Hope, Heartbreak, and Hope – My latest article for The Scuttlefish

Showing budding Cabo Pulmo conservationists a sea cucumber.

Showing budding Cabo Pulmo conservationists a sea cucumber.

This is just a quick post to give you the link to my most recent Scuttlefish piece titled Hope, Heartbreak and Hope. What I Learned from Directing an NGO in Mexico’s Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park. A Scuttlefish Feature. Please click on over and check it out. The videos and photos are pretty amazing thanks to editor, Chris Dixon’s input.

Sneak Peak

The author on the beach in Cabo Pulmo

On the beach in Cabo Pulmo

After I stopped working in science in March 2005, I didn’t think I’d ever publish another academic article. However, when I was asked to contribute an essay to the the November edition of the online journal Anthropologies, despite some misgivings related to the academic nature of much of its content, I agreed. While The Challenges of Community-Based Conservation is a far cry from the peer-reviewed scientific articles I once published, it describes, in very short, somewhat antiseptic form, the complicated and painful story of my experience conducting a community-based conservation project in the village of Cabo Pulmo in Baja California Sur. It is essentially the Cole’s notes version of the memoir I am writing minus the surfing, sex, and adventure. 😉

I hope you’ll take a peek and that the story will pique your interest in reading my memoir. I’d love to hear your impressions of whether this is the basis for a good story.

In Mexico Taking Care of Business Bites

la mordida todavia existe en MexicoBribery and political corruption are hardly unique to Mexico. According to Wikipedia, both are perceived to be greater issues in countries like Somalia, Angola, Sudan, Chad, and much of the Middle East than in Mexico. Yesterday’s blog, however, touched on the problem of corruption in Mexico and how it almost invariably supports big business interests. In the course of my morning online surfing (the wind is up, I’ll kite later), I happened across the following op-ed piece by Mexican poet, environmental activist and United Nations diplomat Homero Aridjis, illustrating the challenge faced by a nation to rein in what has become an accepted part of their culture.

La mordida,” the term in Spanish used for bribe literally means “the bite.” If, like me, you wonder where all this backroom dealing and monetary massaging started, Les Shulman, Mexico editor for Bellaonline, explains in his excellent article on the subject:

Although this institutionalized form of bribery dates back to the Spanish Colonial era (and wherever the Spanish colonized in the Americas), this insidious practice became entrenched in Mexico from 1929-2000 during the Partido Revolucionario Institucional’s (PRI) near monopolistic political control of the country. The PRI’s long, virtually unopposed reign created a national culture which allowed for and perpetuated a lack of oversight in public life which permitted the widespread corruption to become, at all levels of government, the traditional and customary way of getting things done.

When the PRI’s reign ended in 2000, there was nation-wide hope that it would mean an end to what amounts to a 240 billion-dollar-a-year tax-free industry. The case of the Cabo Cortez developers receiving environmental permits through bribery is not all that unusual and reflects that described by Aridjis below. These and many other less notorious examples receiving little or no coverage by the media prove that 12 years have not been enough to change a culture entrenched from 71 years’ practice. It is, I believe, the challenge and the responsibility of the current generation of young Mexicans entering the workforce and political arena to change the face of their nation to one less blemished by corruption.

The Sun, the Moon and Walmart

Walmart bribes it's way into nationally significant Mexican lands

by HOMERO ARIDJIS

Translated from the Spanish by Betty Ferber.

From New York Times op-ed, Monday, April 30, 2012

A child in Mexico soon learns that corruption is a way of life, and that to get ahead in school, work and politics, “El que no transa, no avanza” — loosely, “You’re not going anywhere if you don’t cheat.”

When I was in junior high school, my history teacher sold us lottery tickets, promising that the more we bought, the higher our grades would be. The winning number, he said, would coincide with the National Lottery winner. I happened to buy that number and received the highest grade, but because he kept the tickets, I never got the money.

Years later, as president of an environmental activist organization called the Group of 100, I was offered visits to Las Vegas (chips provided), cars (drivers included), cash and even prostitutes in exchange for staying silent. But my most uncomfortable experience was in 1988, when I met with the secretary of Fisheries to protest the killing of dolphins by tuna fishers. He asked me, “What’s your problem?” “I don’t have any problems,” I replied. “How can I help you?” “Make the tuna fleet stop killing dolphins.” He reached for his checkbook. “Let’s talk money, how much do you want?”

So the news that Walmart may have paid $24 million in bribes for permits to open stores in Mexico was no surprise to me. When President Felipe Calderón declared he was “very indignant,” I thought of Claude Rains in Casablanca: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”

Walmart already had a history of controversial behavior in Mexico. Most notably, in November 2004, despite widespread opposition, the company opened a 72,000-square-foot store within the boundaries of the 2,000-year-old city of Teotihuacán, which features the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon (“the place where men became gods” — or consumers?). Walmart has also built a supermarket on forested land in the resort town of Playa del Carmen, in Quintana Roo — though the permit for the building later turned out to have been granted for another site, on the island of Cozumel. The question now is who allows this, and in exchange for what?

Will the federal investigation discover how many Walmarts were built on the quicksands of corruption? Marcelo Ebrard, the mayor of Mexico City, is carrying out his own investigation, but considering that his brothers have been Walmart executives, I don’t have much hope that the truth will emerge. The other day I visited a Walmart, and one of the teenage packers, who are unsalaried and work for tips, confided in me that they had been forbidden to say anything to the press about their employer. They were told to consider themselves lucky to have a job at all.

In this country, corruption exists at all levels, from magnates to street vendors. It seems easier to get something done with a bribe than to fill out myriad forms and wait in lines to confront evasive civil servants. According to a recent study, companies shell out approximately 10 percent of their earnings to corrupt officials. In the last 30 years, the Mexican economy has lost more than $870 billion to corruption, crime and tax evasion.

The consequences of this corruption are clear. When devastating earthquakes hit Mexico City in 1985, an alarming number of shoddily constructed public buildings — schools, hospitals and government offices — were destroyed. Our school system has been hijacked by the politically powerful teachers’ union, and around 90 percent of the budget is eaten up by teachers’ salaries, though many on the payroll work for the union or hold political office instead of teaching.

Extortion and protection rackets flourish alongside drug trafficking. President Álvaro Obregón, who was assassinated in 1928, once said that “no general can resist a 50,000-peso cannon blast,” a precursor to today’s “plata o plomo” — silver or lead, the drug cartel’s offer to officials of a bribe or a bullet.

Clearly, putting an end to corruption — to kickbacks and nepotism, to crooked judges and policemen, to delinquent bureaucrats and drug lords — is Mexico’s greatest challenge. In 2000, when the left-of-center Institutional Revolutionary Party lost the presidency and its 71-year grip on power, there were hopes for reform, but it remains to be seen whether increased democratization will lead to lessened corruption.

This January, when a 341-foot-tall quartz-clad tower known as the Estela de Luz was inaugurated to commemorate 200 years of independence from Spain, Mr. Calderón called it “an emblem of a new era for Mexico.” And yet, the tower was finished 16 months late, at three times its planned cost. An investigation has begun; public servants have been charged with criminal offenses; protesters call it a monument to corruption.

The truth is, we have created a corrupt system that preys on both Mexicans and foreigners — how can we be outraged when an American company exploits it? At the same time, how can we hope for Mexicans to put an end to corruption when one of the most powerful and allegedly law abiding companies in the United States gives in to the same temptations? As a former governor of Chihuahua once said, after being accused of corruption, “If we put everyone who’s corrupt in jail, who will close the door?”

This essay was encountered on author Dick Russell’s website

Mexican President Calderon Sides with Cabo Pulmo

Cabo Pulmo Vivo protects Cabo Pulmo National ParkThe President of Mexico, Felipe Calderon, just announced the cancellation of all permits for the mega-development Cabo Cortez. This was a massive development, on a scale the likes of Cancun which was planned to begin construction next to the northern boundary of Cabo Pulmo National Park. I got goose bumps when I received the instant message telling me that it was cancelled. And again when I read the notification from Greenpeace Mexico that arrived seconds later in my email inbox.

This is a huge success in the history of conservation in Mexico, perhaps worldwide. The forces promoting this development are big fish, sharks one might say, in the international world of development. They had the backing of many Mexican government officials, not the least of which included the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Juan Rafael Elvira Quesada, responsible for issuing the permits that originally gave the project the go-ahead.

Earlier this year, in an historically unprecedented move, the Mexican Senate called Elvira Quesada onto the carpet to answer to charges that he issued the permits fraudulently. That is when many of us involved in the movement to save Cabo Pulmo from this threat, began to see a light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel. While many local conservation organizations, including the one I co-founded, Amigos para la Conservación de Cabo Pulmo, A.C.(ACCP), fought to get the project cancelled, it is without a doubt the tireless and diligent efforts of Greenpeace Mexico that brought the message of “Cabo Pulmo Vivo” and “No a Cabo Cortes!” to the hordes in Mexico City and beyond, collecting 220,000 signatures in support of the cause. Similarly, WildCoast, an international coastal conservation organization based in San Diego and Ensenada, worked in the trenches of grassroots activism and launched a media campaign that brought international attention to the plight of Cabo Pulmo.

Today is a banner day in the world of conservation and grassroots activism, but while celebration is in order for this historically unprecedented move by the Mexican government to protect its natural heritage, we must remain vigilant. In his speech, he makes it clear that it was the nature of the development and the inability of its proponents to demonstrate that it would not impact the park that led to its cancellation. He was clear that in the government’s opinion, development and the protection of natural resources are not incompatible. There is always the possibility that another developer will swoop in with another idea for the land. Hopefully the necessary support for a conservation easement or the creation of a land-based reserve will be garnered by those working so hard to keep Cabo Pulmo Alive.

The relatively tiny community organization of ACCP also deserves a great deal of credit for working so hard on a shoestring budget from their isolated location in a teensy off-the-grid desert village to protect a World Heritage Site for the rest of us. They plan to meet this evening to vote for a new executive board, but I suspect that meeting will metamorphose into a celebration of this David versus Goliath victory. I for one plan to be there to help them celebrate.

President Calderon’s announcement to the Press this morning (Spanish language only).

Latest on the East Cape Blog

Showing the kids in Cabo Pulmo a sea cucumber.

Ten years ago tomorrow, I arrived in a tiny village on the Sea of Cortez with dreams of learning to surf and working to protect the most important hard coral reef in the Northeastern Pacific. I’d never have guessed where that move would take me. In my latest post on the Baja.com website I provide some background and information about Cabo Pulmo: The Jewel of Mexico. Click on over and check it out!

Poon Poon’s Shame

A litter of eight puppies was born in Cabo Pulmo. One looked like Bravo, Ricardo’s brindle pit-bull, another like Charlie the rottweiler, one looked like Kiri, Juanito’s old golden retriever cross and so on. A clear example of the infidelity of dogs and that “littermate” does not translate to full brother or sister.Poon Poon was the handsome, sandy colored puppy apparently fathered by a beige pit bull owned by Señor Jesus Castro. El Pelon (Baldy), as Jesus was known, lived with his blue-eyed wife Clotilde and their two children in what was the original ranch at the heart of Cabo Pulmo. He kept horses, chickens, cows and peacocks. And there were dogs for security and cats to keep the mice and rats at bay. El Pelon was a locally renowned horseman, a caballero or cowboy in the literal sense of the word. It is not without irony in the case of Pelon that caballero also means “gentleman.”

Pelon adopted Poon Poon and presumably gave him his odd name, a common practice in this part of Mexico. Shortly thereafter, Poon Poon’s presumed father disappeared from the ranch and, when I asked one of the ranch hands where he was, they explained that Pelonprobably took him out to the dump and killed him. Pelon had done this before.

Out with the old, in with the new.

Like I said, while he may have been a horseman, a gentleman he was not.

Poon Poon grew into a big strapping, muscular dog. Despite his macho appearance, he was everyone’s friend and spent more time on the beach with tourists than he did at the ranch. He was a people dog and wanted to be where the action and attention was. Gradually he became the constant companion of one of the more gregarious dive instructors, Roger. As far as I could tell it was generally understood that Roger had formally adopted him.

Maturity and musculature, a sign of testosterone coursing in the veins, meant that Poon Poon became a fighter. Each time one of the village’s many female dogs came into heat, great dog fights were inevitable. Formidable adversaries in these fights were Bravo the pit bull and Charlie the Rottweiler. Even Kiri the old golden retriever would get his licks in where he could, but more often than not he came out on the losing side. Poon Poon typically returned from each battle with minor wounds, a scratch here, a puncture hole there, but one day I walked into the dive shop and was horrified to see him with large holes ripped into his neck.

“Wow Roger, those are serious wounds!”

“Ya, I know, but what can I do? He likes to fight.”

There was a spay and neuter clinic coming up and I was already taking two dogs to have them fixed. I figured it was worth a try.

“If he keeps up like this he’s going to get killed. That wound could have been fatal. You know he’s fighting over bitches don’t you? He’ll stop if you have him neutered. Why don’t you let me take him to the free clinic this week?”

The last line was said hopefully, but with the knowledge that most Mexican men abhor the idea of neutering a male dog. They see it as a direct reflection on their masculinity and as something unnatural, even sacrilegious.

To my surprise, Roger agreed. “Okay, do it. I don’t want him to fight any more.”

A couple of days later, Poon Poon, his brother Lobo, and a little black bitch named Nookie were loaded into the back of my truck and were off to Los Barriles and the free clinic.

The operation went off without a hitch and Poon Poon returned to Roger that evening showing little indication of the life-altering operation, his usual happy, energetic self despite the transformation his testicular sack had undergone, which now hung flaccid between his legs, empty as a poor man’s wallet. Roger’s eyes betrayed the regret and shame he felt for his dog. I asked him to keep the dog quiet and at home for the next 48 hours.

The next morning, as my tea steeped, there was a knock at the door. “Who could that be at this hour of the morning?” I thought.

At the door stood Clotilde, Pelon’s now widow. She looked perturbed, angry perhaps.

I began, “Buenos dias, Señora Clotilde,” but the words were barely out of my mouth before she cut in, “Can you please tell me who had my dog fixed?!”

Confusion. Shock. Misunderstanding because of my limited Spanish? No, I heard right.

“Your dog? Which dog?”

“Poon Poon.”

A very bright light illuminated above my head, a blindingly bright torch.

“Oooooh…Poon Poon?…uh, yes, um… I did…uh, Roger gave me permission.”

At the mention of Roger’s name, her eyebrows shot skywards and she replied “That is what I thought!” She spun on her heel and strode away. For a second I thought, “Is that it? Aren’t you going to yell at me?” But then I realized she was reserving her wrath for Roger. I tried to intervene.

“No wait! Clotilde. Why are you angry?”

She turned to listen, her blue eyes cold as steel. I continued, “Didn’t you see the wounds on his neck? He was going to get killed. Now he won’t fight with the other dogs.”

Lifting her head high, she glared down her nose and revealed my ignorance, “No! Now he will be lazy and wander. And he will not protect the property. He is ruined!”

I tried to explain that he would stay closer to home now and be a better watch dog, but she had made up her mind. She shook her head, turned, and headed off, a woman on a mission.

“Oh God! Roger! She’ll be on the war path for him and out for his manhood!” I gulped down my tea and ran to the dive shop to warn Roger.

His downcast face told me I was too late. We shrugged it off, recognizing there was no going back, comforted by the knowledge that Poon Poon was better off.

A little later that same day, as I bicycled past the ranch, a curious sight caught my attention; Six Mexican caballeros dressed in jeans, cotton shirts and cowboy boots, some in white cowboy hats, stood in a loose circle, with hands cupping chins thoughtfully, attention directed at something on the ground. They wore serious expressions – disappointment, pity, maybe shame. Some heads shook disapprovingly. Then as I rounded the corner, the focus of their attention came into view. It was Poon Poon. There he lay, on his back, in the middle of their circle, tail wagging contentedly, begging for a belly rub, innocently exhibiting to all present what was evidently considered his shame.

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