In November 2013, I went to La Chinantla, Oaxaca to visit one of EcoLogic’s newest project sites. As a part of the development team, gaining first-hand knowledge of EcoLogic’s work is important to effectively represent our work in funding proposals and other materials. I traveled with our executive director, Barbara Vallarino, and our regional program director, Gabriela González. I was also excited to meet EcoLogic’s Mexico program officer, Marco Acevedo, in person for the first time.
When we arrived in La Chinantla, we went directly to an assembly hall where about 50 local community members, primarily indigenous people (mostly men), waited to greet us. They wanted to hear from us about the work that EcoLogic would be carrying out in their communities, in partnership with a local community-based organization, the Regional Environmental Collaborative for the Chinantla Region of Oaxaca (FARCO). After brief introductions and an overview of EcoLogic’s mission and work, a community leader, Alonso Martínez Yescas, invited everyone to his farm for Cochinita a la Cubana (Cuban style pork).
And this is where the adventure began! First, we arrived at Don Alonso’s home to see at least four whole pigs and several chickens on spits roasting over an open fire. “They were running around here this morning,” noted one of the cooks. As he rotated the spits, the cook went on to explain that Cuban immigrants who worked on sugarcane plantations were the ones to bring this Cuban dish to the area.
Several women were busy in the shade making handmade tortillas and quesadillas. Then, Don Alonso announced that he was going to get some popo for us to drink—a typical indigenous beverage made from the cacao plant. As we feasted outdoors on pork tacos, quesadillas, salsa, and popo, I couldn’t help but think of the irony—we are supposed to be the ones bringing help and ideas, and yet we are the beneficiaries of all this food, warmth and attention.
The next day, we rode on small fishing boats (lanchas) up the Papaloapan River. This body of water in La Chinantla is the focus of EcoLogic’s work to help maintain a viable water supply for local communities and cities downstream through our reforestation and land use planning efforts. FARCO’s technical staff, Severiana Domínguez and Facundo Morales accompanied us. Severiana, an indigenous Chinanteca who speaks the local indigenous language, is also biologist. Facundo is also from La Chinanlta and is a forestry engineer. Their positions as part of this project represent a signature piece of EcoLogic’s approach—working to implement conservation strategies with local experts who are embedded in the local community and have in-depth knowledge of both the local social and physical environments.
On this trip upstream, I learned that a hydroelectric dam had been built at the mouth of the river, which flooded the riverbed and forcibly displaced hundreds of Chinanteca families. But, some refused to leave and those who stayed were living on and cultivating very steep and rocky banks. As our boat motored along, we watched these farmers harvesting corn planted on the precarious banks. Many of the communities that EcoLogic works with today are facing displacement or disruption of their livelihoods by similar mega projects, whether it be from dams, mining, logging concessions, or oil extraction. I am happy and proud that I am able to work for an organization that seeks to level the playing field for remote communities whose perspectives are often overlooked by global forces.
The last stop on our trip allowed us to get a glimpse of some of the forest that EcoLogic is working with FARCO to protect. These are expanses of forested areas that the communities themselves have set aside voluntarily for conservation. In this particular community conservation area, we were going to climb about halfway up the mountain to see the origin of a pristine waterfall (Las Cascadas de Bethania).
Our guide, a local forest guardian, told us that it was only about a 20 minute walk, which actually turned out to be closer to an hour. Let me preface this by saying that I was pretty confident that the trek would be easy. After all, I was running about 10 miles per week and biking to work over summer and fall. Not to mention, my recently-purchased LL Bean hiking boots could surely manage the muddy, moss -covered, rocky terrain. Boy was I wrong! Our local hosts, some several years my senior, had to basically pull me up to the top of the falls. And even more embarrassingly, during rests when I was gasping for air, I asked them to just leave me behind—they could meet me on their way back down. But, they insisted, so I persisted. And, of course, it was absolutely worth it to see the water gushing out of the rocky mountain side, surrounded by lush, tropical greenery.
Here’s the moral: I thought I had enough preparation and the necessary gear to keep up with the people who live and work in this place every day, but clearly I did not. They were the ones that offered their time, food, expertise, and a helping hand as they pulled me up the mountainside. So, besides respect and admiration, what does someone like me at EcoLogic have to offer these communities? I think the answer is solidarity, and not just in spirit but in practice. Although, one isolated community in the highlands of Oaxaca might be able to do very little to address the urgent challenges of climate change and environmental degradation that threaten all of the world’s peoples, when paired up with a U.S. based NGO that partners with countless communities who are working to address similar problems in other parts of Mexico and Central America, a critical mass is formed. And with a critical mass, the sum is greater than its parts.
Our partners around the region support one another by sharing experiences. What worked in one context can be adapted and implemented in another: we are bringing the community-driven watershed conservation model that we piloted in Honduras to Oaxaca. EcoLogic channels multiple resources to our partners—from direct funding and participation in our network of regional partners, to access to national and international experts and policymakers. At the same time, we channel the voice and experience of our local partners to an international audience that might not otherwise benefit from their perspective.
That is the difference that EcoLogic makes, and I hope that by the end of the journey, we are able to demonstrate that the approaches and solutions to environmental problems that rural and indigenous communities bring to the table have much to offer the world if we hope to keep it habitable for generations to come.