You may not know it, but off the coast of BCS lies one of the largest and most attractive phosphate deposits in the world. The one billion tons which we believe will ultimately prove recoverable from the deposit is approximately equal to the phosphate reserves found in the entire United States. Phosphate is a critical resource, as it is a primary component in fertilizers, and there is no substitute for the mineral. Without the phosphate supplied by mines around the globe, much of the world’s population would starve and perish.
The deposit, named Don Diego, is attractive both for its low economic costs of production, and for the low costs its extraction imposes on the environment. Those low costs could mean hundreds of millions in royalty revenues to BCS, jobs to BCS and to Mexico, a healthy fertilizer industry for Mexico, and lower food costs and greater food sovereignty for the country – helping millions who suffer from malnutrition. Those low costs also mean that the project will create net benefits to the environment (which is a big part of why we vigorously support the project) as will be discussed in more detail later.
The timing of this project is especially important because the falling peso and the threat from US President Trump have left Mexico vulnerable to rising import prices for food and fertilizers, meaning even more hardship for the millions who already struggle with malnutrition and food poverty. Creating a measure of food sovereignty has become a matter of crucial strategic importance for Mexico.
For No Maiz Gringo, the push to boycott US corn has two fronts, playing on both regional developments and social and economic weight around corn in Mexico. “The first one is to identify other countries that could potentially sell corn to Mexico…. And second, part of the reason that we have received great support from the Mexican people behind this campaign is because an aim of this campaign is also to pressure Mexico to invest in Mexican production of corn. Mexico used to produce its own corn before the early 1990s.” Link
Politicians Denying Opportunity
Yet residents of BCS are being robbed of the opportunity that Don Diego affords because of weak political willpower. Semarnat rejected this project a year ago based on its impact to sea turtles. Evidence from scientific studies show, however, that the project will not impact sea turtles at all. This is because sea turtles occupy the warm waters along the coast line, not the cooler waters 30km out to sea where this project will operate. Nor will the project impact sources of food for sea turtles as the project’s footprint is inhospitable to most sea-life due to the toxicity of the high phosphate content in the sands.
Similar conclusions have been reached by Swimmer et al (2003) who estimate that loggerhead turtles spend 100% of their time at less than 50 metres. A correct ‘Habitat Map’ for loggerhead turtles in the Gulf of Ulloa that includes their vertical distribution in the water column shown in Figure 21 thus indicates that the turtles are to be found on or near the seabed only in shallow waters close to the coastline, and are completely spatially separate from the seabed in the 80 meters depth at the “ Don Diego ” site. There is thus no possibility of dredging in the 80 meter water depth at the “ Don Diego ” site having an impact on the ‘Habitat’ of turtles in the surface waters of the pelagic zone. Page 26
Mexican government obstructionism around natural resources is not uniquely related to Don Diego. Mexico has been blessed with enormous stocks of rich natural resources, yet due to the corruption and mismanagement of those resources by the government, the people have not benefited to the degree that they have in other countries. Despite the fact that Mexico is a top ten oil producer worldwide, half of its citizens live in poverty. Pemex has been rocked by constant allegations of corruption and mismanagement. Mexican governments have consistently found ways to deny citizens access to the benefits afforded by an abundance of natural resources. In this respect, Semarnat’s decision to withhold the benefits of Don Diego from the people of BCS and Mexico is not a surprise.
Why Doesn’t BCS Deserve the Same Opportunities as Florida?
While it isn’t surprising, it is still egregious. To understand just how backward this decision is, it is useful to compare the situation in BCS with that of Florida. Florida hosts some of the largest phosphate extraction operations in the world, at great costs to the environment. Florida phosphate strip mines destroy 30 feet of highly sensitive overburden to extract phosphate in environments such as wetlands and old forests, taking habitat from endangered species. Enormous amounts of freshwater are used, settling ponds are created, and occasionally sinkholes open up and spill waste into the water table that feeds drinking supplies. Many times the land used is not even reclaimed. Naturalists have filed lawsuits to stop the expansion of mining activities in Florida.
Yet Florida puts up with the considerable ill-effects from phosphate mining and fertilizer manufacturing because the benefits are so meaningful to the state and to the country. As noted in this article, the industry employs around 6,000 people in jobs that pay an average of $72,000 USD a year. It also has created over 5,000 jobs in port-related activities, and another estimated 30,000 jobs indirectly. The industry paid almost $90 million USD in sales and property taxes in 2003 alone, a figure which may be higher today. Of course, another important benefit that the industry brings is access to abundant and relatively inexpensive domestic fertilizer, used to grow crops – some of which are then sold to Mexico.
BCS and Mexico have the opportunity to enjoy the same benefits as Florida (possibly even greater) as the Don Diego site may be larger than all of Florida’s reserves. Yet BCS doesn’t have to absorb environmental costs anywhere near the scale of those the phosphate industry imposes on Florida. This circumstance makes it particularly unfair to the people of BCS and Mexico to have Semarnat deny them this resource and all of the opportunities that accompany it.
Why is the Don Diego project so much more environmentally friendly than those currently operating in Florida? Many of the answers can be found reading this article, or some of the others on our website. The short answer is that Don Diego doesn’t require any overburden removal at all, and this is the most environmentally damaging aspect of phosphate mining. In addition Don Diego won’t use any fresh water for extraction, it will be undertaken in a non-sensitive area of the ocean (containing little flora or fauna because of the toxicity caused by the high levels of phosphate in the sands.) It won’t displace any people or animals, require settling ponds, threaten water supplies, or require the building of infrastructure. It uses one of the gentlest extractive processes known, called dredging, which has been practiced every day for over 50 years all over the globe. The impacts of dredging have been carefully studied by marine scientists for decades and are very well understood.
Don Diego creates a net benefit for the environment because this low-cost project can put some marginal phosphate projects, that are much costlier to the environment, out of business. Florida is an excellent example. Florida operations are generally more costly than Don Diego’s because they are land-based and have to deal with overburden removal, land reclamation, fresh water usage, road and electric infrastructure, etc., etc.. Florida is also more expensive because projects there are extracting lower concentrate phosphate that is distributed in thinner layers of sediment. Without getting into too much detail, the lower concentration means that it takes more rock to generate a unit of finished fertilizer, and the thinner layers mean that the rock is extracted over a wider area relative to Don Diego. The bottom line is that Don Diego can generate more finished product from a smaller footprint, thereby sparing the environment and creating a net benefit in terms of land usage and in terms of impact.
The project will have zero impact on fishing or tourism in BCS. It is located approximately 30km off the coast, so the only way to see it would be by a boat that goes a long way from shore. Even then, it would be hard to find a single slow-moving dredging ship. The process of extraction is all mechanical, will extract phosphate over a single square km per year, and no chemicals or other foreign substances are introduced to the environment. Dredging projects just like this are worked every single day in ports and along coastlines all over the world, and have been for over 50 years. The impacts have been studied in government funded programs by marine scientists and are well-documented. The greatest impact of the project is a small plume of sediment that is created within 2km of the extraction activity and only at depths of 40m+, but this settles rapidly. The impact of this plume is dramatically less than that from a storm which can create a plume for hundreds of kilometers along the shoreline, in far more sensitive ecosystems.
While Don Diego’s environmental costs are far fewer than in Florida, the project’s benefits are likely greater. Not only can the project create jobs, wealth, and royalty revenue for BCS and Mexico, but it can help the country feed the millions who are malnourished, improve trade balances and create increased trade with important partners in Asia and South America, all while weaning the country from its increasingly dangerous and expensive reliance on foreigners for food and fertilizers. Fertilizer prices spiked over 600 percent in 2008, helping to cause food riots in Mexico – yet Mexico has not responded, and is still dangerously exposed to foreign sources of phosphate. Don Diego’s operation would make fertilizer more abundant and less expensive, creating the same impact on food in Mexico. This should be especially welcome at a time when becoming less dependent on the US is important and the peso has lost so much value.
Politicians Play Games, People Suffer
Don Diego offers BCS residents much to gain and very little to lose. So, why is it that BCS residents and Mexican citizens are being denied something that Floridians fight for, despite threats to drinking water and sensitive environments? Why don’t Mexicans deserve the opportunities that Floridians have, especially when they come with far lower risks and costs?
Semarnat has no legitimate environmental reason to deny the project. Semarnat has been bullied by some non-Mexican extremist environmentalists who have told lie after lie about the project. We have documented these lies in a number of articles (here and here). Yet, as this recent court case against Greenpeace shows, old-school environmental groups make a business out of spreading false and exaggerated claims. Doing so helps them to raise money, but when they are brought to court to give a full explanation for their statements they admit that they never expected anyone to actually believe their stories.
Don’t the people of Mexico deserve better than to have groups like this determine policies impacting national security, food security, and industrial development? Who will hold groups such as AIDA accountable for their actions? Who will represent the estimated 36% of Mexican children who go hungry each day because of the lies these groups tell in order to raise money and mobilize votes to impose their ill-conceived moral agenda?
Yet there may be an even darker explanation for Semarnat’s reluctance to issue an approval. As noted earlier, the Mexican government has a history of exploiting natural resources in a manner that benefits those in power while leaving the working people behind. Denying the project until the applicants give up would allow the government to step in and take over.
If this is the case, it won’t be the first time something like that has happened. Still, it would be a big loss for the Mexican people. Not only would the government run the industry into the ground while enriching those in power, leaving many citizens to suffer from food poverty, but it would in effect put a huge “Closed” sign up for Mexico’s economy, scaring away investors and potential partners, setting Mexico back further at a time when it desperately needs to encourage growth and investment.
Let’s hope that this is not Semarnat’s objective, but we should watch closely. Semarnat’s decision to deny Don Diego, at minimum, represents a dereliction of duty to country. It is clear that this project is sustainable and approvable. The environmental application has 16,000 pages of science behind the work, compiled by some of the preeminent global experts in the field, demonstrating that it can and will be undertaken safely. There is no reasonable excuse for Semarnat’s actions. A full investigation into Semarnat’s denial of the application is warranted.
BCS residents should also be asking themselves why their local politicians are not vocally fighting for the royalties, investment, and jobs that Don Diego will bring. Aren’t they supposed to be looking out for the interests of their constituents? Where is Carlos Mendoza Davis? Where is Francisco Pelayo Covarrubias? Where are the Senators and Congressional representatives for BCS? Why are they not fighting for the people of BCS and Mexico?
This is not a time for weak political leadership in Mexico. The country needs leaders who will step up to the plate and do their job to make Mexico strong and self-sufficient again. They need leaders who appreciate facts, who are not bullied by extremists, and who appreciate opportunity. Mexico needs someone to take charge, or it needs change. The people deserve better.