Connecting environmental work with people, poverty & development

I am a part of Peace Corps’ Environment Program.

When I applied for the program, I was not sure what that meant, specifically. I wondered: what backgrounds do typical Environment volunteers have; what was the scope of their work during their two-year service; what successes have they had; and amid how much heartbreak?

Once I found myself in training, I learned with my fellow volunteers about the goals and the history of the program. Eleven weeks later, we all scattered across Central Mexico to focus on our assignments. We heard only cursory stories about what each other were doing, thus it was challenging to see the scope  of our influence. It was easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day challenges of our individual lives rather than seeing the bigger picture.

But during the first week of December, we all got together to celebrate our first year as volunteers, and to prepare ourselves for the year to come. At this mid-service conference, we were able to share with each other about our year and our work.

My group of volunteers, one year into service, accompanied by various Peace Corps staff and our Volunteer Leader

My group of volunteers, one year into service, accompanied by various Peace Corps staff and our Volunteer Leader

The result: I was inspired with what we have been able to accomplish despite steep obstacles; I was surprised how similar many of our challenges are; and I was reinvigorated to keep pushing my coworkers to be empowered.

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WHO WE ARE

We are a group of 19. We range from our early 20s to our early 60s, with every decade represented. We are from every region in the USA, and we care deeply for Mexico and its environment.

Our previous experience: We are climate change specialists, botanists, GIS specialists, geologists, soil conservationists, field biologists,  interpreters and environmental educators, sociologists focused in girls empowerment, national park managers, ornithologists, city planners, and passionate gardeners/farmers

In Mexico, we have become: amateur English teachers, scorpion catchers, discoverers of new species, emotional eaters, “Latin Boys” basketball team members, agents of young women’s empowerment, nutrition promoters, multilevel government bureaucracy jumpers, and awkward Spanish speakers – one volunteer invited her co-workers to enjoy her home-made banana bread made with urine (OO-rina) rather than flour (AAH-rina)

With the help of hundreds of local counterparts, we have done incredible things. We could never have accomplished what we have without the guidance, support, encouragement, laughs, hugs, and labor of our work partners.

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WHAT WE DO

The Natural Resource Management group:

  • Building 75 water storage cisterns in a rural community where only 1% of the population has indoor plumbing and only 15% have a sewage collection system. This project is slated to 1) improve public health by reducing water-borne illnesses and 2) increase school attendance and literacy by reducing the need for children to carry water from the local polluted river twice a week
  • Creating an interpretation program and plan for a national park that involves training park managers, university professors, and community members to interpret the park. With many stakeholders, they have created symbols, signs, messages, brochures, and materials to bring the park to the nearby city. This volunteer (with my help!) trained park employees on visitor management and on crafting powerful interpretative messages, and has conducted radio interviews and hosted environmental fairs that promote conservation and awareness
  • Planning and executing a re-vegetation project to conserve soil on top of a volcano as the last stage of an astrophysics research project. As side projects, this volunteer has led bird education events and presentations to increase ecological awareness and appreciation, co-authored a beautiful bird field guide focused on her state, led workshops about ecological footprints, and runs an eco-club at an elementary school on the volcano
Guiding elementary school students on a birding trip in eastern Puebla

Guiding elementary school students on a birding trip in eastern Puebla, volcano in background

  • Proving that a national park is home to a rare and endemic tree species via genetic research. This enhances the importance of park on a political and local level. Further botany research is being promoted by this volunteer by her collection and preservation of specimens that will be distributed to herbariums, nationally and internationally
  • Supporting the definition and development of a new national park in a mountainous cloud forest using GIS analysis and mapping technologies, including mapping wildfire trends. Within that pre-park area, this volunteer also assists with various projects that focus on promoting conservation practices and generating income for the existing indigenous communities: monitoring government contract jobs for community members and managing a wildlife monitoring and education program in reaction to wild puma depredation on livestock
  • Measuring and mapping toxic mine tailings to understand the scale of the environmental problem and to mark where they need to be isolated. A key component of the program is also educating nearby residents about potential dangers of living adjacent to the waste of the former mining industry. As a side project, this volunteer has begun mapping potential sites for plant-based economic development projects for impoverished residents in the biosphere reserve
Collecting samples from mine tailings to better understand the scope of the environmental hazards affecting communities in North eastern Guanajuato

Collecting samples from mine tailings to better understand the scope of the environmental hazards affecting communities in North eastern Guanajuato

  • Training a variety of audiences how to use GPS and GIS technologies to better manage their environments and make informed decisions about their lives via free tools and training that everyone can use, including you! This volunteer’s work has taken him to a rural community in helping them map their property, and in his office working for the State’s Environment Ministry, where he has mapped biodiversity density and distribution across the state for foresters to make more informed decisions, has built a geodatabase, and has increased GIS capacity of employees in the office
  • Streamlining the process for schools across the state to request and receive environmental education presentations from the government, which also includes creating pre-presentation educational materials for teachers and a monitoring system for reporting purposes. Now that her office is more systematized, this volunteer will focus on building a statewide program for schools to create and maintain sustainable food gardens by training teachers to install and support gardens and host harvest-themed eco-fairs. The focus schools will create a how-to manual for other schools
  • And of course, my project: developing eco-tourism infrastructure in a national park to promote biodiversity and outdoor leadership in a way that also increases income for the park and for nearby impoverished communities. You can read more about my project on the page called My work in Mexico
Break time after hours scouting and marking a new trail route in the national park

Break time after hours scouting and marking a new trail route in the national park

The Environmental Education/Community Outreach Specialist group:
Programmatic difference: these volunteers are based in communities rather than in one institution, thus have their hands in many different projects

  • Developing and supporting school garden education programs, leading school group tours of a state park, and implementing an interactive summer camp curriculum about climate change
  • Facilitating a bio-intensive gardening course, instituting a recycling and worm composting program in a local high school, hosting a river clean-up event, and providing support in implementing government-funded green technologies
Successfully built compost pile during a week-long bio-intensive gardening course in the community of Los Bordos, Querétaro

Successfully built compost pile during a week-long bio-intensive gardening course in the community of Los Bordos, Querétaro

  • Hosting an eco-fair and trash clean-up in the community, creating a woman’s knitting group that uses plastic bags instead of yarn and who sell their products for income, implementing a semester-long ecological awareness curriculum in a local middle school and environmental story time in the elementary school, leading ecological themed hikes in a neighboring national park and a Leave No Trace training for park employees
  • Assisting in maintaining and better implementing bio-filter technologies that had been poorly implemented, and working towards establishing a tree nursery for local species
  • Building eco-tourism infrastructure and capacity for interpreters in biosphere reserves and national parks, including teaching about how tourists might want to camp in communities that have only had electricity for two years and still do not have running water, promoting the use of solar ovens to reduce wood-burning stove use
Happy workshop participants and facilitators showing off their certificates of recognition learning how to form interpretative messages in southern Jalisco

Happy workshop participants and facilitators showing off their certificates of recognition learning how to form interpretative messages

  • Teaching classes about ecosystems and workshops about climate change for a variety of communities and classes, creating and supporting an “environmental promoters” group at a university, and developing medicinal plant greenhouses
  • Creating and implementing a solid waste management and recycling program in a community whose leadership recently removed all public trashcans to resolve frustrations in the collection schedule. One of the goals in the coming year is to build a recycling center to generate income for the community
  • Promoting green technologies like rainwater harvesting and bio-intensive gardening, helping a school attain the state-wide “green school” certification, and supporting endemic plant greenhouse for targeted reforestation focused on seed collection and proper growing techniques and composting
  • Hosting awareness events such as river clean-ups, deforestation-themed puppet shows, and creating a day of the dead altar for an extinct species to bring a larger awareness of ecosystems and endangered species
Day of the Dead altar for the extinct Imperial Woodpecker

Day of the Dead altar for the extinct Imperial Woodpecker

  • Exploring mushroom cultivation as a form of low environmental impact income generation, leading school presentations about deforestation and reforestation

We are expatriates. We collaborate. We constantly lose and regain confidence. For that, we are resilient. We have evolved. And into this next year, we will persevere.

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This holiday season, I suggest supporting one or both of these amazing Peace Corps projects that aid in the development of Mexico:

The Gift of Vision will provide an underdeveloped community with affordable prescription eyeglass testing along with a pair of new or recycled corrective lenses for reading or nearsightedness. The overall goal is to increase literacy to open up avenues towards better education and work opportunities in the future.

Camp Mariposas promotes leadership, critical thinking and an importance in one’s self for girls. During a week-long camp, the girls will learn about women’s issues in Mexico, how to deal with issues of domestic violence and alcoholism, how to live sustainably, and how to create a healthy lifestyle.

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Making me smile

  • Christmas season officially started on December 12th. The is obvious because on December 11th, the sky exploded with nonstop fireworks, prompting a friend of mine to say: Días como hoy parecen más una zona de guerra que una festividad… ¡No más cuetes! Days like this are more like a war zone than days for celebrating…please no more fireworks!
  • Despite the deep desire for everyone to kick their six weeks of partying into full swing, people in my office are so excited about our project that they continue to push forward. They seem to be working with even more vigor lately, which I partially attribute to my constant reinforcement of how much I value their contributions and how this is their project too. Ownership and pride is finally taking hold!
  • There is a means and a way to accomplish just about everything in Mexico…it just might not be the most direct or obvious. What made me think of this is that I can never predict when the laundromat is open, but somehow I get my clothes clean. Recently, I had hauled my load several blocks down the street at 11:30 on a Tuesday only to find locked doors. Some nice women sitting on the street told me not to be dismayed: the laundry woman has an agreement with the neighboring Roasted Chicken shop, so I was able to drop my laundry off without a hitch! I just placed it in between  the tortillas and the cash register, in front of the chickens.

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