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Conservación with Two C’s, part 2

This essay is the second part of an exploration of the main differences between conservation practice in Mexico and the United States. To read the first part click here.

Citizen Conservation

All over the world, organized citizens play a major role in advancing societies. In some countries, like the U.S., citizens are powerful enough to keep corrupt governments in check through a constant dance of activism, lawsuits, and collaboration. The same principle holds in Mexico, the primary difference being that the organized citizen movement is much smaller, much younger, and much less powerful. The tide is gradually changing, but it will take some time for our groups to be able to better counter government activity.

The professionalization of Mexico’s citizen movement is still happening. Most groups operate without being formally incorporated, as the steps seem complicated and unlikely to provide tangible benefits. Most groups also cannot afford to hire people to work primarily within their area of expertise and only the largest of NGOs manage to provide job descriptions that are structured, and aligned with staff expertise.

While this problem is not exclusive to Mexico or even to developing nations, it is a significant issue here. Only in countries with a more fertile philanthropic environment, a larger and more diverse workforce, a larger number of local or issue-focused NGO’s –as opposed to thinly-spread, generalist ones– do small to middle sized NGOS have the luxury of employing individuals with job descriptions focused on their expertise.

It is not uncommon in Mexican conservation ventures for scientists to be required to play the role of lawyers, human rights experts to be key players in protecting forests, transparency groups to advance the green agenda, and graphic artists like me to find themselves at the forefront of wildlife conservation in the borderlands of Sonora.

Members of Mexico’s scientific community have risen to the challenge and become champions of conservation. The problem is that we have too few scientists, so a few scientific leaders often occupy many niches, reducing diversity of opinion and exerting disproportionate influence on Mexico’s decision-making processes. Junior scientists and scientists in small universities have few opportunities to influence policy and other aspects related to conservation. NGO’s and government agencies seldom have enough researchers in their ranks.

Part of this problem is money, manifest in the lack of job opportunities. But this isn’t the only factor. The truth is schools are not focused on forming enough capable scientists to address the environmental challenges we face throughout Mexico. Our history of viewing Nature as a warehouse of resources has generated a culture where we have lots of ingenieros, environmental engineers, hydrologic engineers, agrarian engineers, etc. who usually end up being hired by developing or extractive operations to justify or, at best, mitigate their actions. The wonders of being a naturalist and feeling awe for the myriad of evolutionary adaptations around us are not fostered sufficiently in higher education institutions.

Young people gather around an animal at a wildlife workshop.
The opportunities for young Mexican naturalists to obtain hands-on experience with wildlife are still very few. Workshops -above– with U.S. instructors and bilingual interpreters have proven to be a very effective way of spreading a culture of conservation. 

In Mexico, there is also an uneven distribution of research which results in regions within the radar of big universities hosting many researchers, while others outside their radar struggle to find interns willing to help conduct simple baseline inventories. This reduces the opportunities for foreign researchers to partner with Mexican peers in their areas of interest.

The same lack of diversity and engagement is true for lawyers. Good luck finding lawyers willing to work full-time for a nonprofit group, I have the greatest admiration and respect for the few who do.

Only when we have thousands of capable biologists, ecologists and lawyers working for NGOs and government agencies—and not just in universities and consultancies—will we have a much more powerful conservation movement. The professional composition of this movement is gradually changing for the better, but it is a slow process. Meanwhile, people like me learn on the job and only the larger conservation groups can pay seasoned professionals for key staff positions… if they can find them or poach them from smaller groups.

Philanthropic Scarcity

The most salient difference between the U.S. and Mexico’s philanthropic landscape is one of economic scale. The economy of the whole of Mexico is equivalent to only one or two of the bigger companies in the U.S., so even if philanthropic contributions in Mexico were proportionally equal to those in the U.S. – which they are most certainly not– they would still be much, much smaller.

As it is, philanthropy has only recently become a professional undertaking in Mexico and people don’t yet see the value of investing in their own communities, whether they take that to be their neighborhood or their watershed. Family “giving” is traditionally reserved for lavish celebrations, many of them related to religious practices, such as quinceañeras, the day of the virgin of Guadalupe or whatever local saint demands tribute in the form of expensive parties and donations to church.

There are historical reasons for the way philanthropy works in Mexico. For many years, attending to the needs of the less fortunate and to the protection of the shared heritage, whether natural or cultural, was almost exclusively the responsibility of the government and the Catholic Church. The first institution is prone to corruption, the second is averse to change and not very inclusive, both spend most of their income in self-preservation. These traits, of course, limited their efficacy, thus endowing charitable endeavors with an aura of mediocrity and mistrust.

Our citizen groups have managed to evolve and make impressive progress in a few decades, but they need to recognize and address the core deficiencies of democracy, equality, and transparency that we’ve inherited from our philanthropic past, and that still plague many aspects of Mexican culture—including NGO management.

Only by acknowledging the need to reduce opacity in their practice and to engage diverse and local stakeholders effectively, can such groups hope to foster the trust that encourages consistent and sufficient donations. While the citizen-led conservation is not in its infancy in Mexico, this movement still struggles internally with issues of responsibility, accountability, and teamwork… it also remains largely unrecognized as the game-changer it really can be.


Change requires the right tools, and we have several of them in Mexico, some of which will look familiar to the foreign practitioner—such as park designations, easements, and an endangered species list (the Official Mexican Norm NOM059-2010, which is currently under review for updates). These tools are not exactly the same as their rough equivalents to the north, and local know-how is needed to wield them effectively. Other tools are customized to our realities, like long-term agreements with ejidos and transfer of coastal management to CONANP. Additionally, community-conservation incentives, provided by CONANP can be geared to produce effective on-the-ground actions, though they are limited by their focus on the “human benefit\” and the agency’ small budget. CONAFOR also has conservation incentives in the form of Payments for Environmental Services, a program which has had mixed results and has been criticized for having a very narrow focus tailored to advance political agendas. It has also effectively leveraged the efforts of small funds to provide some serious habitat protection.

There are also some significant political advantages in Mexico for executing conservation action, for instance, the lack of party division on environmental issues. While virtually all Mexican politicians can be expected to advance developers’ goals, no party is crazy enough to openly oppose the preservation of nature. Their arguments need to be more devious and as a result they are not creating the massive ideological rift between conservation and development that other countries face. And even the most right-wing conservatives acknowledge human-driven climate change as an inescapable reality that must be addressed—one for which we even have a government think-tank called the National Ecology and Climate Change Institute (INECC).

All roads lead to Mexico City

An inescapable political reality in Mexico that still affects many aspects of conservation is centralism. In some regards, it is better to have federal oversight when it comes to managing endangered species, as the state environmental agencies usually lack capable scientists who can act free of the influence from local interest groups, but in other aspects, it generates slow processes that lack diversity of stakeholders.

Centralism is not limited to government and is very palpable in the fact that researchers from UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico –its main campus is in Mexico City- have a disproportionate representation in many aspects of conservation, limiting potential diversity of opinions and of collaborations. That is not necessarily because they seek to reduce diversity, which I am sure most of them value, but it is a natural result of having a majority of opinions shaded by the same culture. And the fact is, only recently regional and local universities have started to invest more in their environmental programs, so it can’t be said that this is UNAM’s fault, it is rather the result of a culture of centralism. Full disclosure: I am a second-generation spawn of UNAM.

Another painful effect of centralism has recently been brought back to everyone’s attention. With the change in president in 2012 came the gradual neutralization of many of the better aspects of publicly led and funded conservation. By giving strategic positions in SEMARNAT and CONANP to people aligned with him but with no professional merit to justify their appointment, the current president has facilitated reducing these agencies budgets and focusing them away from the more promising initiatives of previous administrations, reminding us all that these agencies still do not respond to the mandate dictated by the people, but to the current interests of the party in Los Pinos, the presidential house.

"Las Velas"02.jpg

One Wilderness for All

I hope this analysis of how conservation in Mexico is different from—and similar to—its counterpart in the U.S., helps practitioners interested in binational collaboration adapt their expectations and create more effective relationships with foreign colleagues. Wilderness needs us all. Mexico needs the abundant resources and talent dedicated to conservation in the U.S., and the U.S. would do well to learn more from the adaptability and resourcefulness of Mexico.

Special thanks for additional input: Fernando Ochoa, Tom Van Devender, Jim Rorabaugh, Gayle Hartmann, Ivonne Cassaigne and Sergio Ávila.


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