An Interview with Cleopatra Méndez, EcoLogic’s new Bi-National Program Coordinator
This story was also published in the Fall 2014 edition of our print newsletter, The EcoLogical Landscape. Check out the full newsletter here!
EcoLogic’s first bi-national project brings together rural fishing communities in the lower Sarstún River Basin along the Caribbean border of Belize and Guatemala. With our local partners, EcoLogic collaborates with fisherfolk from both sides of the border to improve livelihoods and protect the region’s rich coastal ecosystems. EcoLogic’s local partners on this project are the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM) in Belize, and the Mayan Association for Well-Being in the Sarstún Region (APROSARSTUN) in Guatemala.
Cleopatra Méndez is EcoLogic’s Bi-National Project Coordinator. She is from Livingston, Guatemala, and joined EcoLogic in the spring of 2014. Cleopatra has a bachelor’s degree in natural resources management from Mount Hood Community College in Oregon, and previously served as Coordinator of the Tri-National Alliance for the Gulf of Honduras (TRIGOH), a network of local NGOs that work to conserve the Gulf.
What is your role with EcoLogic?
I coordinate EcoLogic’s bi-national project in the Sarstún region. My role is to provide support and oversight on the ground for EcoLogic’s work in these important coastal and marine ecosystems. This area is vital to conserve—it’s home to many endangered species, and places on both sides of the border have been recognized under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands as wetlands of international importance.
Why do you think it is important that this is a cross-border project?
At the end of the day, natural resources don’t recognize national borders! To conserve this region, it will be key to strengthen relationships among local stakeholders in both countries.
What do you think are the greatest challenges currently facing the people and the environment in the area?
Some environmental challenges are unsustainable fishing methods, like trawling and gill nets, as well as illegal cross-border fishing, and a growing population of fisherfolk, which together put a lot of pressure on the ecosystems. Deforestation and illegal logging are also problems—but most people only cut down trees because they don’t have any other source of income. Another challenge, especially on the Guatemalan side, is that the governments do very little for this region. For example, there is a federally protected area on the Guatemalan side of the river, but authorities do not implement the regulations. People feel like no one is taking care of them or showing them respect.
How do you think EcoLogic’s work in the area is making a positive difference in local people’s lives?
EcoLogic has great respect for what communities want to do, and we focus on building capacity. EcoLogic and our partner, APROSARSTUN, train people in management and making business plans, so they can become successful in developing their own ideas. For example, in one Guatemalan community, a group of fisherfolk came up with a very small project: buying coolers to help them store fish longer, to keep the catch fresh to reach markets to sell. Their business has been doing great!
What do you think have been the project’s greatest successes so far?
I would say that our biggest accomplishment is a learning exchange we held in July 2014. Community members from both sides of the border traveled to Mexico, where they met with two successful grassroots fishing cooperatives. The fisherfolk from our project area learned that the Mexican communities had worked to establish fish refuges (or fisheries replenishment zones) that are managed by the local fisherfolk, which is something we’re trying to do with our project, and that was inspiring. Afterward, participants shared what they had learned with their communities. Instead of me reporting, people heard from their peers—and those who presented assumed leadership roles. This is an opportunity for people to make sustainable change in their communities. Most fisherfolk here are full of hope that we will be able to work together to help their situation improve.
What is your greatest hope or dream for the future of the bi-national project?
One of my biggest dreams is that the governments of Guatemala and Belize will recognize the shared importance of this area and work together. We need cooperative management plans for the watersheds and coastal marine ecosystems.
This region also faces huge threats, like oil drilling in Sarstoon Temash National Park on the Belize side. I hope that we will be able to preserve the richness of this area even in the face of those threats.
What inspires or motivates you to keep doing the work that you do?
In Guatemala we have a saying, “Never forget where you come from.” I am from a fishing background, and my greatest dream is to help these fisherfolk, who are just like my family, to have a better future. I grew up in this beautiful place, and it is a huge gift. I hope that we can preserve it for the future.
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