Enrique Velázquez

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Mexico
Fellow Since 1989
Desarrollo, Ambiente y Sociedad
This description of Enrique Velázquez's work was prepared when Enrique Velázquez was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1989 .

Introduction

Enrique Velazquez set up the Durango Committee for the Preservation and Defense of the Environment, a model of cooperation between government, industry, and the community. Replacing paralyzing conflict, this approach sorts through environmental problems and promotes ecologically sound, balanced alternatives.

The New Idea

Enrique has taken a major problem: the pollution of the waters of the Rio Tunel, the river that flows through and provides the water supply for a major part of the state of Durango, and turned it into a pivot for the environmental and economic development of the state.

To do this he has had to overcome a pattern where the major actors don't talk and hold one another in, at best, low mutual regard. Instead he's created a political environment and a reliable factual framework that (a) impels and (b) makes possible effective collective problem-solving.

Enrique applied this approach to the problems of the Rio Tunel and generated a number of creative solutions that themselves may have become useful models. One is the Trust Fund he persuaded government, industry, and small farmers to create together to pay for a series of environmentally safe investments that would help the chief victims of the river's pollution–the downstream farmers–adjust. These investments give the farmers access to, for example, safe water that they, their animals, and their crops can use by restoring lost local springs. Perhaps as important, the trust fund commits the major actors to jointly face their area's problems honestly and analytically, and then implement solutions that make the best sense for everyone.

The sum of these individual solutions represents an integrated and novel approach to addressing the chronically severe social and environmental problems created by the rapid deterioration of so many of Mexico's water systems over the last several decades.

Enrique's approach also is a good example of how to successfully engage outside resources in local problem-solving. He's been effective in drawing in the National University to help with the numerous technical analyses needed and, more generally, in giving his small private organization a level of credibility critical to the undertaking. This did not happen just by conceiving the idea; the record of university contributions to complex social problems, especially those that are conflict-filled and therefore political–despite the common wish that universities make more of a contribution–is discouragingly scanty. His organization had to provide the bridging knowledge and sensitivities that typically prevent scholars and communities connecting.

Enrique believes his approach can make an important contribution to community environmental problem solving well beyond the Rio Tunel watershed. He's now stepping in to try to resolve a long-standing scandal and conflict in Coahuila State, where some of the groundwater is dangerously contaminated by arsenic.

The Problem

In 1988, the campesinos of Durango who lived close to the Tunel River and who had systematically watched the deterioration of their water supply decided to burn down the cellulose factory that had been throwing its industrial residues into the river for the past 15 years. The decision, though never consummated, was the culmination of a conflict that Enrique has since been the principal actor in trying to resolve.

Durango State was ill-prepared for industrial expansion. There was no urban development plan, let alone provision for ecologically balanced urban growth. The problem worsened in 1985 when the by-then obsolete, and in any case inefficient, waste-water treatment system ceased to work. Over 800 liters per second of contaminated water flowed undetected into the Tunel River, the source of drinking water for over half a million inhabitants of the capital city of Durango.

Huge quantities of industrial wastes produced by the cellulose industry (Durango is Mexico's most important state in the production of timber) also poured untreated into the river. The river's high levels of chemical waste present had a even more deleterious effect on the local population's health, both directly and indirectly through agricultural produce and cattle.

The problem then was not only how to solve the acute pollution of Durango's water supply and its many attendant malaises but also how to bring about a peaceful conciliation of all the actors involved–industry, government and the campesinos–and to make everybody aware that there was no single cause or solution to the problem.

The Strategy

Enrique started off from the premise that no one group was to blame for the river's pollution. And that what was needed was a well-planned technical study by a multidisciplinary research team that could pinpoint the actual level of the river's pollution and its causes.

Although government and industry were at first skeptical of the true extent of water contamination in the state, the results of the study quickly convinced them of the need for dialogue. In getting this result, credibility was all important. Enrique won it by involving both the Ministry of the Environment and the National University and giving substantial press and radio coverage to the results. His reward was a series of major agreements between all the parties involved.

As mentioned, one of Enrique's key specific achievements has been the establishment of a Social Trust Fund (Fideicomisco). It draws capital investment from each of the sectors and finances the Ecological Plan for Productive Regional Development with a total investment of two million dollars. Fifty percent comes from industry, 35 percent from government agencies and 15 percent from local producers. The plan will finance over 60 different productive activities, principally in the areas of fruit growing, cattle rearing and fish farming.

At the same time, two separate water treatment projects have been set in place: one in its initial stages, by the government to treat the city's waste waters and another to clean up the waters of the cellulose plant. A citizen's Vigilance Commission will monitor and report on implementation.

Enrique's project has also established Emergency Ecological Program to tackle some of the most pressing consequences of the Tunel River's pollution. For example, a series of specialist health clinics deal with diseases (principally of the skin) caused by the water's contaminants.

A particularly important part of the Durango project's response has been to create new, safe supplies of water for the farmers. New wells and the re-establishment of many of the region's old springs are a particularly important, inexpensive, and critical part of the project's problem-solving. Moreover, together with the Ministry of Agriculture, Enrique is setting up new projects farther away from the river that can draw their water supply from nonpolluted wells and springs.

The future points to different areas of strategy. Enrique insists that if the water supply is to be completely protected, then he must also work with the source of the supply and with the forest communities that ultimately protect the origins of the rivers. He is also moving out to help set up similar projects in other states, notably in Coahuila, where people are being supplied with arsenic-contaminated water drawn from deep groundwater reservoirs.

The Person

Enrique's family is from the northern state of Sinaloa, where he grew up and was a student through high school. In the early '70s, he left home to study in the capital, Mexico City. At the National University he first studied to be a mathematician, but he changed course after a year and registered to study Economics because he felt it was more focused on concrete problems. He financed his studies by working as an accounting assistant part time for several years.

In the mid-'80s, he began working on training programs for small-farmer communities in the socially troubled west coast state of Guerrero. His growing interest and concern led him on to help other rural organizations in the area, chiefly with project design and evaluation. Eventually this work introduced him to the Comite de Defensa Popular in Durango. The thoroughly impacted and destructive situation he found there was the challenge that led to the creation of the Comite de Defensa y Preservacion Ecologica.