Cecilio Solis is identifying a positive result of globalization—increased tourism and travel—and building a national network of small and medium tourism enterprises that benefit from business development support, a strong unified brand, and increased access to new clients.
Cecilio is creating a national level “indigenous business” by uniting community operated eco- and cultural-tourism projects. In the process, he is demonstrating that Mexico’s disparate indigenous communities are capable of pursuing development goals which generate income, preserve their culture, and protect environmental biodiversity. Cecilio sees ecotourism as an economic opportunity that Mexico’s indigenous communities must explore.
As a geographer, Cecilio was quick to notice that maps of Mexico show strong overlap between areas of high biodiversity, indigenous populations, increased tourist flow, and existing ecotourism projects. Rather than shunning business, Cecilio is setting out to take advantage of increased tourist interest and the economic opportunity it presents. In the process he encourages conservation in Mexico’s most biodiverse regions while creating a context in which indigenous communities interact with outsiders as equals. Perhaps most importantly, his new effort for an indigenous movement defies the status quo, which places economic development at odds with the radical political change demanded by indigenous communities.
Cecilio’s network, RITA, unites and does capacity-building for ecotourism enterprises throughout Mexico. The RITA brand confers a guaranteed level of quality to visitors. As a national network, RITA offers the tourist organized access to a diverse and authentic set of ecosystems and cultures, and its size allows for a sophisticated marketing outreach in international markets which individual communities could not achieve on their own.
Despite occupying some of the nation’s richest lands, Mexico’s indigenous communities suffer from poverty levels far above the Mexican average. Marginalization has deeply impoverished indigenous communities. Racism and popular disdain for the effects of poverty have led indigenous communities to devalue their culture and history. Over the past four decades, the indigenous movement’s attempt to respond to these setbacks and challenges has consisted primarily of political action. Seeking equality and improved living conditions, the movement has focused on the political sphere, as indigenous leaders demand increased political representation and retribution for centuries of abuse. Advances were made, but the success of these efforts conferred little economic improvement on indigenous communities and, as a result, has not yielded greater pride or better self-image.
Efforts toward economic development have proliferated in indigenous communities as government agencies pepper indigenous areas with development projects that range from the introduction of new, higher-value crops to free cement for better homes. But to date, the indigenous movement, which has so successfully mobilized on a political level, has not put forth viable economic solutions on its own. As a result, economic development has neither been culturally appropriate nor, perhaps more importantly, has it empowered indigenous communities to improve their lives.
Despite the obvious potential of ecotourism as a tool for economic and social development, the field has thus far failed to achieve its potential. Outsiders own many ecotourism operations and, at best, provide only a few jobs for the local economy. At worst, they reinforce existing power dynamics by putting indigenous people “on display.” Some indigenous groups have developed small-scale, local enterprises to attract tourists, but these groups are isolated and do not have the capacity or know-how to market themselves to a broader public. Often, despite their best efforts, they fail to create a viable product for the tourist market.
Cecilio created RITA to bring indigenous-run ecotourism operations into a network with more power than each enterprise could have on its own. Under the RITA umbrella, these local enterprises become viable engines of economic development. RITA provides training in practical skills such as accounting and building maintenance, while also building capacity for policy work and other more advanced efforts to increase tourism opportunities.
RITA began with 32 disparate community-based ecotourism enterprises, many founded with Cecilio’s guidance. Demand for membership has been strong to date, with more than 50 organizations across the country having applied to be part of this network. To build the network, Cecilio coaches start-up enterprises, and once they enter the RITA network, plugs them into a training cohort of ten. As enterprises graduate from the training, their staff takes on a mentorship role with new enterprises entering the training process. To facilitate these efforts, Cecilio has mobilized a team of nearly 20 experts, ranging from accountants to environmental engineers. This system allows Cecilio to efficiently manage the growth of RITA.
RITA is a vehicle to achieve economic development, environmental conservation, and indigenous empowerment. Each micro-enterprise receives practical training on everything from simple accounting to appropriate construction and sanitation standards for tourist lodging. Other lessons focus on the “soft” skills and knowledge needed for success. Community members learn how to approach local government and affect policy change to facilitate industry growth. They learn to make contact with other appropriate partners such as university professors, who can offer support for environmental impact assessments. RITA also adds value through the power of the consolidated network.
Cecilio envisions the marketing potential for RITA on an international scale: within 5 years, Cecilio plans to open at least one tour operator in each of six countries—the US, England, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan. As RITA grows, these promoters will offer what no other group can—an authentic experience living and sharing the beautiful areas inhabited by Mexico’s diverse indigenous population. RITA offers a tour package with variety unlike any other. Visitors can choose from a broad range of geographic areas, cultural groups, and ecosystems for their stay. Cecilio recognizes that the potential community benefits of a local ecotourism enterprise go far beyond the economic value of the tourism itself. To achieve conservation goals, RITA works with communities to establish protected spaces which allow for forest and species regeneration while also creating new areas for tourist exploration.
Moreover, RITA unites individual enterprises into a national network operating on the principle of equality, creating a level playing field between visiting tourists and hosting community. To avoid the pitfalls of outside-owned ecotourism enterprises—the exhibition of the native community as a spectacle and the power dynamic between haves and have-nots—Cecilio emphasizes the value of equitable intercultural exchange. Community members grow to understand that they need not create a façade to share with their visitors, and that their unique lands and everyday lives serve as a more appropriate backdrop to the tourist experience.
Since childhood, Cecilio has felt his life divided into two worlds. At the age of 7, dire economic conditions forced his mother to bring him from his childhood home in the mountains of central Mexico to Mexico City. Cecilio never lost touch with his community, returning to visit whenever finances allowed and living among other indigenous migrants in the city. Unlike the vast majority of his peers, Cecilio was highly successful in school and financed a college education in Geography at Mexico City’s UNAM University.
Following several years as a well-paid teacher in Mexico City, a massive indigenous march on the capital helped Cecilio realize that his true calling was with his people and not with the comforts of city life. His involvement in Mexico’s indigenous movement allowed him to travel the world, spending time with indigenous groups across Latin America and building relationships throughout Europe, Asia, South Africa, and North America. After years as a leader in this political movement, Cecilio began realizing in the late 1990s that his 15 years spent pushing for political advances had not translated into any concrete improvement in his people’s quality of life. As he so succinctly states, “people can’t eat ideas.” To address this deficit in community-initiated economic development, Cecilio took a fresh look at what the indigenous movement could achieve.
Because of his knowledge of both the indigenous world and the international community, Cecilio had worked over the years on an ad hoc basis to help 25 communities establish small cultural and ecotourism enterprises. In 2000, he began approaching groups who had traditionally financed tourism economic development projects in indigenous communities with the idea to truly professionalize and consolidate these efforts into a national industry. Several groups denied his request, citing a belief that indigenous communities could not run their own enterprises. In 2002, Cecilio finally received start-up funding from the national Indigenous agency and founded the RITA as a not-for-profit association in Mexico.
Through the Indigenous Local and Indigenous Community Enterprise Confederation (CIELO, for its Spanish acronym) Cecilio Solis Librado is working to consolidate the development and organization of small and medium sized indigenous and local enterprises. CIELO promotes these enterprises' cultural strategies and sustainable production processes. The confederation works to solidify the commercialization and marketing of the goods and services the enterprises offer at the regional, national, and international level, and on promoting their vigilant attention to the care of mother earth. Working with small socially based enterprises from local and indigenous producers, CIELO helps the enterprises respond to the market's demands for productive efficiency, supply, presentation, and volume. Thus far, CIELO has integrated members from 33 indigenous communities in 22 states of Mexico, who represent more than 80 businesses. The organization is working toward the consolidation of these partner businesses, who in their first census alone reported generating employment for 1500 heads of household. /// A través de la Confederación Indígena Empresarial y de Comunidades Locales de México (CIELO), Cecilio Solís Librado tiene el objetivo de consolidar el desarrollo y organización de las pequeñas y medianas empresas indígenas y locales, promoviendo sus estrategias y procesos productivos (y culturales) sustentables, mediante un principal énfasis en la promoción de sus capacidades de comercialización y mercadeo de los productos y servicios que ofertan a nivel regional, nacional e internacional y siempre vigilantes del cuidado de la madre tierra. CIELO contribuye a la mejora de las condiciones económicas, productivas y de comercialización de las microempresas sociales de productores indígenas y locales, mediante la atención y respuesta efectiva a las principales necesidades de eficiencia productiva, oferta, calidad, presentación y volumen que requieren los mercados, para con ello lograr el desarrollo y consolidación de las pequeñas y medianas empresas socias. CIELO ha logrado sumar a integrantes de 33 pueblos indígenas, de 22 estados de la república mexicana y que representan a más de 80 empresas, con este esfuerzo se proyecta la consolidación de las empresas socias, en cuyo primer censo se ha contabilizado la generación de más de 1500 empleo directos de jefes y jefas de familia