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Mexico cancels Cabo Cortes, $2 billion Baja California

Days before a global summit that will focus attention on Baja California, Mexico’s president on Friday canceled a mammoth development project on the peninsula – next to a pristine coral reef – that had enraged environmental groups.

The $2 billion development, known as Cabo Cortes, was projected to have nearly as many hotel rooms and condominiums as Cancun, Mexico’s biggest resort.

“This megaproject known as Cabo Cortes . . . is canceled,” President Felipe Calderon told environmental activists gathered outside the presidential residence.

Calderon will travel to the tip of Baja California this weekend to host global leaders at the annual G-20 meeting, which will take place Monday and Tuesday.

The suspension seemed timed to burnish his reputation as a defender of environmental and global warming issues before he meets President Barack Obama and the leaders of Russia, China, Japan, Germany and other major world economies.

Calderon said the Spanish firm behind the project, Hansa Urbana SA, had failed to demonstrate “beyond a doubt” that the project wouldn’t harm the surrounding area, including the adjacent Cabo Pulmo marine reserve, which scientists hail as an extraordinary reef system. The marine park has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Calderon said Mexico wouldn’t leave the owners of the land “defenseless” and unable to use their property. He said authorities would work with them to create a project “compatible with the sustainability of Cabo Pulmo.”

Environmental groups rejoiced at the decision.

“Canceling Cabo Cortes is a triumph for Mexicans who raised their voice to demand that the president . . . stop favoring the interests of plundering businesses,” said Patricia Arendar, the head of Greenpeace Mexico.

Omar Vidal, the chief of WWF-Mexico, a branch of the Swiss-based global environmental conservation group, said sending the development back to the drawing board would be an opportunity to design a tourism model that brought jobs but also safeguarded the fragile, arid Baja California environment.

The cancellation “sends a clear message that this is not the kind of tourism model that we want for Mexico,” Vidal said in a statement. “Cabo Pulmo is so fragile that it can only tolerate low-density tourism development with minimal impacts on the marine park and surrounding areas.”

Last year, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, one of the world’s premier proponents of ocean health, described Cabo Pulmo as “the world’s most robust marine reserve.” It said a study had shown that the number of fish in the 27-square-mile reserve had soared 460 percent during a recent 10-year period.

Cabo Pulmo and the now-canceled Cabo Cortes sit on the eastern cape of Baja California about 60 miles northeast of Los Cabos, a tourism magnet where the G-20 summit will take place

Hansa Urbana had planned to build three golf courses, a 490-slip marina, a jetport, 15 hotels and properties that hold the equivalent of 30,692 hotel rooms or 10,230 three-bedroom condos or houses. Construction was planned over three or four decades.

The Spanish firm ran into severe financial problems, and the Spanish government took over one of its creditor lending institutions last year, casting a cloud over the project’s financial viability.

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