Archive for the ‘Sustainability’ Tag

WILD 9 Congress in Mérida

My last entry on this blog about Eugenia Leon is dated 4th August 2009, over three months ago. Since then I wrote two more entries –  firstly about corruption and politics and then corruption and education – but removed those from the blog following the advise of a colleague at the university where I work.

Just before taking off the two posts about corruption, I had already decided to remove a previous post about a conflict over land on the Michoacán coast. My blog address was printed in a local paper in the area, together with translations of comments made by an American, which were being used as evidence of his meddling in the internal affairs of Mexico. Given the delicate, tense, potentially violent and complex nature of this situation, I decided to remove the post. I have to say I felt cowardly doing this. Interestingly, all my Mexican friends thought it was best to do so. A case of discretion being the better part of valour.

I then asked my colleague what she thought of the two posts about corruption and she advised me to remove them. Since then I have written nothing.

Coming to Mérida, however, to attend the 9th World Wilderness Congress has inspired me to get back onto the horse again. In this post I will write about the Congress and in another post(s) about some of the delights of Mérida.

The World Wilderness Congress (WWC), organised by the Wild Foundation, is held once every three or four years. It began in Africa in 1977, and this is the first time it is being held in Latin America.

The programme this year states that the WWC:

“Continues to work for a world in which a healthy and prosperous human society understands wilderness, and has an animated relationship with the complex biological, spiritual, cultural and economic benefits provided by wild nature”.

The first thing to say about this congress is that it is long! An initial event of three days from 6-8 November followed by another event of five days. I’m writing this on the second day of the second event. My impressions too are filtered through the bronchitis which I have been suffering from since I have arrived last Friday which maybe has made me somewhat jaded.

The congress has had a high profile this year. Mexican Presidente Felipe Calderon dropped in last Friday evening, and, Jim Prentice, the Canadian Minister for the environment gave a keynote speech. Dr Mario Molina, the Mexican Nobel prize winner for his work on chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere also gave a key note talk.

In addition, there was a strong corporate presence. Most of Saturday morning was given over to business presentations about work being done in their companies to address the environmental challenge. CEMEX, Coca Cola and Bimbo (a very large Mexican bakery company) were given platforms to show what they are doing.

CEMEX is actively involved in the creation of a wilderness area called El Carmen on the Mexico-Texas border. Coca Cola, through its Fundación Coca Cola is planting many trees throughout Mexico. Interestingly, it has also made a commitment to put back, every drop of water it uses to produce Coca Cola. It was not clear to me how they will do that. For example, the reforestation project is part of this. Bimbo has also created a civil society organization to be involved in reforestation projects.

There seem to me to be many contradictions in these huge companies giving their commitment to the conservation of wilderness. In an earlier post about Chiapas, I wrote how a Human Rights organization there was organizing the boycotting of Coca Cola products.

More fundamentally, however, I think questions need to be asked of these companies (Coca Cola and Bimbo) promoting themselves as, and winning awards for being, socially responsible businesses when it can be argued that their basic products do not promote healthy nutrition. Mexico is facing a health crisis due to an impending diabetes and obesity epidemic. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Mexico also has the highest rate per capita of consumption of Coca Cola in the world.

Jane Goodall with young people from 'Roots and Shoots'

The main thrust of the conference, though, was given over to conservation of wilderness areas, with a particular focus on the possible effects of climate change. There were some remarkable and inspiring speakers, notably Dr Jane Goodall who especially talked about the work she is doing with young people, which goes under the name of Roots and Shoots.

Thomas Lovejoy gave a detailed account of some of nature’s response to climate change. Seeing this kind of presentation, with its wealth of evidence, painstaking and wide-ranging studies, made me wonder how anyone could not take climate change seriously. The conference was full of scientists and environmental activists, with a deep commitment to the work they are doing.

There were however aspects of the conference that made me uneasy.

•    First from a learning point of view, the format was incredibly traditional. A series of key-note presentations for the first three days and even in the second week the workshop sessions in the afternoon seemed the modern equivalent of ‘chalk-and-talk’ – a sequence of powerpoint presentations. As Rob Hopkins commented in his recent Transition Town blog:

“For me the panels of speakers model is a bit past its sell by date at this stage, all the great gathered wisdom in the room, and we just all have to sit and listen to speakers all day.  However good they are, it always feels like a missed opportunity to network, share ideas, discuss and find out the amazing things people are up to.”

•    It seemed to me that very little conscious attention had been given to the need to create more space and opportunity for dialogue. Not easy with 1000 people, of course, but still possible. As always, people were networking like crazy in the coffee and lunch breaks, and renewing friendships and contact. But even a simple tool like a list of participants showing their organizational affiliations was not provided. I came to the conference hoping to meet more people in Mexico involved in environmental issues and it was not so easy to do this.

•    The building where the conference was held, the Siglo XXI conference center in Mérida is incredibly ugly. To me it is the embodiment of a certain kind of Mexican monumental authoritarian neo-brutalist architecture – almost as far away from wild nature as you could get!

•    The food was utterly conventional, over-priced, without taste, and generated vast quantities of plastic waste. What an opportunity missed to show-case the delights of Mexican food and maybe even find some small producers or local restaurants to show off what they could do. I appreciate this would be difficult but it seemed to me an incongruency in the organization of the event not at least to try and consider this aspect. For another perspective on how to green events, have a look at ecogatherings.

•    In a similar vein, the tour company selling tickets to visit all the amazing Mayan and other architectural sites in this part of Mexico was a conventional tour company. In a conference, extolling the virtues of eco-tourism, could it not have been possible to try and find some local eco-tourism companies? I don’t underestimate the difficulties of doing this. I’m sure agreements exist between the conference center and the other businesses that are allowed to operate there. But I had a sense, maybe wrong, that the organisers of the conference had not considered this.

•    Overall, all these points indicate to me a certain lack of imagination in the design of the conference. They help to reinforce a sense that it will be science (with its rational, materialistic underpinnings), closely followed by conventional economics, that would help get us out of the fix we are in. Everything is now being turned into a market. There was an afternoon session on the emerging markets in not just carbon credits, but also in biodiversity, fresh water and marine life. I understand the argument that it is important to value ecosystems and the services they provide, but I can’t help wondering that it is this kind of thinking and mindset that has created the problems we now face. 

On reflection, this last point seems a little glib. I think the subject of the role of science and market-based solutions to the ecological crisis is complex. For a good critical outline of market-based solutions see Naomi Klein’s very recent article in the English newspaper the Guardian.

Better to end with Einstein’s quote that:

“In times of crisis the imagination is more important than knowledge”

Update: one wedding and an urban hydrogen car

Luke&Sally in car

I am now back in Mexico. This is my first post since May 23rd. Since then, I have been in England for five weeks, principally to attend my older son’s wedding in Devon, just east of Kingsbridge, which was a truly marvellous event, and was blessed by bright sunshine, fresh light sea breezes and the wonderful South Devon countryside. I cannot resist including the photo above from the wedding.

Whilst I was in England, on June 16th, I also attended the launch of Riversimple’s urban hydrogen car on the Terrace of Somerset House.

Somerset House

Entrance to the Terrace at Somerset House

Riversimple is the brainchild of Hugo Spowers. I first met Hugo about ten years ago when I was working as a facilitator of courses at Schumacher College. Hugo attended a number of courses at Schumacher including ‘The Web of Life’ with Fritjof Capra, ‘The Ecology of Commerce’ with Paul Hawken, Karl-Henrik Robert and Jonathon Porritt, and a ‘Business and Sustainability’ Programme with Amory Lovins. This is the kind of inspired, relevant education many people should receive, and it had quite an impact on Hugo. Continue reading

Ecological Rally Part 1


photo courtesy of Michael Roberts

I thought I should write a post about the ecological rally I am setting up in Ciudad Guzmán, as it is the major project I am currently involved with. This will be the first post of what may turn out to be a number of posts about the rally, especially focussing on some of the organizational and cultural issues involved in the setting up of an event like this.

2009 is the third year that the ecological rally has been organized. The idea initially arose when I was teaching a Diploma on ‘Leadership and Sustainable Development’ at the Ciudad Guzmán regional campus of the University of Guadalajara. One of the participants on the programme, who was also a friend, was organizing a ‘rally’ to promote his language school. This seemed to involve groups of young people haring around the city in pick-up trucks, doing entertaining tasks in different locations, and making a lot of noise and creating a lot of rubbish in the process.

I suggested to my friend that he consider organizing an ecological rally, which as well as helping promote his language school, would also serve as a medium for environmental education for both the young people taking part, and the population of Ciudad Guzmán.


Banner promoting the ecological rally 2008

The first ecological rally took place in June 2007. As, by then, I was living and working in Cuernavaca, 600 kilometers away, I participated from a distance as a consultant for the rally. Last year, when I returned to live in Ciudad Guzmán, I was very involved in the organization of the rally from January through April, but suddenly had to return to England at short notice for family reasons, so I missed the actual event of the rally on the 8th June – organized to coincide as closely as possible with the International day of the Environment on 5th June.

Before I went away to England, at times, I felt despairing about the organization of the rally. It was an enormous amount of work, involving:

  • Coordinating and liaising between the University, the local government, the state government and private businesses; this kind of collaboration between organizations is never easy in Mexico.
  • Looking for sponsors to provide funds for the rally in return for being given publicity.
  • Arranging to visit every classroom of all the secondary and high schools in Ciudad Guzmán to invite the young people to participate in teams of ten people.
  • Making contact with journalists and local TV stations to publicise the rally.
  • Organizing the complicated logistics of both the day of the rally on June 8th, and also la eliminatoria, a day two weeks prior to the rally in which the 22 teams who had registered to take part were whittled down to the ten teams who actually took part on the day of the rally. As part of the eliminatoria, each team had to collect used batteries to prevent then going to the municipal rubbish dump, and one of the great successes of the rally was that over 360 kilos of batteries were collected.
taller en la escuela

photo of school workshop courtesy of Michael Roberts

  • Setting up workshops in a number of schools on recycling which also served to promote the rally.

I was working initially with a group of five students from the university. I requested that three students were assigned to me, to carry out their servicios sociales – around 400 hours of community service that every student at the university has to do as part of their degree course. This is potentially a way that the university could make an enormous contribution to the community in which it is located, but often the hours of servicios sociales get reduced to acting as an administrative assistant (doing photocopying, running errands etc.) to a professor at the university or a functionary in local government. In this way, for both the students and the University, the work becomes devalued.

The two other students, from the two-year course in Alternative Tourism, were doing their prácticas profesionales, which is work experience, and needed to complete this in order to graduate from their course. At least in their case, rather than being assigned to me, I had the opportunity to interview and select them.

I had hoped – rather naively in retrospect – that these students would show initiative, be committed to the rally and enthusiastic and creative in their work. What was initially disappointing, however, was that they were very reluctant to take any initiative or responsibility, and relied on me to give them detailed direction. They often arrived late at meetings, or sometimes not at all, usually without letting me or each other know in advance. For them, any other activity would generally take precedence over their servicios sociales or prácticas profesionales.

I quickly realised that they had no expectation nor much experience of working as a team, especially in the context of one person, myself, being an adult and a Professor at the University – in short, the authority figure – which created relations of dependency that are very typical in Mexican culture. This contrasted strongly with the education of my two sons in state schools in England, where they were given training in the skills of leadership and teamwork – often through creative activities like drama.

This situation was greatly eased when my younger son, Michael, who was about the same age as the students, and doing a project at the university as part of his degree course in England, joined the team. He showed that it was quite possible to argue with and challenge me, and also helped to provide a bridge between me and the students.

The interesting thing was when I very unexpectedly had to return to England two weeks before la eliminatoria. The students were forced to take more responsibility or abandon the project. Clearly, they by now felt a real commitment to the rally, and all stepped up, with the help of my friend from the language school who was one of the main sponsors, to complete the rally, which ended up being a great success.

mirando el rapel

photo courtesy of Michael Roberts

The day of the rally itself involved ten different activities or ‘stations’ which each team had to complete. These activities included a range of sporting, educational and intellectual challenges, such as climbing and rappel, making placards about environmental themes, and planting trees.

salida de la carrera

photo courtesy of Michael Roberts


photo courtesy of Michael Roberts

The rally concluded with a run which the local Athletics League helped us organize and a march to the center, where the prize giving took place.

We had always intended that the rally would help to promote the work the local government was doing in initiating a programme of separating waste, which came about partly as a result of a state law compelling all municipios to implement a programme of waste management. So an important purpose of the rally was to educate the young people about this, and we included the different colours of the separated waste in the different activities. In the run, for example, each person was given one of three differently coloured T-shirts with the indication of the type of waste the colour corresponded to.

In practice, it was difficult to work with the local municipio. On the final day of the rally, at the prize giving, the local government officials took control, substituting one of their people for the person from the rally who was going to act as the M.C. and claiming that the rally was an initiative of the local government. Perhaps this was an education in realpolitic for the students, though I suspect they knew all this already.

We learnt a lot from both the successes and failures of last year’s rally. One heartening aspect this year, is that the two students who were completing their prácticas profesionales are setting up a rally in a school in a small town near Ciudad Guzmán where one of them lives. In addition, one of them is helping as a volunteer with the organization of the rally this year.

In subsequent post(s), I will write more about the organization of the rally this year. For more information, in Spanish, about this year’s rally, click here. Do let me know via a comment if there is anything you would particularly like me to write about.