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 “magical 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 most recently an open pit mine plans to operate in the Sierra de la Laguna Biosphere, the area’s most important source of water, putting the region at risk of an environmental disaster comparable to the Animas River’s recent toxic spill.
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 4472 homes over twenty-five 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 5000. Divided into three sections, beach, townfarm and hillside, the project frames the southern edge of town. The beach development, already under construction, happens to be located in Punta Lobos, the only sheltered location where local fishing cooperatives can directly access the beach with their skiffs. Recent tropical depression Linda, a mild storm compared to last year’s Hurricane Odile that wrecked havoc in Cabo and much of the peninsula, has already caused serious beach erosion and flooding of the development’s existing contruction. 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, projected to start 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: “Other developments put in golf courses, we’re bringing in a university campus”.
“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 USD 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, built a private reservoir that holds more water than the town’s own, and reportedly is requesting permits to build 8 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.
Meanwhile, local citizens are organizing to oppose the project. Perhaps Tres Santos does promote a sense of community after all. Just not one that includes them.