Martha Isabel (Pati) Ruíz Corzo
She engages people by firing up their children.
She engages people by using every available communications medium–from hand-made anti-littering posters to the radio.
She engages people by skillfully organizing volunteering efforts.
Moreover, she's hard at work developing a financial base that is independent, potentially adequate and able to grow with the movement.
Pati began from the premise that the natural environment on which they heavily depend is even more important for the peasant farmers and laborers of the Sierra Gorda than it is for the professional classes more typically associated with conservation organizations. She founded the Sierra Gorda Ecological Group as a grassroots social movement focused squarely on the region's poor majority–what they need to know and their practical needs and concerns. Environmental Fellows across the world are struggling to find systemic ways to induce people to factor the environment into their daily decision making. Centralized policies can't work, because there is no one right answer.
The mix of human and environmental needs inevitable vary from place to place and time to time. Pati's contribution to their search is both a number of specific approaches and a more-than-the sum-of-the-parts movement and change of consciousness.
Pati rates poor sanitation practices and deforestation as the chief environmental sins. Virtually all of the mountain surface water is polluted from human waste and wood is the principal cooking and heating fuel. Timbering and clear cutting during centuries of subsistence farming have denuded hillsides. Approximately 6,000 hectares of forest are cut each year in the state. Rain and wind carry away many tons of topsoil annually from every hectare of land farmed in the mountains. The loss of tree cover has reduced water retention, lowering recharge rates of the underground water table and degrading wildlife's natural habitat.
Meanwhile, the water supply is being polluted due to lack of public sewage and solid waste management systems. People have sullied wells with garbage, litter and contaminated drainage.
As the land and water resources are depreciated, agricultural yields decrease and poverty, with all its attendant ills, increases. Pati believes that this trend is inherent in the practice of subsistence farming in the mountains and that improving the area's economic and ecological situations requires a fundamental change. But few other options for making a living exist in the region, most of which has poor roads, no electricity and no telephones.
Pati also wants to educate the community at large through the media and at community events. Her group keeps a booth in the region's many periodic open air markets through which it sells energy-conserving stoves and odorless latrines and promotes good environmental practices more generally. Pati also runs a weekly half hour radio show in which she exposes environmental abuses, entertains with environmentally informative stories, and generally provides useful advice. This show is highly popular, and Pati has become something of a folk hero in the region for her vigorous criticism of governmental inattention to the environment. It is said that the state governor never misses her show.
Unashamedly, her education programs also serve as the main marketing vehicle for the Group's "ecological businesses." To the possible objection that this kind of mix of education with marketing may inappropriately disguise commercial motives within public interest messages, Pati responds with characteristic vigor. "Our income-generating activities directly further environmental objectives," she argues, "and in the best possible way, by demonstrating that good environmentalism is also good business."
The Group's largest business activity is its reforestation project which has resulted in the planting of more than two million trees over five years. It calls for the community to sow 600 hectares a year of softwood that can be harvested for commercial use as an income source. The government supplies many of the Group's seedlings (another major victory of Pati's that came after her public exposure of the pre-existing corrupt state seedlings program), and the Group raises the rest in its own nursery. In any year, an individual may harvest only as many trees as she or he planted at least eight years earlier. Some 1,500 small property owners participate, with the advice of five consultants from the Group. In order to contribute to the re-population of endangered fauna, the group favors trees that attract birds and other animals.
Since many trees are never actually harvested, and because felling is staggered by area and year, the net result is an ever-expanding regenerated forest. Most gratifying to Pati, families are finding that it is much more profitable over the long run to plant and harvest trees than to continue with the destructive subsistence farming methods of the past.
One of the most ingenious aspects of the Group's marketing plan is its construction and sales of odorless composting latrines and energy-saving woodstoves to decrease pollution and tree cutting while raising money for the educational program. As noted above, the educational seminars in turn create more demand for stoves and latrines. So far the group has been responsible for the installation of more than 480 stoves and 11,000 latrines, which, in addition to reducing the pollution of streams, also provide organic fertilizer for gardening.
From the outset, Pati has developed her program to be a model that could be replicated throughout rural Mexico. "I am rooted here, with this land and these people. But that does not mean that what we are doing is without thought to the larger problem all around us. We are constantly engaged in explaining our work to others who visit from elsewhere in Mexico and beyond."
She assumed the responsibility of educating her children herself, acting as their teacher in the mornings and dedicating herself to community organizing in the afternoons. "My children have no papers or school diplomas, but they are walking encyclopedias," she says. Both teenagers are involved in environmental activities and plan to pursue professional training in environmental sciences. So far, their unconventional education has not hurt their career chances. Quite the opposite, boasts proud parent Pati, partly because of the international attention that the Group has gained through its tree planting program, her older son won an internship with the United States Forest Service.
Pati's current priorities are to manage the following projects: Community environmental education, Ecoclubs, Community sanitation, Regeneration, conservation and land management, Payment for environmental services, Buying and selling of land, Product diversification and replication of applicable strategies.