Donate to us here