Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Challenges of Community-Based Conservation

Between 2002 and 2005, I worked on a community-based conservation project on the southeast coast of the Baja Peninsula. My re-examination of the experience has led me to conclude that conservation efforts in this region, particularly in smaller communities, have exhibited surprising levels of success over the last decade, considering the challenges faced by those promoting such projects. Below, within the confines of this format, I’ve tried to describe my experience to illustrate what I see as the greatest challenge faced by those who would conduct projects of any type in the region.

I first visited Cabo Pulmo National Park (CPNP) in 2001 as a tourist drawn to the area because of its remoteness and its status as a national marine park--I intended to get SCUBA certified while there and was planning within the year to move to Costa Rica to work in its national parks. The Baja Peninsula was not even on my radar when I stumbled across an Outside magazine article describing the East Cape within which there was a short section dedicated to Cabo Pulmo. I noticed, however, that the majority of the photos in the article conveyed a quaint village of thatched roof bungalows painted in bright colors reminiscent of the Caribbean. Similarly, the sea was the transparent, bright aqua you might expect to see on the East coast of Mexico rather than the Northwest.

The drive to Cabo Pulmo from La Paz turned out to be more of a challenge and took much longer than either my sister or I had anticipated, but just about the time I began to think we were hopelessly lost, we drove up onto a rise on the mountainside that overlooks Cabo Pulmo Bay and the village. What a feast for the eyes! The edge of the bay undulates back and forth a long way from a point at the North end to a large, light grey headland in the South with the village, near the center of this stretch, made plain by a large patch of palm trees towering above the native vegetation. The village seems to belong there – it is not a jarring presence in the desert, in large part due to the number of homes that have palm-thatched (palapa) roofs. It is a tiny development like none I’d ever visited. Beyond the shoreline lay the tranquil azure waters of the bay where several fingers of the reef were visible both due to the transparency of the water and the intermittent appearance of white water as swell lines broke across the reef. It was more beautiful than any magazine article could possibly convey.

Figure 1: Location of Cabo Pulmo National Park.
In the research I’d conducted in the weeks before our trip, I’d discovered that the park was officially declared in 1995 and was the third marine protected area (MPA) to be designated in the Gulf of California. The village of Cabo Pulmo (population approx. 200) is located an hour’s drive and Northeast of the San Jose del Cabo International Airport in a sparsely populated region dominated by undeveloped scrub desert (see figure 1). Neither municipal services nor cellular phone services extend into the region and households are reliant on solar, wind or gas/diesel generated power. Traditionally, the local population subsisted through cattle and goat ranching. Fishermen were typically temporary residents from more populous areas like La Paz and San Jose.

While small in total surface area (7,111 hectares) in comparison to the marine parks at Loreto Bay (206581 ha) and the Gulf of California Islands (358000 ha), the bay at Cabo Pulmo is the site of the only hard coral reef system in the Northeastern Pacific and as a result exhibits an unparalleled level of biodiversity and abundance in the Gulf.  Steinbeck wrote famously in The Log from the Sea of Cortez of the vast and various wildlife he and his traveling companion Doc Ricketts found on the Pulmo reef during their 1940 voyage to collect marine specimens.

Conversations with the owner of the dive shop where we took our course revealed that six years after receiving special designation, the park still lacked infrastructure, staff or a place in the national budget. When I related to the shop owner that I intended to move to Costa Rica within a year’s time to volunteer in the national parks there, he suggested that I join him in his efforts to protect the park at Cabo Pulmo instead. When he found out I was a scientist, he gave me a fancy title “Director of Research” of the foundation bearing his name. It sounded ideal and when I returned home to tie up loose ends I began doing the legwork to start looking for funding for “our” NGO. I might have been a bit more circumspect about his proposal, except that the internet was awash with glowing reports of the grassroots conservation efforts he’d been making on behalf of the park and he counted among his supporters and friends a California Supreme Court justice, a critically acclaimed environmental journalist/author (both of whom owned property in the area) and several heads of successful environmental organizations. I figured his vetting had already been seen to by them.

My "other" reason for deciding to leave eastern Canada for more tropical climes, aside from the obvious ones, was to learn to surf. And there was surf not too far south of the village.

I returned to Cabo Pulmo to live full-time in March of 2002. It took me less than a month, during which I conducted interviews with as many residents as possible, to realize my associate was widely vilified by members of the community. [2] Discouraged, but not defeated, I decided I just needed to change tack and get someone else on board whom the community trusted and respected to champion the cause of park conservation.

In the meantime, I began to realize that there was a lot more going on in Cabo Pulmo than meets the typical tourist’s eye. The first thing one notices is a concrete wall running west to east between two sections of the community. On one side are the ex-pats’ mostly single-story vacation homes. On the other side you find most of the Mexicans’ homes. I’ve heard various reasons for the presence of the wall – during the day the Mexicans’ dive shop’s compressor is too loud, at night their generators are too loud (because they can’t afford the solar systems the ex-pats use), a Mexican was caught stealing from a ex-pat home, a Mexican was caught spying on an ex-pat woman, etc. Differences in socioeconomic status, not to mention tolerance, clearly contributed to the construction of the wall.  

Furthermore, my interview with the American developer of the ex-pat community revealed a long and complicated history of dispute between him, his family and the largest of the three Mexican families. The greatest conflict arose from a land dispute, in which the Mexicans argued that the head of their family was the rightful owner of a large chunk of the land this developer bought. The land south of the dividing wall was originally part of his development. However, after a long drawn out legal battle, he gave it up. Over time, he took on almost mythic status among the Mexicans as the devil who tried to steal all their land.

In a strange twist of fate, the developer's son got one of the daughters of the Mexican family pregnant. They were married, a la shotgun and the two feuding families were joined, sort of.  I don’t know if the developer attended the nuptials.

When the developer designed the expat community, he encouraged his friends from Idaho to come and join him. The result is that many of the people living closest to the Mexicans were personal friends who supported him in his disputes. It’s quite possible that wall stopped a real war from breaking out.

Several months after parting ways with the first dive shop owner, I was still looking for my advocate.  The developer's son, who was the owner of one of the two remaining dive shops, was supporting my work by letting me use the internet in his office.  But due to his family ties and own personal history with the local Mexicans, he clearly wasn’t the right choice. I didn’t know the owner of the third dive shop and was intimidated by him and the guys who worked for him. When his sister, a nun who spoke excellent English, was visiting that September, she was enthusiastic about what I was trying to accomplish and offered to introduce us.

After introductions were over, I asked him if he would like to accompany me to a sea turtle conference being held in San Carlos (about 200 miles as the crow flies, but a six hour drive from Cabo Pulmo) as a community representative. Despite his sister’s encouragement, Pablo [1] initially regarded me and my motives suspiciously. He told me he’d think about it and that I should come back the next day. For the next several days, I visited him at the dive shop every afternoon to ask him if he’d come. The day before we were to leave, I’d given up on him and was in the house where I was staying when he appeared at the gate and said he would go.

On the long drive I explained and clarified my motivation to protect the coral reef and its inhabitants and described the sea turtle conservation work that was being done all over the peninsula by fishermen and regular guys like himself. Thankfully I had a captive audience and we were able, through a mix of English and Spanish (mine was improving), to get our points across. Nevertheless, as we pulled into San Carlos, Pablo remained unconvinced. He said, “I’m sorry, but you will never convince Mexicans not to eat turtle. It’s part of our culture, part of our heritage.”

Fortunately, a few conference participants turned out to be his cousins and close friends. But it was a presentation by a World Wildlife Fund scientist about endangered species that concluded with a focus on sea turtles that finally turned the tide. Hearing for the first time in his life about how close so many species are to becoming  extinct, including the sea turtles he’d seen in the waters off the Peninsula his whole life, Pablo underwent what I can only describe as a “conversion.”  I met him as he left the conference room, eyes wide. He took me by the shoulders and implored, “Dawn, we have to do something! I had no idea so many animals were in danger of extinction!” I had my advocate.

Charismatic by nature, sea turtles offered the means by which I finally engaged the community in what I hoped would become a broader conservation ethic and ultimately create the necessary push to improve park management. Over the course of the following year, Pablo and I organized a small contingent of volunteers, most of whom were members of Pablo’s immediate family. Together we started two projects: a SCUBA-based in-water adult sea turtle monitoring program (the first of its kind in the Northern hemisphere) and at everyone’s insistence a sea turtle nest care and monitoring program. Through my ongoing networking, word got out and, gradually, volunteers appeared from elsewhere in Mexico, the United States, and France. They patrolled the park beaches looking for turtle nests and created fun educational programs for the local children that produced the first park infrastructure – hand-painted signs notifying visitors they were entering a national park.

Between meetings to discuss these efforts, I began the bureaucratic hoop-jumping necessary to formalize our group into a legal non-government organization or “civil association,” as they are referred to in Mexico, so that we could legally receive donations to support our work. Until that point, everyone had to chip in and provide everything we needed out of our own pockets. Pablo piggy-backed trips to La Paz for business purposes with those for the organization and donated all of the dive equipment and gasoline necessary for the SCUBA project. I fortunately was given a place to live in exchange for property management services and family and friends were generous with invitations to dinner and loans when my truck started to fall apart. Through the adversity, Pablo and I became increasingly close friends. I got to know and ate with his wife and three sons. We carpooled and supported one another when the chips were down. I brought tourists to his dive shop and explained what we were trying to accomplish as they suited up for their dives.

Much of my time, though, was spent communicating via satellite internet with other organizations and foundations, writing our first small grant proposals and newsletters in an attempt to get funding. Slowly we were getting the attention of major foundations, several of whom sent people down to see what we were really doing. A private citizen from San Francisco, when he heard about our plight, donated an Isuzu Trooper. What we needed most though was a substantial operating grant. And to get the grant we needed to get the organization registered.

I’ll be the first to admit that my motivation for seeking an operating grant was not altruistic. My funds had dwindled to nothing and debt was accruing. If I was to continue working as ACCP’s director, we needed a multi-year grant large enough to pay me and, ideally, one of the other volunteers a salary. We also needed the funds to buy equipment and to cover the cost of local travel.

In September of 2003, Amigos para la Conservación de Cabo Pulmo (ACCP) was legally registered as an Associación Civil with the mandate to protect the natural resources in and around CPNP, with special focus on sea turtles and the coral reef. We were getting closer to our goal.

Then a dengue hemorrhagic fever epidemic broke out in the community leaving one person dead and Pablo in the hospital minus his pancreas. In late October I succumbed. It took me about three weeks to fully recover, others were far worse off. Pablo, exhausted and feeling that his business was suffering from the conservation work, threatened to quit as ACCP’s president. The mood in the community was generally morose. Things were unraveling and I began to think all our efforts might be for naught. Dengue took the wind out of our sails for many months and was but one of the many speed bumps we encountered along the way to realizing our goals.

We weren’t even aware of one obstacle in our path: Cabo Pulmo was blacklisted among US Foundations in the late 90s due to negative reports from other organizations and individuals who tried to initiate conservation projects that due to community resistance were unsuccessful. Nevertheless, in January 2004 we received word that we’d been awarded a significant operating grant with the proviso that all fiscal management be carried out by an American-based organization we had already partnered with. It took six months for the money to actually arrive and for me to receive my first, very modest paycheck since moving to Mexico, but I could finally breathe a little and focus on what I considered the ultimate goal – a reef monitoring program the likes of Reef Check. [3]

Early in 2004, even before the funds had arrived in the bank account of our American partner organization, I began to hear murmurs of concern about the nature of my position and responsibilities within ACCP. The problem was that I was more often than not invisible when I worked, tucked away in front of a computer in a house on the other side of the village, making it difficult for people to appreciate how much time I devoted to the group. It didn’t help matters that I surfed most mornings and worked afternoons and many evenings. I discovered that belief in the “lazy surfer” image is not the exclusive domain of uptight  American parents. The fact that I had initiated the effort and worked pro bono for over two years seemed to be ancient and forgotten history. Each time it came up, I calmly explained the nature of my work and Pablo, as ACCP’s president, backed me up, at least initially.

I don’t know if it was purely coincidental or if the incremental success of our little group had created a stir, but nine years after its creation, the park had its first government appointed and salaried director. We were, however, disappointed to learn that he would be based in Cabo San Lucas, a two hour drive away.  In addition to CPNP, he was to be in charge of the Cabo San Lucas Flora and Fauna Reserve, an area that received thousands of visitors a day, compared to the handful frequenting Cabo Pulmo. The result was that he was rarely in the community and would typically turn up unannounced, stay only briefly and leave. He did however interact with the community enough to stoke the fire of discontent among those who felt I wasn’t making significant enough of a contribution in return for my salary. [4]

The Park Director was a staunch Nationalist and did not believe that foreigners should receive financial compensation for conservation work in Mexico. He disparagingly referred to it as “mammando a la teta de la conservación,” [5] and asserted that there was a chronic problem with American NGOs “preying on” their Mexican counterparts by taking a percentage of the funds they accepted from American Foundations on behalf of the Mexican AC’s, who were unequipped to receive the funds directly. Charging a 10% fee was, and I believe still is, a standard practice to cover the costs of administering the process. In my specific case, the Director didn’t seem to see the irony of his position considering that I was directly responsible for us getting the funds, nor did he care to acknowledge that the organization only existed because of my early efforts to organize the community around the cause. The fact that I was a Canadian working independently, not as part of a larger American NGO, also went ignored. [6]

That September, after almost two and a half years of living and working in Cabo Pulmo, Pablo called me into his dive shop and accused me of stealing all the grant money. I was not alone in the hotseat however. Pablo and the rest of the community had earlier that day accused his uncle of being part of the conspiracy. His uncle, who as an exemplary volunteer, was the other person the membership agreed should receive a salary. Suddenly, I realized with dismay that the grant money had made everyone question my motives for being there and that I was mistaken when I believed I’d earned their trust and respect.

Eventually, the accounting and bank statements were produced by our American partners and both of us were cleared of any wrong-doing, thankfully without the involvement of the law or immigration. The entire affair turned out to be nothing more than a rumor-fueled accusation and I continued to work as the group’s director for several months, but it left a bitter taste in my mouth. When I realized the work had become a chore and I was avoiding going to the dive shop, I knew what I had to do. I resigned in April of 2005.

A dedicated and enthusiastic young Mexican woman who’d volunteered throughout much of ACCP’s history took over my post. Less than a year later, she too would find herself embroiled in a similar rumor-tainted predicament and quickly resigned. ACCP went on to falter, fold and then experienced a resurgence in 2009 to fight a Spanish developer who proposed the construction of a mega-development, Cabo Cortez, along the northern boundary of the park. In 2009, when I heard ACCP was involved in the fight against the developers, I contacted them, wishing to do what I could to fight it too. I was welcomed back with open arms as though nothing had happened. I remain a founding member and, as such, according to the statutes am a lifetime member. In 2010, I watched online as ACCP won a prestigious national award Iniciativa Mexico! If it was pride I felt, I admit it was tinged with a hint of sadness and disappointment.

I believe this story illustrates how efforts to conduct research or projects can be hampered by the pervasiveness of distrust.  This is of particular concern for those working in smaller communities. The deep distrust felt by many Mexican residents of Cabo Pulmo must be compounded by their history of battling the “rich” Gringo and the generally poor relations between the two community factions. Furthermore, the effects of perceived dispossession of their land have clearly had lasting effects on local psychology.

I was prepared for the “small-town” politics and rumor-mongering that constitute life in Cabo Pulmo because I was born and raised in a Canadian village. However, I was unprepared for and unequipped to deal with how the distrust exhibited by the Mexican Pulmeños did not erode even in the absence of evidence to support it. Throughout my experience in Cabo Pulmo, I believed it possible to gain the trust of the people I worked most closely with and that in turn, their trust in me would signal to their friends and family that they could trust me as well. That’s just not how it works in Cabo Pulmo, because no one trusts anyone.

It’s worth noting here that historically, a sense of ownership and control over the resources in the park made community members rabidly protective of them. It was selfishly motivated desire to protect the bounty of the park that ultimately saved it in the absence of any formal government management or enforcement. None but a few of the community’s most brazen patriarchs could get away with fishing on the reef for grouper. However, as interest in developing the land around Cabo Pulmo comes from increasingly powerful, multi-national corporations, the culture of distrust combined with the desire to stay in control of something that is increasingly uncontrollable (in this case land they do not own) has become the Achilles heel of conservation efforts. ACCP members resist expanding membership to the larger region not realizing that without the help of outside forces, Goliath will eventually squash David.  A developer who understands the existing social dynamic will soon pit Mexican against Mexican and while they are fighting amongst themselves, bulldoze them all.

Dawn Pier is originally from eastern Ontario, Canada. She has a Masters degree from Queen’s University, Ontario. In her work as a biologist, she traveled the Canadian arctic extensively. In 2002, she moved to a tiny village in Mexico to follow her dream to learn to surf and ended up founding a conservation organization to protect the only hard coral reef system in the Sea of Cortez. In 2005, she left science behind to become a writer. Currently, she writes for, maintains a personal blog  and is working on a memoir related to her adventures in Mexico. She lives on an isolated, but beautiful sandy beach in Boca de las Vinoramas, Baja Calfornia Sur where she surfs, kitesurfs, writes and looks after a tribe of five dogs.

[1] Not his real name.
[2] My interviews at this point were mainly with the ex-pat community due to my limited understanding of Spanish, however there were a few Mexicans who spoke English with whom I spoke – their feelings towards my associate were expressed more subtly than those of the ex-pat community, but were similar.
[3] This project became a reality in the summer of 2005, thanks in great part to the NGO Comunidad y Biodiversidad, A.C. (Community and Biodiversity).
[4] Guidelines for ACs were in place that dictated what my salary must be. It was the equivalent of $15,000 US annually.
[5] Translation: sucking at the teat of conservation.
[6] The fact that I did not speak Spanish particularly well did nothing to help the situation.

No comments: