Manuel Guerra

Ashoka Fellow
This description of Manuel Guerra's work was prepared when Manuel Guerra was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1989 .

Introduction

Luis Manuel Guerra is launching a cascade of urgently needed environmental innovations, building on his years as a top chemistry researcher and teacher and as the head of Merck/Mexico for new products and projects.

The New Idea

Important new program ideas flow from Manuel like water from a spring: making an issue of lead in gasoline; decentralizing wastewater treatment; changing when Mexico City takes its major holidays; fundamentally reorganizing the environmental ministry; raising the alarm over widespread natural arsenic contamination of groundwater in northern Mexico; and negotiating toward the introduction of the federal District's first hazardous waste treatment facility.

These specific idea have an impact because of a larger encompassing idea: Manuel is building an island of trust in a sea of division and failed communication -- a center that can speak out to the public with credibility, anchor the policy debate, and facilitate problem-solving collaboration. He and those he's beginning to draw to him can talk to all the actors in their own language, understanding their values and problems. They are also highly competent technically and, far rarer, managerially and institutionally as well. The can discuss how a standard can be policed as easily as the government's enforcement staff -- and how the required controls can best be found, financed, and maintained as easily as a plant engineer. They are champions for the environment, but truly effective champions because, no one's adversaries, they are respected and trusted.From this position of strength Manuel is setting out:to (1) educated and activate the public; and, (2) suggest and catalyze a cascade of practical reform ideas.

The Problem

Mexico has barely begun to deal with very serious environmental degradation. The air of Mexico City, which will have over 20 million people in just over a decade, is so foul that last year thousands of birds flying over on their annual migration died, raining down on the city below. Millions of vehicles spew out gasoline lead. There is no hazardous waste treatment facility. Water supply, let alone protection, is inadequate. Thus, despite the city's benign plateau climate, the U.S. Embassy classifies it as a hardship post. Some of the more prosperous citizens are fleeing to safer areas such as Puebla.

Nor is the problem limited to the capital. Monterrey and many other cities in Mexico, especially in the manufacturing north, have been going through the industrial revolution almost without environmental safeguards. Beautiful Acapulco Bay, so important to Mexico's tourism, is at risk because of the ever-increasing volumes of both raw and inadequately treated sewage it receives. Deforestation, soil loss/depletion, and drinking water contamination are all serious.

Why has the country failed to deal with such severe problems? The cutbacks in government and the strains on industry caused by this decade's economic crisis have made new investments hard -- even where the costs of not acting are far greater than the savings of delay. There are two further, more fundamental reasons: (1) an information gap -- neither the public nor their leaders environmental afflictions or what might be done, let alone the costs and benefits of action and inaction; and (2) a profound cooperation gap -- business looks on government with disdain as ineffective, political and corrupt; government views business as exploitative and socially irresponsible; both look on environmentalists as impractical, rigid, and difficult; all look on foreign suppliers of abatement equipment with suspicion; and so on.

Manuel's work is directed chiefly at closing these gaps.

The Strategy

Public education is one central strand of Manuel's approach. He has created a popular weekly radio program, "Ecocidio," that, involving both expert guests and audience phone-in participation goes after one issue after another. He's also building a magazine, "Ecologia/Politica/Cultura," targeted to a selective non-scientific community that includes many policy-makers. Each issue tackles one specific subject in detail in a clear, concise, scientific manner. He's also working on an environmental impact study of Mexico. This part of his work builds both pressures for action on specific issues and the clout of Manuel and his group.

He hopes the organization he's building, the "Instituto Autonomo de Investigaciones Ecologicas," will multiply his capacity to propose and pursue environmental solutions. He wants it to be as interested in and competent at the design and management of implementation -- almost always a blind spot for environmentalists -- as it is in defining goals or standards.

Central to his ability to turn suggested reforms into realities is the third major element of his strategy, bringing people together.

Manuel usually mentions this part of his approach first because he is so struck by the fact that problem after problem remains unresolved largely because the different sectors of society so distrust one another. He tells the story of what happened when Mexico City's pollution killed so many migrating birds flying overhead that alarmed residents gathered them up and presented hundreds of them to the environment ministry. The government claimed that the birds died both from pesticide poisoning they received in the United States and from exhaustion. The university pathology clinic refused to open its doors over a holiday to do autopsies, and environmentalists marched and picketed government buildings. Nothing concrete was accomplished. However, Manuel and others were able to turn the event to important educational use.

Manuel, by contrast, gets results by helping open up communications and therefore the possibility of collaboration. One example: noting that Mexico City has no hazardous waste management capacity although it generates massive amounts of such waste, Manuel is now bringing together industry, governments, environmentalists, and German technology companies in an effort to break the long paralysis.

The Person

Manuel's current life and strategy grow organically from his past. As the first student not of German ancestry at Mexico City's large and rigorous German School, he learned to bridge cultures comfortably. Success led him on to study chemistry at Munich; and more success encouraged him to dream of a Nobel until, after returning home, he discovered how difficult it was to do advanced basic research in a poor country.

After working for a government laboratory, he shifted to the university and, shortly thereafter, began working simultaneously for Merck. At Merck he rose rapidly and soon was responsible for all new products and projects. This assignment required him to learn to understand and work with every aspect of the organization, its customers, and -- most difficult and critical -- government regulators. At each step along the way his understanding of an capacity to deal with all the disciplines and every type of person grew, as did his appreciation of how essential such a broad, tolerant reach is to causing real change.

Simultaneously, his environmental commitment and involvement was growing year by year. He left the government laboratory when he realized it wouldn't warn the public about the arsenic hazards to drinking water he was mapping. He gradually became more and more -- and increasingly successfully -- involved in a growing number of the country's environmental issues. Moreover, he, his family, and a circle of friends are hard at work each weekend building a totally self-sufficient environmental community. He hopes eventually to move to this community with his family.

Gradually the central focus of Manuel's life became his environmental work–and he took the courageous leap of resigning from Merck to devote himself full time to this work. Ashoka will help him through the next several years until his environmental work can afford to support him.

Updates

Manuel's work aims to put in motion the "Mi Bici" scheme, and to encourage extensive bicycle use through tripartite involvement: local government, private and resident initiatives. With a specific design for the largest of Mexican cities, the citizens can acquire a bike worth $2000 for $500, with the other 75% covered by the private initiative. Local governments commit to building the necessary cycle lane infrastructure and bike parking stations. The goal is to significantly reduce childhood obesity in Mexico and in turn the incidence of diabetes. The bikes are not given out free as a welfare program, but are sold in order to gain unswayed participation by our youth.