In April of 2016, Semarnat denied the Manifestacion de Impacto Ambiental for “Don Diego,” a project that proposed to dredge phosphate sands from the seabed floor 30 kilometers off the coast of Baja California Sur. The rejection is a setback for the people of Mexico as the project promised significant national economic, strategic, and social benefits which are being sacrificed for the sake of narrow and misguided environmental interests.
Yet, the offensiveness of this decision to the people of Mexico cuts even deeper. This is because foregoing this project will actually harm rather than help the environment, making this a lose-lose decision for the country. When a regulatory framework that was designed to balance and protect economic and environmental interests has instead hurt both, the system needs to be examined. Semarnat’s decision making process is not achieving outcomes that appeal to common sense and good judgment.
Most people are surprised to hear that a project of such great consequence – one that could help feed Mexico and raise many out of food poverty, give the country leverage in trade negotiations, and make Mexico more competitive economically – could be derailed by a small group of environmentalists. Yet, when those environmentalists employ deception and scare tactics to manipulate the local population into opposing the project, this puts intense political pressure on Semarnat.
Seabed dredging is still new to many people, and it makes an easy target for environmentalists who pander to public emotion with sensationally distorted “facts.” These groups have variously claimed that Don Diego would mine inside sensitive lagoons, that it was twenty times larger than the application states, that it would endanger whales and “destroy” their habitats, and that Don Diego would be the first marine mining operation ever. Each of these statements is demonstrably false, and the environmentalists understood this to be the case, yet they misled ordinary Mexicans to build popular support against the project.
The sad truth is that environmentalists were not only hurting the Mexican population with their misinformation, but perversely they were harming the environment as well. The project, which was rejected for the risk it posed to sea turtles, would have had a net beneficial impact on the environment broadly, and on sea turtles specifically.
Don Diego is not a risky endeavor. Projects which dredge sand and aggregates from the ocean floor have been undertaken for more than forty years all over the world. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent funding academic research on the environmental impact of these projects. These studies demonstrate that the environmental impact of marine dredging is limited, as long as it isn’t practiced in areas of high sensitivity. The environmental risks associated with seabed dredging are both well understood and well managed. Furthermore, studies demonstrate that when risk mitigation measures are employed, dredging has very little impact on turtle populations. In fact, Don Diego promises to increase turtle populations by funding turtle restoration plans in BCS, including a turtle hatchery.
Don Diego poses less risk than most dredging projects. It is far offshore, in an area that is not hospitable to sea life due to the high concentrations of phosphate sands. Turtles prefer the warmer waters close to shore. The project would extract sand from only one square kilometer per year, and could not pose a threat to turtle food sources either. Fishermen avoid the area, calling it the “mud pits,” because it does not attract fish. Two large fishing cooperatives in BCS recently endorsed Don Diego, as has Inapesca.
How is it that rejecting Don Diego is damaging to the environment? For every ton of phosphate not extracted from Don Diego, a ton will be taken from other phosphate mines – whether in BCS, in Florida, or in Morocco (running afoul of international law). Because these other mines are terrestrial, and because they are often further away from Mexican farmers, producing and shipping this rock is necessarily more harmful to the environment than using Don Diego rock.
Terrestrial mines generally need to be much larger in scale to yield the same volume of mineral as seabed operations. Perhaps more importantly, terrestrial operations usually require the removal and destruction of environmentally sensitive overburden whereas seabed minerals are extracted with little or no overburden removal. Because the removal and processing of overburden and inner-burden is recognized as one of the most environmentally destructive elements in mining, and because seabed mining can avoid or minimize this activity, seabed mining can be dramatically less harmful to the environment than terrestrial mining.
Not only is Don Diego’s rejection harmful to the environment, but it is especially bad news for Mexico’s people. Don Diego would have provided Mexico with a very large, stable, and inexpensive source of valuable and strategic rock phosphate. Providing inexpensive phosphate would have helped to solve Mexico’s under-fertilization problem, making food more available and affordable, and helping in the national Crusade Against Hunger. Production from Don Diego could transform Mexico from a net importer of phosphate and finished fertilizers to a major net exporter, helping the country’s trade imbalance and giving it more leverage in trade negotiations. It could provide a crucial feedstock for a large agro-chemical industry in Mexico, creating thousands of jobs and meaningful economic growth. It could create hundreds of millions of pesos in royalty revenue that would go to local economies in BCS to fund important infrastructure projects, and better the lives of tens of thousands of residents.
Seabed mining has been undertaken safely for decades, is enriching the world and providing important resources for humanity. Seabed mining provides a prime example where technology and innovation is allowing humanity to access natural resources with greater efficiency, producing a net benefit for the environment. These new operations must be undertaken thoughtfully, with careful regard to the sensitivity of existing seafloor ecosystems. Yet, if our objective is to create improving conditions for the greater population while sparing the environment to the greatest degree possible, then we need to keep an open mind to new approaches, because the old approaches are overused and overburdened.
Mexico is in an enviable position. Not only does it control vast natural resources, but it has the power and expertise to exploit those resources with care and efficiency to grow its economy, guard the environment, and improve the lives of its citizens. Win-win opportunities such as these do not come around very often. It would be a shame if the politics and deception of narrow interests are allowed to deny the Mexican people a resource that could meaningfully improve their lives.