September 10, 2015

Musings on the Social/Historical Context for 'Sustainable Development' in Mexico's Natural Areas

This post was originally written in May of 2015, but was not edited and made digital until today. :-)

On May 15th, Mexico Teacher's Day, in the capital city of Mexico, the "Distrito Federal," I took part in a training workshop for Environment volunteers with Peace Corps Mexico. Our Environment program's main agency partner is the SEMARNAT agency (Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources), which is an umbrella to several Environment agencies, such as CONANP (Protected Natural Areas Commission). Our workshop was hosted by CONANP, specifically to orient our volunteers in the types of programs offered by this incredibly important institution.

CONANP can be compared to the U.S. National Parks Service, but has distinct difference with its U.S. analog in that its jurisdiction (for lack of a better word)—let's say relationship with community members within natural protected areas—is distinctly different from the U.S. NPS.  Most Protected Areas—except for a select small few—are not separate from residential lands—they're regularly inhabited by thousands of people who maintain their normal activities inside the protect areas and reserves. Thus, this greatly changes the nature of the national and local Natural Areas Management strategies, as well as the day-to-day interaction with people residing within Natural Protected Area boundaries. There is relatively little enforcement of conservation laws, and the residents of Natural Areas are often marginalized economically and even culturall. This, as well as the history of the peoples of these lands, combined with the fact that CONANP is a sorely underfunded agency in general, poses unique challenges for staff working in the area of sustainable economic development within protected areas. 

We heard from many veterans in the conservation field in Mexico who met with us that day, and in particular, we heard a talk given by staff who directs a department for economic opportunities in sustainable development. His words inspired a lot of reflection and thought on my part, and the below musings are what subsequently tumbled out through my pen as a result:


I remember a long time ago (nine years, to be exact), before I first came to Mexico, when I had a grand vision of the types of things I'd be able to do here. Ideas of things I'd be able to accomplish as a win for conservation and education. And then I arrived to reality. 

I observe a lot of initial vision and ideas held by other conservationists when they first come to Mexico (My job is working with Peace Corps volunteers). Many of these ideas find fertile ground and take fruit- one of the many potential virtues of a two-year service. 

But what happens to the grand seeds of idealism when the soil upon which they are planted is incapable of supporting life? The quality of the ground we're working with is essential in that it necessarily limits the extent of growth of ideas, plans, dreams—but as any grower knows, we can only imagine a field's potential until it is revealed unarguably before our eyes through trial and error. At least in my personal experience, no person or litmus test could really make me aware of that until I lived it myself.

Mexico's biological and cultural wealth are deep, and vast. But the history of subordination, submission, and outright conquest is nearly as formidable, and reaches—no, has pushed—multitudes to the brink into the literally remote heights of what are now considered the most "precious" lands in terms of ecological conservation [mountainous areas]. These said lands, which should hypothetically receive and give rise to the most flavorful fruits of idealism, in reality harbor the most marginalized among us—those whose ancestors had no where else to go to survive, the first peoples of Mexico, the last to confront the conquistadores. 

Forced out of the fertile lowlands into the hills, to the wilderness, likely clashing themselves with existing settlements, their legacy generations later exists precariously in an everlasting hybrid on the edge of modernization. Reminiscent of mountaintop island ecosystems whose backs are up against the wall of the sky, with little land left to stand on, they can't go much farther up, can't make do with less, are often pushed to physiological extremes—manifested by malnutrition, illiteracy, domestic violence, teen pregnancy—among other ills we're loathe to mention for fear of political incorrectness or being perceived as prejudiced. But the ills we ignore are even less certain to heal. 

Enter the ideal of education, wearing the hat of environmental conservation. A goal that can be argued worthy a million times over, as I have done so since the tender age of 15. But how do you explain to a victim of the aforementioned fate, the dispossessed, to relinquish [any of the following, for "environmental benefit"]: Land. Economic aspirations. Material goods. How can we, from an inherently comparative position of privilege, as U.S. Americans, rightly proceed (or even justify?) our position of righteousness and/or the expectation that said audience member would or could even care about anything else besides the pressing need to feed themselves, their children, cover their backs, and simply live without fear of possible judgment, or worse, retribution, from individuals who barely know them and who still have so much to learn about them?

Answers and justifications are many and diverse. People must know how much their livelihoods depend on the land they spring from. The seventh generation vision [still holds true]. But, just as we would not expect a fine wine to have aged instantaneously—that it takes time for enthusiastic sugars to meld into complex undertones—conservationists working with the most marginalized communities must carry in every breath the patience and understanding necessary for the process of, essentially, addressing the effects of 500+ years of the disempowering subjugation of a once autonomous people [and the denigration of any original 'conservation' ethic].

Every drop of insight, empathy, solidarity, and patience that foot soldiers of conservation working in low income communities can have with the neighbors with whom they're working shoulder to shoulder with to sow, cultivate, and harvest the seeds of hope and dreams for a healthier life for every denizen of this lovely planet we call home, is worth its weight in gold.

Valle Verde, Municipio de Jalpan, Reserva de la Biosfera de Sierra Gorda