María Elena Foronda Farro
Fellow Since 2000
This profile was prepared when María Elena Foronda Farro was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2000.
María Elena Foronda educates Peruvian citizens about the environmental damage caused by fish processing factories and negotiates with the fish industry to find realistic, effective responses to rising ecological problems.
The New Idea
Although Peruvians have begun to pay more attention to environmental issues in recent years, María Elena is the first environmentalist to address the problem of contamination caused by the processing of fishmeal. Unlike other advocates who use confrontational tactics, María Elena finds common ground between those who suffer from pollution and those who cause it. She turns the victims of pollution into environmentally aware citizens who do not simply protest, but also propose clear, concrete solutions that alleviate pollution and reduce tension between people and industry. She has created committees of young people that investigate environmental damage, monitor compliance, and negotiate with the government and businesses.
Of the forty-two fishmeal companies operating in Peru, 70 percent are located in urban areas. Chimbote is the Peruvian city with the highest level of coastal industrial contamination. Severe pollution is caused by companies that process fish for animal consumption, fertilizers, and preservatives. Incredibly high levels of toxicity flow from these factories, which dump their waste into towns' waters and emit dangerous gases into the air. The high level of pollution leads to respiratory and skin diseases, as well as severe allergy problems. In Chimbote alone, these problems affect three hundred thousand inhabitants. In addition to the adverse effects on the human population, the short-term approach taken by the fishmeal companies is damaging coastal ecosystems by inefficiently using the ocean's biological resources, threatening the long-term existence of certain marine species. Extinction of various species will also decrease the profitability of such enterprises over time, as current inefficient methods of fish processing rapidly kill off the fish needed to make a profit. Intimidated by the industry's power, few have confronted the fishmeal industry concerning the environmental devastation it causes. It is particularly difficult to mobilize citizens because so many of them work in the very fishmeal plants that are causing severe health problems for them and their families. Residents of cities like Chimbote have come to believe that there is a necessary relationship between environmental and economic productivity, commonly referring to the stench produced by the fish-processing factories as the smell of money. In general, there is also a lack of information about environmental degradation, and few citizens are aware of all the problems caused by pollution or what their legal rights to combat it may be. The fishmeal industry also enjoys a great deal of economic and political power and is subject to very little environmental monitoring. According to María Elena, there has been no organized activism to fight the environmental damage caused by the fishmeal industry because of the power the industry wields.
María Elena's strategy has several facets, aimed at turning the citizens of Chimbote and other affected cities into social actors who can confront the environmental and health crisis caused by industrial contamination. She first sensitizes citizens about the problems caused by the industry and their rights, developing their capacity to solve the problem. She identifies community leaders and meets with them regularly to outline their needs and priorities with regard to combating environmental contamination. She then works with them to create a work plan and holds meetings to explain the plan before it is presented to the community assembly. In order to generate interest, María Elena has prepared educational materials and has enlisted the assistance of dynamic environmental experts. A video documenting the hopes and dreams of the residents is another effective outreach tool. The local people's participation in the video has made them feel more confident and has demonstrated that they have an ally in the defense of their environmental rights. María Elena also holds workshops on industrial contamination, engaging citizens to work together to combat pollution. As a part of the workshops, citizens participate in a diagnostic study of the environmental problems in their neighborhoods through the use of drawings and maps that indicate where the environmental dangers lie. Her organization, Instituto Natura, also advises citizens on their rights as stated in the Peruvian Constitution and international environmental treaties. María Elena is also developing a system of citizen vigilance committees so that ordinary people can monitor progress toward a solution to the contamination problem. To make these committees effective, María Elena trains local citizens to identify, assess, and measure pollution and has created a list of indicators of problems caused by fishmeal production. Additionally, María Elena promotes local exchanges to share experiences in environmental activism. She is also working to promote the participation of people from all levels of society in these committees, including local government leaders, representatives of other local organizations, church officials, and educational leaders. By articulating common interests in the solution to the industrial contamination problem and demonstrating respect for each individual's role within the process, María Elena is helping the less-represented sectors build their negotiation capacity so that they may be able to meet with government and business authorities to claim their rights as citizens to live in a healthy environment. In addition to informing the population at large, María Elena and Natura also develop curricula on environmental education for school-aged children to provide future generations with information previously lacking. Her strategy in this respect includes ecological internships, student-led reforestation efforts, and an annual parade for Environment Week. She mobilizes young people through training in environmental problems, environmental action committees, workshops on urban environmental pollution, proposals for more concentrated local and national preservation efforts, and ecotourism within Chimbote. Another aspect of María Elena's strategy is the formation of alliances to create a collaborative working group with businesses, local authorities, and citizens. She and local government authorities created the Chimbote Plan to improve the environmental and technological standards and create a map of soil use for zoning. María Elena's alliance with the local government has allowed her to train local officials in urban environmental management, environmental planning, and sanitary infrastructure. Natura is considered an important reference on environmental issues and was the promoter of a United Nations initiative to sensitize the population about five-hundred hectares of wetlands in the middle of the city, which serve as a migratory area for birds.Through her relationship with the public sector, María Elena created a roundtable discussion on industrial contamination, leading to a regional environmental commission. This initiative has opened up a space for dialogue in the fishmeal industry, which has led to a more direct and friendly relationship with the population of Chimbote. The forums allow citizens trained by Natura to negotiate with industry leaders and present proposals to the fishmeal companies.
María Elena was born in Lima but grew up in Chimbote. Her father was a union lawyer and influenced her to dedicate her life to social justice. She studied social work in Mexico and became very interested in political issues concerning Central America, joining human rights groups for the indigenous and violently displaced. Following her time in Mexico, she moved back to Chimbote and joined a health organization, managing neighborhood organization and promotion. When this organization ceased operations due to financial problems, María Elena launched a new environmental organization from her own home. She also founded the Association for the Defense and Conservation of the Province of Santa. In 1994, during the height of the fight against guerilla groups like the Shining Path, she was arrested by police and falsely accused of terrorism. She believes her incarceration may have been related to her fight against big businesses and the contamination they were causing in Chimbote. She was put in holding cell with no communication for two weeks and then remained in jail for a year and a half. While in jail, she sharpened her strategies to combat contamination in Chimbote and gained more international recognition and support for her work. Rather than frightening her away from such controversial work, her time in jail strengthened her commitment to fighting for the environment.