ISLA ESPIRITU SANTO, Mexico -- Facing pressure to build hotels and resorts, communal land owners Tuesday handed over to the Mexican government an uninhabited, Manhattan-sized island touted as one of the region's most unspoiled ecosystems.
Conservation groups said the $3.3 million sale -- funded by private, nonprofit groups -- could be a model for saving threatened wildlife areas.
President Vicente Fox signed a decree in January allowing the transfer.
The deal was a victory for the Mexican government, which has been criticized for its plans to upgrade and build 22 ports along the Baja California coast.
The island 20 miles off La Paz had been an "ejido," or communal piece of property, that was given to Mexican owners under earlier land reform programs. They requested the sale after deciding it was the best way to make money off land they could not develop.
The owners never lived on Isla Espiritu Santo, or Island of the Holy Spirit. It is only inhabited temporarily by passing fishermen from La Paz and tourists -- kayakers, scuba divers, hikers and campers who are allowed to visit in limited numbers.
The barren 23,800-acre desert island, whose sharp, rocky hills are dotted by cactus, has one of the most unspoiled ecosystems in the area. It boasts five species of mammals and reptiles -- including a ring-tailed cat, black jackrabbit and ground squirrel -- unique to the island, and is known for the rich sea life that surrounds it.
Archaeologists also want to continue research that has turned up evidence humans lived on the island as long as 40,000 years ago.
As it was in the past
About an hour's trip by boat from La Paz, Espiritu Santo is a long island about the size of Manhattan. Divided by a shallow canal, it contains a narrow beach fronted by turquoise waters and is surrounded by smaller islets where colonies of sea lions sun themselves on sea-washed rocks.
"We call it one of the last great places on Earth because it is so unique and pristine," said Marianne Kleiberg, director of the Nature Conservancy's Southern Baja California program.
"We believe that what we see on the island now is what was there a long time ago. The natural conditions haven't changed."
The island was designated a federally protected reserve in 1978 and was restricted to environmentally friendly uses. But conflicts arose over what those uses included, especially after 1992, when then-President Carlos Salinas pushed through a law allowing ejido members to sell their property.
The pressure to develop the tip of the Baja California Peninsula has intensified in the past decade because of a dramatic increase in tourism in La Paz and surrounding areas.
Developers began eyeing the island for tourism projects, and in 1999 some owners constructed several bungalows. The federal government later ordered them torn down.
Gabriela Anaya, a representative for Mexico's Commission of Natural Protected Areas in La Paz, said officials believed the bungalows were just the beginning.
"It wouldn't stop there," she said. "It would go on for years until enough had been built up to completely alter the ecosystem."
Federally protected lands across Mexico often are developed by politically connected businessmen or ejido members. The Mexican government has tried to stop development, but hotels and resorts often are built anyway.
The agreement to expropriate Espiritu Santo came after three years of negotiations led by the Mexican nonprofit Foundation for Environmental Education, known as FUNDEA.
The money paid to landowners was raised by several nonprofit groups, including FUNDEA, the U.S.-based Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund, the International Community Foundation and The Walton Family Foundation.
The David and Lucile Packard Foundation donated another $1.5 million for the island's long-term management and protection.
"Surely we will see situations like this in the future because it's necessary in this country," Anaya said. "Conservation is expensive and paying for it requires the cooperation of many sectors, not just the government."
The island will be managed by Mexico's Commission of Natural Protected Areas, which also is working with nonprofit groups to protect 10 other private islands in the gulf -- a body of water Jacques Cousteau once called "the world's aquarium."
"This is an example on the national level that will allow us to carry out similar action in other places," commission spokesman Marco Sanchez said.