Determined to break with established paradigms of environmental conservation, Juan José Consejo is pioneering solutions to ecological destruction that involve both social and technological innovation.
The New Idea
Juan José Consejo attributes the ongoing deterioration of natural ecosystems to the proliferation of conservation strategies that fail to accommodate the needs and dynamics of the human communities that function within threatened environments. To address this imbalance, he has designed a dual approach to ecological management that was first launched in the Mexican state of Oaxaca in 1993 with the creation of the Oaxacan Commission for Ecological Defense. Juan José starts from the premise that, while government alone is incapable of resolving environmental problems, it must be included in the discussion if proposed solutions are to have any chance of succeeding. By the same token, if local consumers and producers are not involved in the debate, then proposals are just as unlikely to flourish. The socio-political component of his idea is thus founded on the principle of coalition-building, the process of bringing together community leaders, government officials, and the owners of local businesses in a joint commission to discuss environmental problems and agree on solutions. In Oaxaca this approach was so successful that legislation was adopted at the state level which obliged the government to implement the recommendations formulated by the Commission. The technical component of Juan José's approach involves the fusion of three existing dimensions of environmental work that are rarely brought together: firstly, a solid grounding in theoretical concepts combined with previous experience of conservation efforts; secondly, the application of an "environmental inventory," which enables his team to assess the issues and potentials of a given region; and thirdly, the implementation of various "appropriate technology" projects, especially those relating to the purification and distribution of water. This combination of consensus-based community strategies, solid ecological analysis, and the introduction of appropriate technologies has led for the first time to the emergence of state policy and civil society mobilization around environmental issues in Oaxaca.
Like so many other rural regions of Mexico, the state of Oaxaca has suffered the usual litany of environmental assaults. Social, economic, and demographic changes over the past three decades have contributed to a situation in which the naturally forested regions of the state have been stripped, causing severe topsoil erosion that has left previously arable land unusable. Experts suggest that at least 31 species of higher vertebrates are threatened with extinction, as are some 59 species of plant life. Unless more radical initiatives are introduced to reverse these trends, the loss of biodiversity could be irremediable.
A second dimension to the problem involves ingrained cultural prejudices on the part of the urban, educated population towards residents of rural communities, especially the significant indigenous groups in the region. Dismissed as backward and ignorant, these groups are rarely empowered to participate in decision making about "development initiatives" in the state, even though their traditional practices in land management are often more sensitive to ecological concerns than those advocated by the developers.
Prior to Juan José's arrival in Oaxaca in 1989, there was not even the semblance of a state policy on environmental protection, nor was there any level of cohesion among the few citizen organizations that expressed concern about the degradation of the ecosystem. An opportunity arose to build consensus in 1990, when the World Wildlife Fund promoted the formation of an ecological forum to discuss the possibility of a "debt for nature" swap, to be coordinated with the Mexican government and international funders, that would create reserves in some threatened areas of Oaxaca. Unfortunately, this initiative was brought down (in Juan José's estimation, as a result of government intransigence and poor negotiation techniques on all sides), which meant that once again there was a complete absence of response from both public and private entities to the burgeoning environmental crisis in the state.
Despite the ultimate failure of the World Wildlife Fund's proposal, the process itself convinced Juan José of the importance of coordinated approaches involving all potential actors. It also made clear to him that if the environmental issues were dealt with separately from the social and economic concerns of the communities in the proposed reserves, new conflicts would be created that would threaten the viability of proposed conservation measures. Therefore, in the quest for a more comprehensive approach, he founded the Oaxacan Institute for Nature and Society in 1991 and led a movement to reinvigorate the ecological forum that had been convened by the World Wildlife Fund. This effort bore fruit with the Institute's coordination of the broad-based production of a "First Basic Ecological Program for Oaxaca," a set of policy recommendations which inspired the governor to invite Juan José to create a state entity to implement the plans. However, rather than build a new bureaucracy, Juan José argued that a less expensive and more effective alternative would be the formation of a commission of government officials, community groups, and business leaders. This suggestion led to the creation of the Oaxacan Commission for Ecological Defense in 1993, and Juan José served two consecutive terms as Technical Secretary of the Commission until this past year.
Juan José recognizes that the success of the Commission, the first entity of its type in Mexico wherein a private/public body can make environmental recommendations which are binding on the state government, was to some extent contingent on favorable conjunctural conditions that prevailed at the time–a receptive governor and the groundwork that was laid by the World Wildlife Fund initiative. Nonetheless, he is convinced that this model can be replicated at the local and state levels throughout Mexico. Now that the Commission has been consolidated in Oaxaca, he has left his position as Technical Secretary to pursue a two-pronged multiplication strategy. On the local level, the Institute has launched three separate coalition-building initiatives for the preservation of ecosystems around rivers and lagoons on the Oaxacan coast. These projects involve dialogue between local consumers, municipalities, and businesses about conservation issues and techniques, as well as horizontal exchanges that bring actors from the different sites together to compare and contrast experiences. At the same time, the Institute is systematizing the lessons learned from the Commission and its local variants so as to produce background and instructional materials that can be used to replicate the program. Juan José is taking advantage of his extensive experience as an environmental consultant to several different state and federal agencies during the 1980s, as well as solid contacts in the academic world that he has maintained for over a decade through teaching and writing, to reach out to environmental groups in states with characteristics similar to Oaxaca (in terms of levels of degradation, predominance of indigenous population, and so forth). He is optimistic that similar coordinated conservation programs can be launched in the states of Chiapas and Quintana Roo in the medium term, and in other states thereafter.
As a recent college graduate, Juan José began to form youth groups and to teach volunteers the basic principles of environmental preservation. Through these efforts he was introduced to Mexican and international volunteer movements and became convinced that social mobilization could be used judiciously for ecological purposes. After completing a master of science degree, he went to work for a federal environmental agency, which enabled him to travel broadly through the country, while solidifying his conviction that although it was an indispensable part of the formula, government alone could not guarantee conservation efforts. Nonetheless, the experience gave him the opportunity in the state of Quintana Roo to experiment with his emerging concept of conservation through local participation. It was there that he was able to create the first protected reserve in the country (Sian Ka'an), managed by a council of local representatives, which led to the subsequent designation of new reserves in other areas of the country.
The Sian Ka'an experiment also introduced Juan José to the complexities of conservation efforts, when opposition to his plan from tourist businesses and local politicians eventually forced him to leave the area. It was at that point that he moved with his family to a farming community on the outskirts of the city of Oaxaca, with neither friends nor money, determined to cull from his various experiences a viable model for environmental protection that harmonized the interests of all concerned without ignoring their economic necessities.
In recent years the original work methods and strategies of this organization have been consolidated : LA FOTO (research), LA MESA (financing agreement and mechanisms), EL PLAN, LAS HERRAMIENTAS (specific acts of regeneration and alternative technologies) and LA VOZ (spreading the word and raising awareness).