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The price of tranquility in an underdeveloped Mexican lagoon

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José de Jesús Varela Galvan, a member of the Luis Echeverría ejido that struck the deal, is also the director of Kuyima, an ecotourism company that takes tourists out on whale trips. He echoes this sentiment: "Whales are charismatic, enigmatic, smart, and basically marvelous," he says. "But in this case, they are a means to an end for us - preserving our way of life for our children and grandchildren."

The money from the fund will be used for an array of projects, explains ejido president Raúl Eduardo Lopez. Suggestions so far include building an ice factory for packing fish, giving the middle school its own building, expanding the oyster factory, bringing in a pharmacy, and maybe starting a pig farm. "We need these projects to succeed, and we want to pay back into the fund ... in order to prove to ourselves - and to our neighbors - that this is the way to go," Mr. Lopez says.

All project proposals will have to be approved by Pronatura, Mexico's largest conservation group, which is part of the alliance and charged with monitoring the agreement.

"They can do most anything that does not put the environment at risk," says Fernando Ochoa Pineda, a Pronatura lawyer. Ecotourism is fine, for example, but a mega-resort with a golf course is not - because of the pesticides, the immense water usage, and the sewage. Fishing and farming is allowed, but a marina would be rejected, as would a salt factory. "We are aware there needs to be development," says Mr. Ochoa. "The only question is what kind of development."

The monetary incentive is meant to offset the rising tide of offers that are tempting many poor landowners. Nine years ago, Mitsubishi Corp. came here proposing a 500,000-acre industrial salt-harvesting factory. It would have drained the lagoon, but paid well. The plan was eventually scuppered after a long campaign by conservationists. More recently, other salt companies, along with oil-exploration groups, have expressed interest in the land.

"The seduction of a quick buck is enormous, especially in these poor areas," says Richard Kiy, president of the San Diego-based International Community Foundation (ICF), which will maintain the alliance's trust fund. "What we are trying to do is take a proactive approach and give the ejidos an income stream, which allows them to achieve community goals and control their own future ... while at the same time protecting the whales' habitat," he says.

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