Lifelong fishermen Jose Antonio Oregon guided us into the pango, a wooden handmade pirogue covered with a coat of fiberglass and resin.
“A panga won’t work,” he said. “The lagoon is too shallow. This gets us around better.”
I was in the Laguna de Potosi, located just south of the Zihuatanejo airport on the Costa Grande of the Mexican state of Guerrero.
The 1,200-mangrove lagoon sits behind nesting beaches for endangered leatherback sea turtles. Humpback whales can be found in the sea outside the lagoon. During south swell season, surfers visit Barra to surf lined up point lefts.
Jose Antonio gently pushed the pango out into the lagoon.
“There’s a kingfisher,” he said pointing to the small bird with a large oversize beak darting across a lagoon channel into the mangroves.
My companions, Sergio Flores and Natalia Parra, the WiLDCOAST Southern Mexico Coordinators, know this coast well. They have spent the last seven years working here in an effort to preserve sea turtle nesting beaches and to reduce the illegal trade in sea turtle meat and eggs.
I was in Barra de Potosi to support the village’s effort to halt a proposal by Mexico’s National Fund for Tourism (FONATUR) to place a cruise ship terminal on top of the lagoon and the 900-person ramshackle pueblito.
Barra was the first stop of the Blue Ocean Film Festival of Mexico, where ocean documentaries are screened free of charge for Mexico's fishing communities and coastal residents.
This small, friendly village of brightly colored fishermen’s homes, sandy streets replete with handmade terrayas (throw nets) and numerous shrines to the Virgen de Guadalupe, is the latest casualty in FONATUR’s efforts to create new mega-resorts on top of some of the loveliest and most pristine coastal villages, coral reefs, and mangrove lagoons in Mexico.
“I don’t see how they can build the project without destroying the lagoon and our village,” said Jose Antonio pointing to the colorful fishermen’s palapas that line the nearby surf beach and the lagoon entrance.
Every weekend and especially during Semana Santa, Mexican families flock to the surfside palapas to pass the day eating sumptuous ceviche de abulon, empanadas de pescado, and grilled fish, freshly pulled from the nearby lagoon and sea.
“Barra has some of the best seafood in Mexico,” Sergio said. “And it is a nostalgia trip for so many of Guerrero’s families who come here to relive the old ways, spend time with their families and reconnect with the fishing folk they have known for generations.”
The pango glided through a narrow channel lined with green mangroves that are home to more than 200 bird species. We spotted blue herons, flocks of cormorants, night herons, and scores of kingfishers.
“Those guys are fishing for corvina and lisa (mullet),” Jose Antonio said pointing to a pango manned by two fishermen in broad billed straw sombreros about a hundred yards out. The pescadores pushed their pango through the lagoon with a palanca or modified pole and paddle.
These are Mexico’s original stand-up-paddlers.
One of the fishermen balanced precariously in the pango and launched his terraya. Later we saw them silently perched next to the mangrove hand lining for snook and pargo.
At a break in the mangroves, Jose Antonio guided the pango on to a small mud bank. We disembarked to inspect the community’s salt making operations.
The salt makers use plastic sheets to hold lagoon water that is pumped into holding basins to accelerate the process. Piles of artisanal salt lined the sides of the saltpans.
Upon our return to the village, we greeted Jose Antonio’s sister, Areceli, the local mayor under the palapa restaurant her family owns. Her mother Linda was already preparing thick pancake-style tortillas de maiz, a pot of beans on the traditional adobe wood fire stove, and freshly caught snapper.
I walked into the kitchen to snap a photo of Linda’s kitchen. “Have another tortilla with beans,” she said while handing me the freshly made food.
“We already lost the right to have our palapa here,” said Areceli. “And now FONATUR says that it has the right to grant our fishermen access to the sea. If they build their project, we’ll lose everything.”
Later that evening more than a hundred of the town’s residents gather for the film festival. Chairs line a sandy tree-lined street. We displayed the documentaries on the wall of an elementary school. Children squealed with excitement when they received prizes for correctly answering questions about sea turtles and other ocean trivia.
“It would be a shame to lose this,” said Areceli, who will soon travel to Mexico City to discuss the fate of her village and home with Mexico’s media, elected officials, and government agencies.
I hope for the sake of the people of Barra and the wildlife they protect, that Araceli and her family and friends will be able to defend their mangrove lagoon, their community, and their way of life.
Thanks to Eugen of Villas Tuparaiso, Adriana Luna Parra of Casa de la Luna, the Oregon family, Irwin and Pato of Azulita, Siren Surf Adventures, Lainie and Mike, and Lourdes for their hospitality.
Serge Dedina is the Executive Director of WiLDCOAST, an international conservation team that conserves coastal ecosystems and wildlife. He is the author of Wild Sea and Saving the Gray Whale.