Rodrigo García leads the Organization for Cetacean Conservation (OCC), the first citizen organization to promote coastal and marine conservation in Uruguay. Rodrigo focuses on restructuring the socioeconomic forces that lead to environmental problems and on building a coalition of environmentalists, local citizens, tourists, businesses and government that co-develop solutions with both environmental and economic benefits.
The New Idea
To address the mounting stress on Uruguay’s oceanic environment, Rodrigo is developing ecotourism to meet the growing demand for tourist activities in Uruguay’s natural environment in a way that links the economy, local society, and the environment so they positively reinforce one another. To bolster protection of the coast as a whole, Rodrigo developed a ‘whale route’ that integrates marine and coastal tourism. Because Baleen whales migrate in Uruguayan spring, Rodrigo is extending the classic two-month summer tourist season to become six months long. Fostering a new niche in the tourist market not only brings business that would otherwise be dormant most of the year, but it also creates opportunities for the local population to establish a variety of lucrative tourist services so they do not have to relocate elsewhere for work. By incorporating seasonal flora and fauna into the whale route and portraying them as cultural symbols, Rodrigo also cultivates grater awareness among local communities of their natural environment and creates incentives to care for the environment. Finally, throughout Uruguay, the OCC manages environmental education programs for youth. Regarding public policy and administration of the coastal territory, the OCC is raising environmental standards by establishing a stamp that certifies environmentally friendly tourist companies. It also organized an agreement for Protected Marine Coastal Areas that was signed by businesses, citizen organizations (COs), government ministries, and local municipalities. Rodrigo’s work thus improves environmental administration of the coast, offsets the impact of traditional tourism, and creates incentives for businesses and communities to go green. Never before has there been such a collaborative, comprehensive and systematic approach to marine and coastal protection in Uruguay.
During Uruguay’s two summer months over 700,000 visitors flock to the beaches of Maldonado and Rocha, thus making the tourist industry one of the most important sources of income in the country. However, this high concentration of people overwhelms waste management systems and coastal ecology, which causes substantial environmental contamination and degradation. Erosion of sand dunes and forests caused by excessive land use throws coastal and marine ecosystems off balance. Untreated waste is dumped directly into water sources or holes that leak, which causes high levels of pollution in the water table. Changes in the sensitive Baleen whale population are some of the most visible signs of environmental damage, but these toxins kill many other endangered aquatic and land species. The tourist season generates high demand for temporary jobs, but during the rest of the year the population is unemployed or travels elsewhere in search of work. This migration cycle is difficult for coastal communities. The population depends on income from elsewhere instead of on locally run businesses and the division of families leads to a sense of rootlessness and identity loss. Given their strained community structures, the local population has little political bargaining power to improve their situation or that of their environment. Government policies have been designed to support the tourism industry, not to regulate it or protect the environment. While a few environmental policies do exist, the responsibility for implementing them is scattered across municipalities and the national government that lack the coordination needed to effectively enforce regulatory policies. Recently, the government took a step in the right direction by passing a treaty with a provision for Protected Marine Coastal Areas, but before this agreement can take effect the government must design plans for coastal and marine administration. Ultimately, even if the government could standardize environmental oversight along the coast, it has yet to develop strategies for working with the private and civic sectors. What’s more, the COs working on ecology that do exist focus only on narrow issue areas and have little influence. Without pressure from the government or civil society, businesses have few incentives to reform their practices. In order for environmental change to occur, collaboration across sectors and economic incentives for businesses, the government, and the local population are needed.
Rodrigo believes that environmental problems can only be solved if the economic forces that sustain them are restructured and if all sectors of society work together. He began working on coastal and marine conservation because there was no coordinated approach to these issues in Uruguay. Rodrigo’s lifelong interest in the protection of cetacea, or aquatic mammals, led him to produce radio and television shows about the environment in the 1990s. But he soon realized that more comprehensive strategies were needed. In 2000, he founded the OCC, which focuses on marine and coastal research, education and conservation. Rodrigo recognized that because most people were not familiar with environmental conservation, he needed a symbol that the OCC could use to promote his cause. He chose the Baleen whale because it is an endangered species that has received international attention and that migrates along Uruguay’s coast. In 2001 the OCC established Whale Week, an annual celebration that takes place in four coastal cities and includes parades, school activities, cultural and recreational events, and media coverage. Whale Week’s success allowed the OCC to modify school curriculums to include marine ecology and to engage students in conservation projects. Rodrigo was able to get Whale Week declared an activity of national interest by UNESCO, the Uruguayan government, and the Faculty of Social Sciences. He also obtained a Parliamentary Declaration of July 17 as Whale Day. The OCC accesses media outlets by partnering with celebrity figures in public awareness campaigns. By drawing attention to Uruguay’s marine and coastal resources, Rodrigo is building an identity around these issues and a sense of national heritage. As public awareness about environmental issues increased, Rodrigo began working with the tourist industry in Maldonado and Rocha to capitalize on visitors’ natural interest in their surroundings. First he created a Whale Route for whale, dolphin, and bird watching. Businesses offer boat tours of the route, and the OCC also worked with the Ministry of Tourism to install observation platforms along the coast. By demonstrating consumer demand for environmental offerings like the Whale Route, Rodrigo was able to convince businesses that there was added value in nature-oriented activities and eco-friendly policies. The OCC established an Environmental Stamp to certify businesses that are environmentally conscious. The certification process is voluntary and includes seminars, a written commitment to support responsible tourism, and the gradual implementation of environmental practices. As the tourism industry evolves to offer more varied ecotourist experiences, the tourist season is extending from two to six months per year. The ecotourism market thus offers a window of opportunity for the local population to start new enterprises. With a stronger economy at home and more national attention for their natural resources, coastal communities have renewed confidence and Rodrigo expects fewer people to be unemployed or forced to migrate elsewhere for work.In 2007, the OCC helped pass the ‘Inter-Institutional Treaty to Develop Responsible Tourism with an Emphasis on Whale Watching.’ This treaty involved the Ministries of Tourism and the Environment, the municipalities of Maldonado and Rocha, COs such as Ecotourism Association and Agrotourism of Rocha, as well as local businesses and the Business Chamber of Maldonado. The government recently administered Protected Marine Coastal Areas, and Rodrigo is working with COs and legal bodies to institute pilot programs that will lay the groundwork to establish protected zones. In 2006 Rodrigo’s concerns about eucalyptus monoculture and the use of agrochemicals that contaminate the water supply led him to expand his strategy to include conservation of coastal forests. He is currently trying to include these ecosystems as protected zones. Rodrigo’s work has increasing international influence. In 2007, after a four-year campaign, the OCC succeeded in reinstating Uruguay in the International Whaling Commission after a 22-year absence. He was also able to get Uruguay included in the World Tourism Circuit dedicated to Whale Watching. Rodrigo has partnered with CSOs in Argentina, Costa Rica, and Brazil in order to more effectively lobby international bodies on policies that affect the region. He is also planning to expand OCC’s work to the Santa Catarina region of Brazil, where Baleen whales also migrate. Recognition for Rodrigo’s work includes becoming an AVINA Leader and Secretary to the Latin American Network for the Preservation of Whales and Protected Marine Areas, which is comprised of seventeen institutions. Rodrigo is recognized in coastal Uruguay and around the world for his commitment to protecting coastal environments and building sustainable futures for the people who inhabit them.
Rodrigo is a biologist who has been drawn to marine environments throughout his life. He speaks of a time during his childhood when he and his father caught a baby dolphin while fishing in Maldonado. Rodrigo remembers establishing sound contact with the dolphin before returning it to the ocean. He identifies this moment as the instant he realized he wished to work with ocean environments and marine life.Rodrigo studied Oceanic Sciences in college and his fascination with whales led him to build a network of friends and academics that could help him study whale migration patterns. While on a trip to Patagonia, Rodrigo’s interest in environmental advocacy was sparked by a famous conservationist he met there named Roger Payne. To address Uruguay’s indifference to environmental issues, he began organizing groups of biology students and inhabitants of coastal areas. Beginning in 1995, he spent five years producing radio and television programs about the environment, some of which drew international attention. After deciding that public awareness campaigns were not enough to change Uruguay’s relationship with the environment, Rodrigo resisted the pessimism of his family and friends and he founded the OCC in 2000. He has since built a network of support throughout Uruguay and has also received significant backing from nearby countries, especially Brazil.