Interview with María José González, Director of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System Fund

Interview by Katiana Murillo, Rainforest Alliance

“The idea is to transfer fisheries management to the communities; experience in other parts of the world has shown this to be very positive and effective. In so doing, fishery resources are better conserved than with governmental intervention.”

Corals -- Photo by Wolcott HenryThe Mesoamerican Reef System is the second largest reef ecosystem in the world, extending nearly 620 miles (1,000 km) from the northern end of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico to the Bay Islands-Cayos Cochinos complex on the northern coast of Honduras. To ensure its perpetual protection against threats such as changes in land use and uncontrolled fishing, a fund for the Mesoamerican Reef System (MAR) was created as a long-term financial mechanism to support protection activities and natural resource management. The Fund involves fourenvironmental foundations from countries that have jurisdiction over the reef: the Mexican Fund for Nature Conservation (FMCN), the Biosphere Foundation (FB) of Honduras, the Foundation for the Conservation of Natural Resources and the Environment of Guatemala (FCG), and the Protected Areas Conservation Trust (PACT) of Belize. We spoke with María José González, the Director of the Mesoamerican Reef System Fund, about its priorities and conservation goals.

Question: Why do we need a specific fund for the Mesoamerican Reef?

González: The Mesoamerican Reef System is a priority region for conservation in Mesoamerica and globally. It is the second largest reef in the world and has high levels of biodiversity. However, it is subject to several threats, and since it comes under the jurisdiction of four countries, its conservation poses an interesting challenge and a shared responsibility. Although there are many conservation efforts in the region, most are projects with a five-year timeframe; there was no financial mechanism that would fund longer term activities of 30 to 40 years. We began to discuss how we could establish an efficient and practical mechanism that would complement conservation initiatives without creating a new, complicated mega-structure, and that would capitalize on the experiences and capacities of the previously established environmental funds in each one of the countries. The mechanism was created as a non-profit corporation in the United States, which gave it neutrality and facilitated negotiation. The board of directors was organized last year, and they began to create internal procedures and regulations. We developed a strategic and business plan, and we are now beginning the first major fundraising cycle.

Q: What priority issues will the fund address?

González: We have defined specific priorities. The first will be to assist and consolidate the network of coastal and marine protected areas in the region. We have been working with the World Wildlife Fund since last year to develop a financial model that would allow us to define the region’s financial needs and help the existing coastal and marine protected areas. There are 63 protected areas in the four nations. We worked with the four countries, and each one reviewed its list of protected areas.

The objective is to have an initial network of protected areas and to raise the funds to support it. This financial model is very interesting. We evaluated the model in each country and adjusted accordingly. The model is an important fundraising tool.

Q: When do you intend to make the first donations?

González: We hope to provide the first donations in 2006. The priority is the protected area system, but we are also working in all the other areas that help ensure their adequate conservation. Some are islands that are affected by everything that happens on the continent, which means that other issues must be addressed to ensure long-term conservation. This is the case with watershed management, fisheries, or tourism around the protected areas system. We are focusing on fisheries by establishing community marine reserves.

We began conversations with a few organizations, and we hope to become acquainted with groups of organized fishers in the four countries and the legislation in each country to look into the possibility of establishing community marine reserves. The idea is to transfer fisheries management to the communities; experience in other parts of the world has shown this to be very positive and effective. In doing so, fishery resources are better conserved than with governmental intervention.

Q: What are the main threats to the Mesoamerican Reef System?

González: One of the principal threats is change in land use. For the Fund, the reef system includes the watersheds that drain into the Caribbean. Changes in land use can cause erosion and contamination from agricultural and industrial practices. Another threat is uncontrolled tourism development. Cruise ships may represent an opportunity, but they can also be a threat if certain aspects are not controlled. Overfishing is another threat.

The largest governmental project being developed in the region is the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System project (MBRS), and it has made progress in fisheries management. The regulations that have been defined must now be implemented in each country, which is going to take several years. However, the main obstacle of getting the four countries to agree has already been surpassed. Working with the communities could be a factor that will help accelerate proper fisheries management. Another matter is climate change, which is causing coral bleaching, and other threats such as hurricanes.

Q: What would be an example of a specific initiative that would be funded?

González: One would be the community marine reserves, by supporting organized groups of fishers in the four countries. The starting point is an assessment to characterize these groups, what training they need, and what models exist in other countries that can be adapted for them. Then, we proceed to participation and exchange. The objective is to create these community marine reserves or develop alternative projects that will help the local populations earn income, which will reduce the impact of the fisheries on the region. What will be done will depend on each country. For example, there are 16 organized groups of fishers in Guatemala’s Amatique Bay and if the community continues to grow, it is obvious that the resource is not going to support all of them.

In the Guatemalan case, it would be a good idea to change economic activities in order to help reduce the impact of fishing. Honduras might not need economic alternatives for community fishers. It depends on each country, but the idea is to approach this through the communities and give management responsibility to the fisher groups.

Q: How will you select projects to support?

González: We have partner environmental funds in each country. We also have a Web site that we use to call for proposals, and the central headquarters or any one of the funds can be contacted for more information. The funds will make the first cut of the proposals. The MBRS Fund has a technical committee that evaluates the proposals based on a series of criteria, and those they consider to have the greatest possibilities for positive impact are recommended to the board of directors. Upon selection, the proposals are channeled through the fund in the country where the project is to be executed, and the country environmental funds will then send information on the progress of the projects to the MBRS Fund’s board of directors.

Q: What is the maximum funding amount?

González: We estimate that the amount for projects with the fishers could be from 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. dollars, to begin designing the community marine reserves. There are groups that are more advanced and may require other things.

Q: Do the groups need to match the Fund’s grants?

González: A minimum in-kind counterpart contribution is requested, mainly in the form of work. We don’t ask for cash because we know this can be difficult. What we want is to secure the commitment of the community to do the work, know that they are all in agreement, and can contribute the work hours needed for the task.

Q: What monitoring and evaluation system will be used to ensure that the proposed objectives are fulfilled?

González: Each proposal includes indicators of achievements and progress for each objective. We have procedures for developing and submitting periodic technical and financial reports, as well as field monitoring. This is how we can verify if the project is progressing according to the original plan. The Fund will stay in close communication with the project executor for ongoing oversight.

Q: Will the funds be equally distributed among the four countries?

González: We will prioritize according to the projects’ importance. For coastal and marine protected areas, we want to establish an ecologically viable network; the approach should be by eco-region and not by the number of projects in each country. It is also important to look at the stage of development of each protected area: if the financial plan needs revision, if a management or monitoring plan needs to be created or updated, or if surveillance needs strengthening. This will be done case-by-case, but the idea is to fund what is needed in order to consolidate and improve management in each area, so that it becomes operational and sustainable in the shortest time possible.

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