Interview by Nuria Bolaños, Rainforest Alliance
“In some cases, communities get so involved that they end up forming their own groups — which is exactly what we want them to do — and start developing their own activities and identity. This is what happened in the very small town of San Ignacio…”
PRO ESTEROS is an NGO in Mexico whose mission is to protect and conserve the coastal lagoons throughout the Baja California peninsula, through research, education, collaboration, and conservation. According to Martínez Ríos: “PRO ESTEROS was founded in 1988 as a group of binational volunteers. We have survived many changes over the years, but we have always been very firmly based in Baja California, longer than any other group. Many members of our advisory committee are researchers from North America with their help we have gradually formed very satisfactory programs that we plan to continue.”
Martínez: The experience that we in PRO ESTEROS has had with environmental education is that it has really opened the doors for us in many communities here in Baja California, and sometimes in very remote communities of up to 500 residents, usually people who work in farming or fishing cooperatives. Since they are so far from population centers, they feel abandoned. When outside people come to their towns, they do not want to hear about government programs and don’t want people to impose regulations on them.
We arrive as a civil organization and give them the education material that we have, which is focused on wetlands protection, and we begin to work in a school — usually we work in secondary schools. We begin activities with students and teachers, which we call youth clubs, because they are extra- curricular activities. Our goal is to give students an opportunity to learn about wetlands and their environment in general. Little by little we include their parents.
After we begin to have interaction with the parents, we begin to talk to them about the problems that they have and their worries with regard to their natural resources. That gives us an opening to start research projects to understand more in depth the state of their natural resources — if they have a problem with wetlands contamination, how they make a living, if they have projects underway already, if there’s a disregard for regulations. We provide the scientific information, which they usually don’t have.
After we start a research project, our role requires us to give the resulting information to the community, in easy-to-understand language. Then we again start an education program. We hold workshops with the parent and the fishermen, we hold summer school sessions for older students, and with them we start clean-up programs and many other community activities.
For example, in one remote community the parents decided to form a committee for the defense of the environment, and in another, they organized an association to protect natural resources. After this modest start, conservation began to really take hold in the communities. We are aware that our office is in the northern part of the peninsula, and these people are very, very far from any other population center, so when they themselves begin to take responsibility of conserving their own backyards, things are very different. They ask us for information and we stay in contact. These two community organizations created their own board of directors and regulations. We provided two guides that we have also used, from The Nature Conservancy, as well as other guides about how to find donations, how to manage board of directors, and other training manuals.
Another small group asked us to give them training in microenterprises, because they realized they had done a decent job in marketing their marine resources, but other economic activities in the community were not so successful, and the entire community could not live from just one fishing cooperative. After the microenterprise workshop, they began to better understand marketing and costs and benefits. We’ve seen a good deal of progress on their part.
So from this work emerges a community that is much more participatory, a community much more dedicated to conserve their own resources and see economic alternatives. They realize that being so isolated has its advantages and disadvantages. They have the chance to make their own rules — for example, if they attract tourists, what kind of tourists do they want? What kind of tourism activities can they offer? They don’t want a five-star hotel, but perhaps they can have birdwatching, or surfing, or something with low impact.
In effect, these communities all began, literally, with education programs as the first step. From that, came what PRO ESTEROS is really looking for — to create a sense of shared responsibility. It’s all part of the education programs we initially brought — these are our keys of admission to many communities.
Sometimes it’s not that easy to get involved with a fishing community, people who have worked a certain way all their lives, and here you come to tell them that this is fine, but something else isn’t so great. They don’t always like that. I can’t say that the attitude of everyone in the communities where we’ve worked has changed. But it has been very satisfying to see that people will let us come in and they begin to talk to us, and then they begin to tell us their concerns. They sometimes ask us for advice or help in contacting other organizations that can help them. In one community, residents contacted, though us, foundations that helped them get another schoolroom. When they organized their natural resources defense committee, they obtained through the same foundations, a computer, desk, and solar panels. So little by little they have adopted positive changes.
In some cases, communities get so involved that they end up forming their own groups — which is exactly what we want them to do — and start developing their own activities and identity. This is what happened in the very small town of San Ignacio. After being involved in one of our education programs, these folks became very enthusiastic and started their own group, called Eco Amigos Calafia — Calafia after the peninsula. They became quite active. For example, they decided to hold a beach clean-up week and another week dedicated to collecting books for the library, and other similar community activities.
In San Ignacio, as in other communities, we began with highschool students because in most of these small towns, the teenagers have almost nothing to do. In primary school, they are very involved at home and more under the care of their parents. During highschool, many don’t have anything to do after school in these communities, where there is no electricity for television or movie theater. So it’s easy for them to get involved in activities like drugs or delinquency. That’s why we start youth clubs, because on one hand, we want them to start understanding how wetlands work, about flora and fauna. On the other hand they can get involved in various activities, forming small beach clubs, adopt a lagoon, make signs, birdwatch, and similar activities.
Last year, one of the teenagers from the youth club in San Ignacio got in touch with other youth groups in Mexico and ended up attending one of the first forums for young environmentalists in the country. The House of Representatives paid for his trip to Cuernavaca, where he made excellent contacts and learned that what is happening in his own community — even though it is very small and quite remote — happens in other towns in Mexico.
For me this is a lovely success story and shows that you can plant a little seed and tell people to look at how things can work, how groups can direct projects in a certain way that benefits their communities. And we do all this with a focus on wetlands, but we give them a little seed, and from that they derive many things. Their scope has no limits since they understand what their communities really need.