Alberto Ruz

Ashoka Fellow
This description of Alberto Ruz's work was prepared when Alberto Ruz was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002 .

Introduction

Alberto Ruz promotes sustainable and ecologically sound community development in small- and medium-sized towns by organizing and leading a caravan of educators and facilitators throughout Latin America.

L'idée nouvelle

Alberto has developed a response to the depletion of economic and environmental resources–a response that focuses on sustainability planning. He organizes a caravan of buses that travel from town to town, working with community members to design highly creative, holistic strategies for conflict resolution, recycling, and cultural and ecological preservation. Emphasis is placed on understanding diversity, optimizing resources, and implementing strategies that promote sustainable development. The caravan's crew comprises seasoned leaders and a group of young volunteers who are eager to learn about and advance eco-friendly practices. Prior to and upon arriving in a community, Alberto's team works in close coordination with local governments, schools, churches, and other groups to design trainings and activities. In all, the caravan spends up to six months evaluating and responding to local needs while helping townspeople establish more permanent systems to address their problems. Alberto also helps community organizations tap global networks for ongoing exchanges about educational and environmental topics. His work is widely recognized across Latin America and is becoming known internationally.

Le problème

Each day, communities of all sizes across Latin America are confronted with choices of how to use natural resources, how to maintain local traditions and culture, and how to educate younger generations. Many decisions about these matters are made unconsciously and often at the expense of the community's long-term environmental and socioeconomic sustainability.

Faced with dwindling resources, dying indigenous cultures, and unrelenting rural-to-urban and south-to-north migration, citizens and community leaders are beginning to question their own decisions. They are seeking new ideas and solutions and become frustrated when, despite the presence of the Internet and mass media, sustainable alternatives are hard to come by and even harder to learn and implement. The knowledge they need is not readily available, and implementation of new ideas stalls when adaptation to local contexts is not sufficiently considered.

There is little emphasis on sustainable technologies and environmentally friendly living in Latin America or the rest of the developing world. Information does not flow easily to the small communities in the poorest countries.

La stratégie

Alberto developed a mobile eco-village to respond to the ubiquitous problem of community unsustainability. The Rainbow Caravan travels throughout Latin America to work with local communities in support of ecologically, economically, and culturally viable practices and long-term development planning. Prior to arriving in a given community, Alberto contacts the local press to announce that the caravan is on its way and invites the community to send emails listing what kinds of trainings and services they would like to receive. He also facilitates communication between groups that would not normally interact–like schools, churches, municipal authorities, and citizen sector organizations–to engage them in the preparatory stage. Upon arrival, the caravan members offer townspeople free plays, concerts, puppet shows, and dance exhibitions. By gaining the communities' interest through the spectacle of the carnival, Alberto stirs the local people's enthusiasm.

The eco-caravan develops a framework for community projects based on the self-assessed environmental situation of each town. Alberto introduces basic topics like recycling to community members and follows up with more challenging concepts like composting and alternative energy sources. During the course of the trainings, he encourages the community to begin developing a common agenda for addressing collective challenges.

Alberto and his team demonstrate how communities can find common points of interest and build a local development agenda, even in the midst of tremendous diversity. In Ecuador, for example, the Caravan is working with the support of the United States Department of Education to train some 140 women leaders in the use of consensus, multicultural organizing, and video documentation. In Chiapas, a war-torn and militarily occupied city in Mexico, Alberto initially used storytelling exercises and peace vigils to engage opposing tribal groups. Subsequently, he trained them both in the construction of sanitary public lavatories and in cross-community development through shared agriculture, education, and infrastructure programs.

Over the past five years, and now with three vehicles and a giant circus tent, the caravan has worked with dozens of communities in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, and Ecuador. Local leaders have been trained in various aspects of sustainable community development. Members of the caravan periodically return to places they have visited to evaluate local progress and add new trainings and experiences. Similarly, the caravan applies lessons from each community to ensuing initiatives around each region. Alberto plans to visit communities next in Peru, Bolivia, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. The caravan's traveling eco-village model is also disseminated internationally through a Web site, appearances on cable television, and Alberto's participation in the Eco-Village Network of the Americas and the Bioregional Council of the Americas.

La personne

The son of a prominent archaeologist, Alberto grew up exploring Mayan culture and history in the Yucatán Peninsula of southern Mexico. However, throughout his formal education, he found it difficult to satisfy all of his interests and fit in among his peers. After graduating with a degree in economics, Alberto lived in an Israeli kibbutz for eight months, where he discovered agriculture, construction, and carpentry. He continued to travel around the world, learning about indigenous cultures and seeking out models of sustainable development. Spending time in California, he worked in education and the arts and became inspired by the civil rights movement. Alberto returned to Mexico in 1980 with the hope of putting into practice all he had learned in his travels.

With a group of 30 friends and associates, Alberto founded the eco-village of Huehuecoyotl in the Mexican state of Morelos; it is now a model for similar communities across Latin America and the world. As Huehuecoyotl grew in population and prestige, Alberto began visiting different indigenous groups throughout the country where ancient concepts might enhance the eco-village format. He also began to build a network of other people and organizations interested in sustainable living, both in Mexico and elsewhere. By the mid-1990s, after his children had grown up, Alberto began to serve as a bridge between the larger global eco-village movement and the many communities that had sprung up in Mexico. Perhaps as a remnant of his youthful days of around-the-globe travel, he felt the pull to return to the road once again, this time less "in search" of something and more "to share" a vast store of experience and knowledge about how to live in harmony with the earth, its many cultures, and the challenges of a newly globalized world.