Celebrating the small (…or big?) wins: sometimes it just takes a shift in perspective

After my first couple days at Playa Viva, I remember walking down to the turtle camp, a nice 10-15 minute stroll down the beach from the hotel, and introducing myself to the two turtle volunteers who happened to be working that morning: Eusebio and Celedonio — two brothers who had been working in the camp for several years. I had no idea what I was really getting myself into. Yes, I had worked in conservation before; yes, I had worked in small, rural communities; but I had never quite worked at the intersection of tourism and conservation. Additionally, although I have a Mexican father and had traveled to Mexico many times before, I had also never worked and lived in Mexico.

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Turtle volunteers transplanting nests into the sanctuary

My Spanish was rusty and all I knew about the turtle camp was that I was now managing the relationship between the camp and hotel and that the camp was a popular attraction for the guests at the hotel. I began to do my research, talking with past Playa Viva volunteers who had worked with the camp, and began to observe the operations of the camp. I had observed some less than favorable practices and knew as well we were very overdue for the federal permit required to operate a turtle sanctuary. The more I began to uncover, the more I realized I couldn’t do this alone.

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Baby golfina (olive ridley) making its way to the sea.

To boot, this was just one of many projects and priorities. On top of the daily turtle releases with the guests, I also had a volunteer program to run, a social impact evaluation to conduct, guest education and integration, community projects to roll out, and more all at the same time. I simply didn’t have the time or emotional energy to mobilize a team of 14 volunteers from the local community to provide them with the tools necessary to be effective conservation stewards.

I knew that I couldn’t do it alone. I knew that I needed help.

I put out an ad for a “Turtle Sanctuary Coordinator” in October of 2016 (an unpaid position mind you), less than a month after I arrived at Playa Viva. That first round I got a bunch of applications and the last one that rolled in, about a month after the rest, turned out to be a gem.

I read Lissett’s cover letter and resume, discovering that she and I were ironically from nearly the same hometown in Northern VA, and knew pretty much immediately she’d be a great fit for the role:

Specifically, I would be able to deliver the following – exceptional organization to track, monitor and improve the daily procedures of the conservation program and volunteer team … Lastly, as an avid world traveler and having built relationships over long distances, I have strong understanding of diversity and other cultures and welcome new environments.

This was exactly what I needed and I wasn’t disappointed.

For nearly 11 months of the past year, Lissett dedicated herself to supporting the coordination and management of the turtle camp and its relationship with the hotel. As a unique turtle camp-Playa Viva volunteer, Lissett’s responsibilities were twofold: support the sanctuary and its fourteen volunteers (all from the local community) to ensure they are following best conservation practices and engage hotel guests (mostly international) in hatchling releases and educational tours of the sanctuary.

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Aside from the most pressing task–working with the sanctuary president to renew the sanctuary’s overdue federal permit–she simultaneously helped to organize and manage the nearly all-male volunteers (initiating regular monthly meetings), coordinated (and raised funds for) the construction of a new sanctuary, organized capacity building activities for the volunteers, and engaged hotel guests in hers and the sanctuary’s work (including daily sea turtle releases).

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Facilitating one of many turtle camp meetings at the Casa Blanca (shared volunteer house)
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Turtle release with Playa Viva guests

Lissett was the first volunteer to work formally in this capacity with the sanctuary. Having never actually worked with sea turtles before and without much guidance, her ability to take on and find solutions to the various challenges presented—e.g. breaking through cultural norms regarding her gender as a woman, building relationships with men from a rural machista culture, and the slow, bureaucratic process of working with local, state and federal government in a foreign country, to name a few—was impressive.

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Organizing volunteers on one of the construction days for the (new) turtle camp

“Building relationships with the volunteers proved to be one my biggest challenges. I was a total outsider and it took months of one on one time with each of them and some (literal) heavy lifting during weekend cleanups/ construction to gain their acceptance and friendship. Without these relationships it would have been impossible to accomplish anything – from getting them to show up to a meeting to constructing the new sanctuary.”

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Doing some ‘heavy lifting’ with the guys: a couple volunteers even commented, “¡Eres bien cabrona para trabajar!”

Finally, after months of hard work poured in, Lissett, the turtle camp President, Héctor, and camp Secretary, Beto, were ready to fly to Mexico City to submit the permit application to SEMARNAT (Secretariat for the Environment and Natural Resources). 

The Mexican government doesn’t make the acquisition of said permit easy: in addition to the mountain of documents required, submitting the permit directly in Zihuatanejo (1 hour by car) could take up to 9 months to process. So, Playa Viva paid for the three of them (Lissett, Hector and Beto) to go on a three-day trip to the big city and submit it directly to headquarters to speed up the process. That trip was Héctor’s and Beto’s first time on a plane and Beto’s first time out of Guerrero.

A pretty amazing thing to see and be a part of. 

 

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So now, finally… the good news! After submitting the permit in mid-October, we recently received the once elusive permit from SEMARNAT to legally operate and run the turtle hatchery.  

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The whole process was a massive reminder for me that things are possible and often all that’s required is a little patience.

Working in Mexico is not for the faint of heart. Things move very slowly and the community work we do down here is full of challenges. You’re constantly pushing uphill, constantly working against entropy.

Sometimes you feel all your battles are uphill, with no end in sight.

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source: cartoonstock.com

Nevertheless, over the course of several months Lissett charged uphill, seamlessly worked across two different cultures on a daily basis, gracefully dealing with rural machista culture, turtle camp politics and the demands of the hotel. She never gave up.

Thanks to her, we have new leadership positions within the camp, which has helped camp organization, and she helped paved the way for Débora, our current camp coordinator who is also doing amazing work.

The permit process, although cumbersome and although we’ll have to do it all over again in just a few short months, will now be a lot easier this next time around.

Looking back, it’s incredible to see how much progress has been made in a year and a half for a small turtle camp outside a rural community of 350 people, entirely run on donations from Playa Viva guests.

It makes me wonder what is possible in the next year and a half.

For the moment–however brief and fleeting–the feeling I have is this:

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Sometimes the largest hurdles just take time, a little patience and the right attitude to get it done.

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Reflecting back on 2017 and Season 8

Wow, another year  has flown by at Playa Viva. After having spent all of 2017 working with the wonderfully dedicated Playa Viva staff and numerous volunteers who came to us from around the world, I can say I have seen a lot happen in just one year.

I started working with Playa Viva a little over a year ago (September 2016) as their first “Social and Environmental Impact Officer”. My main responsibility is to understand and track Playa Viva’s impact in the community and on the environment, ensuring the hotel is on the right track to achieving its social and environmental goals.

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Activities and stakeholder map (massive gratitude to volunteer Romain Langeard for helping with this!)

One of the biggest endeavors I took on for my first year was to carry out an investigation evaluating Playa Viva’s social impact, i.e. their impact in the community. The purpose of that study is to explore the perceptions and attitudes of the people affected by or involved with Playa Viva to determine what kind of impact – positive, negative, or neutral – the hotel has had on its host communities. The thoughts and opinions of the residents of Juluchuca and Rancho Nuevo and hotel staff will be used to increase understanding of regenerative development, the impact of a sustainable hotel on a community, as well as make Playa Viva’s future efforts more beneficial and effective for its host communities.

The results of this study are still not yet ready, but they will be soon, so sit tight!

Another one of my main duties is  the volunteer program. The volunteer program at Playa Viva is used as leverage to help the hotel and its staff achieve its longer term social and environmental goals. I oversee, recruit, and manage all Playa Viva volunteers.  One of my goals coming in was to expand and reorient the volunteer program to better suit the needs of the hotel and the community. The first step in this process was to extend the minimum time commitment of service. Now volunteers are required to spend at least three months working with our team and with the community. Staying longer has had a great impact on the continuity of projects.

Through this new volunteer strategy, volunteers are building better relationships with the staff and community and are directly contributing to the success of the following programs:

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Interns Nathan Ellermeier and Ezra Pasackow in front of their hanging garden
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Nutritional cooking workshops at the local soup kitchen, provided by La Casita EcoVegana
  • Our sea turtle conservation program with La Tortuga Viva: this is a partnership dating back to 2010, when the original La Tortuga Feliz split off and a new turtle organization was born, La Tortuga Viva. Our first official Turtle Sanctuary Coordinator was Lissett Medrano (blog linked) who tremendously helped this program move forward. We now have Debora Newlands working with the camp to continue supporting its many priorities. 
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Lissett and the whole turtle camp crew after a day’s work.
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Débora presenting about turtles to the kindergarten
  • Seafood sourcing sustainability assessment In Spring of 2017, volunteer Romain Langeard spearheaded the seafood sourcing evaluation. I worked with him to better understand where our seafood was coming from and what realistic changes we can make to ensure we are supporting local fishermen and the health of our local fisheries.
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Romain and I talking with local fishermen and examining their catch to ensure it meets size restrictions
  • Farm-to-Table: We have continually been recruiting volunteers to assist in our farm-to-table program. They have been working with farm and kitchen staff to improve their capacity to strengthen the link between farm and table.

Above: Farm-to-table volunteer Christabel attending a workshop with chef Inés, a day out sampling vegan food at La Raíz de la Tierra in Ixtapa, our new farm-to-table chalkboards and a fresh garden salad. 

Above: Volunteers Kyra and Julia preparing gifts from the garden to our kitchen/local market. Julia has been experimenting with jamaica (hibiscus) salts and incorporating certain garden ingredients to our kitchen. Kyra has been using Playa Viva’ s abundant moringa to make moringa powder. Volunteers Alex and Liza also helped in the kitchen, bringing recipes and new ideas for how to improve our operations.  

  • Social Impact Evaluation: the study will be released soon and detail Playa Viva’s involvement with the community and how we can move forward. 
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Getting fed in Rancho Nuevo during household surveys

Along the way, shorter term volunteers have also contributed to other projects, such as the first Discovery Trail Guide, an interactive and educational booklet that guides guests from the hotel zone through the property to our farm, teaching them about our environmental initiatives and learning about various flora and fauna.

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Volunteers Josh and Liza working with David and Odin on the trail guide

Outside of these volunteer-related efforts are the many projects that guests have also supported. Guests have engaged the community in a number of ways, including donating numerous school supplies, provided free chiropractic services at the health clinic, and donated yoga mats for the community kids yoga class. One of our yoga retreats donated a new water pump for the town of Juluchuca (which at the time was without water for nearly two months), and another guest provided a generous donation toward the construction of the first high school in Juluchuca.

So many projects still need attention and so much of the community still need our and your support.

If you are interested in supporting our work in health, education, and conservation, please make a donation through our fiscal sponsor, The Ocean Foundation.

We are excited for the year ahead! Please stay tuned, we have lots coming up this year!

 

A beginner’s guide to community-based conservation

Written by Lissett Medrano

I really wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into when I decided to quit my job of 5 years and move to a small rural community in Guerrero, Mexico to work with sea turtles, especially since I had never “worked with turtles” before. But after spending 10 months working alongside the Juluchucan volunteers that manage La Tortuga Viva (LTV) sea turtle sanctuary, I have a much better understanding of what community-based conservation entails. One thing I’m definitely sure of now is that I made the right choice and this experience has paved a clearer path of how I want to continue to support preserving this planet and its vulnerable species. There were many lessons learned and even more people I am eternally in gratitude toward.

Given that I was the first person to formally work with the camp in this capacity (as “turtle sanctuary coordinator”), my experience was an open canvas and I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to completely take charge and make this role my own. At first, it was a bit challenging adjusting to working with little direction, but ultimately I thrived on the lack of formal structure in this role, which enabled me to cultivate leadership skills that I hope to continue develop and apply in the future.

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As mentioned in a previous blog, I dedicated a bulk of my efforts in my first few months in building relationships with the volunteers, mainly composed of males. A few of my priorities included:

  • Renew permit with Ministry of Environment (SEMARNAT) required for nest relocation
  • Construction of new sanctuary
  • Capacity building of camp volunteers
  • Improve turtle release with Playa Viva guests
  • Environmental education and awareness
  • Facilitate partnerships with local turtle camps
  • Improve data collection

However, as I began to learn more and more about the issues in the camp, I ultimately dedicated most of my energy toward the first three priorities: permit renewal, new sanctuary and capacity building.  

FUNDRAISING FOR NEW CAMP AND PERMIT RENEWAL

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It is a conservation best practice for artificial hatcheries to be moved approximately every 2 years to prevent the buildup of bacteria and ants caused by egg shell remains, which threaten the success rates of hatchling turtles. LTV had been operating for many years without relocation and the hatchling success rate was suffering. Also, the camp had a significant amount of wear and tear and was no longer effective against predators such as the tejones, local badgers that managed to get in and prey on multiple nests on a daily basis. After assessing the cost and qualities of supplies needed, we realized it was much higher than expected so decided to fundraise through a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo.

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There were many hurdles every step of the way in building the new turtle sanctuary and getting the permit paperwork ready. There were challenges for even the most simple of task; for example, borrowing some tools for construction was met with surprising resistance. After a month in the process of acquiring the supplies, it seemed that every action in this process would require strategic thinking and would take much longer than expected. There is no local Home Depot to pick up wood or black shade mesh required for these types of sanctuaries. I worked with multiple staff at the hotel in locating, ordering and delivering these supplies to the new sanctuary location.  I didn’t always make the best choice and it was tough to come to realization that I should have gone about things a different way. In the end, all the hardships I experienced and approaches that “didn’t work” will enable me to better address these type of issues in a different context in the future so I took them as lessons learned.

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So many people were involved in helping with the permit process and the creation of this new camp and I am beyond grateful to all the family, friends and other donors who supported these projects. Through this collective effort, up to 6000 turtle eggs will be monitored at a time in the new camp.

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Below is a brief timeline of the process for both tasks.

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Submitting paperwork in Mexico City: SEMARNAT

CAPACITY-BUILDING

Another exciting opportunity for the camp were some of the capacity-building activities that we were able to begin. Throughout the year, despite some resistance, we established semi-regular meetings to discuss internal issues that were hindering the effectiveness of the camp and I worked to rally and empower the volunteers to talk about these issues openly. Though these efforts sometimes clashed with the views of the President, it’s important to facilitate these exchanges in order to build an organized and high-performing team of motivated volunteers.

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We were also able to organize a few capacity-building workshops with the volunteers. With the help of Joao Gouveia, a fellow conservationist in the area who has experience in training turtle camp volunteers, the camp received training on sea turtle management, biology and handling with the aim of improving sea turtle hatchling success. For many volunteers, this information was new and they were eager to learn more and apply their new knowledge in the field during their patrols. These quarterly trainings will continue in the new season.

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SOME TAKEAWAYS

I’ve learned an incredible amount about what conservation “on the ground” really is. Here are some of my takeaways/advice for anyone looking to work in community-based conservation:

  • Focus on the big picture- it’s impossible to solve all the issues;

  • Sea turtle conservation in rural Mexico = working with people 90% of the time;

  • It is absolutely essential to understand what incentivizes and drives the community to conserve or not conserve;

  • Community-based conservation is a complex ongoing process and there isn’t “one way” to do it successfully but a multitude of ways to address it.

Although the new camp, permit and capacity building opportunities are incredibly exciting news, the most rewarding part of my work with the camp were the relationships I built with all the volunteers. Being an outsider and in a new role, it was a tough integration on both sides that took a lot of time, patience and learning. As I began to say my goodbyes to this beloved community, a few of the guys, including the Camp President, reflected that they were really proud of what we accomplished and having someone so invested in their work has given them more reason to “echarle ganas” or “work hard” which made the all hardships worthwhile as they are the ones that will ultimately be the protectors of this vulnerable species in the community.

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It was bittersweet but I left Juluchuca full of hope for the future of the camp and its volunteers. For an extended update of LTV’s activities this year, you can check out the Season 8 Report here.

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Season 9: Meet the Playa Viva Volunteers

It’s a new season at Playa Viva and a new round of volunteers have joined our team. Have a read about what they’re up to over the next few months.

 

Débora Newlands, Brasil, Turtle Sanctuary

What’s your “story”? Where do you come from? Tell us a little about how you arrived here.

IMG_9953Olá! I’m Débora! I am from Porto Alegre, a big city in the south of Brazil. Not the typical Brazil most people think of – with tropical beaches and carnival all year long – but still a pretty sweet place to call home. And with soccer everywhere, fortunately. As far as I remember, I have always loved nature, especially animals – more precisely, sea turtles.

I grew up in Brazil my whole life, and I am very proud of living in a country which hosts so much biodiversity, gorgeous natural landscapes and rich culture. Growing up in a place with all this cultural and environmental diversity has made me connect and care about nature since a young age. Therefore, it seemed natural – and also obvious – for me to pursue a major in Biology when I started university. And it was in college that I realized how important it is to connect conservation and education, because without the latter, the first one is impossible. So whenever I have an opportunity, I like to work in conservation, because our world and how everything is connected and finely tuned has never ceased to amaze me.

What were you doing before you arrived?

Before I arrived, I was working as an English teacher at a language center. I was also involved in an environmental education project at a lab with my university, where I am currently finishing my major in teaching and education in Science and Biology. I love engaging the local communities – especially kids! – with environmental issues, they are genuinely curious about nature and it is beautiful to see how they can get involved in conservation.

How did you find out about Playa Viva?

I got an email from my friend about this opportunity as a sea turtle sanctuary coordinator! Dankjewel, Thijs!

Why did you decide to volunteer?

I have worked with sea turtle conservation in small communities before and I have always enjoyed the exchange these experiences gave me, especially the exchange with the locals and their culture. I strongly believe it is vital to engage the local communities in conservation, not to focus only on “lab/desk work”, because in the end of the day, it is on the hands of the community to care about and to protect the environment. So when I got the email about this volunteer work I was really excited about this opportunity of working with my passion and here I am now!

What are you working on at Playa Viva?

I am working with La Tortuga Viva – a sea turtle conservation project which started on 2010 – in a sanctuary where we transfer the nests laid by mama turtles on the beach, so the eggs are protected against predators. I work alongside 14 local volunteers, who patrol the beach every night looking for freshly laid nests. In the morning, we check the sanctuary to look for hatchlings to be released on the beach. Right now we are working on capacity building, with workshops where we learn better methods to approach the sea turtle mamas and the handling the eggs and the nests. We also do hatchlings releases with Playa Viva guests whenever possible, so the guests can experience the beginning of the beautiful journey of a baby sea turtle into the ocean.

What has been the highlight of your experience so far and what are you most looking forward to learn and contribute during your service?

Definitely seeing Olive Ridley mamas laying their eggs on the beach, it is something one can never get enough of – along with releasing hundreds of baby turtles early in the morning and seeing them marching into the ocean. I am looking forward to, along with La Tortuga Viva volunteers, learn more about conservation and conservation within the community, to ensure we have more mamas laying eggs each year and more babies going to the ocean. I would love to involve the local primary school in conservation, with some talks and other activities with the students! Another highlight, definitely, has been my loyal co-worker, Viva (the hotel dog), the most beautiful dog in existence. I am quite positive she is part human too.

Share the moment you felt a paradigm shift (or were inspired) to get involved with conservation?

When I learned how much we, as humans, are impacting the environment we depend of, I felt the urge to study and work in conservation. The more I learn about it, the more inspired I get to work in conservation and education.

What motivates you to keep going?

Turtles and kids! – baby turtles making their way safely into the ocean every day and kids and their curiosity and interest about the world we live in!

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Alex Abbott, UK, Kitchen, Farm & everything in between

What’s your “story”?  Where are you from and what were you doing before you arrived?

IMG_0152Howdy there, I’m Alex and am from the United Kingdom. I am originally from just outside of London, near a city called Guildford, but lived in London with some friends for two years before moving out to Mexico. I was working for a children’s charity that grants wishes to seriously and terminally ill children, in the fundraising department. I quit my job and moved to Mexico, planning on making my way volunteering through Latin America, starting in Cabo San Lucas, and finishing somewhere in the south of South America. I started volunteering in an orphanage and have since worked in an animal shelter, a hostel and for a crisis team helping the earthquake victims, travelling through Mexico before I found Playa Viva.

How did you find out about Playa Viva?

Just through the internet as I was looking for a yoga retreat/ turtle sanctuary place that was sort of on my planned route. So it was lucky that I stumbled upon them.
Why did you decide to volunteer?

I have done bits of volunteering in England in the past but had wanted to do a trip like this for a few years.

What are you working on at Playa Viva?

I am still settling in but currently am volunteering in the kitchen of the eco hotel, at the turtle sanctuary and in the organic farm. I’m really enjoying the different environments and seeing all of the areas Playa Viva is working in.

What has been the highlight of your experience so far and what are you most looking forward to learn and contribute during your service?

I’m really looking forward to getting involved in local community projects, mainly environmental conservation and starting up some sports initiatives for the local kids in the village nearby, where all the volunteers live.

Share the moment you felt a paradigm shift (or were inspired) to get involved with [agriculture, marine conservation, whatever it is you’re working in/working toward]?

There wasn’t really a specific time as such. I’ve been wanting to volunteer at a marine conservation site and a self conscious eco company for a long time, just to gain some experience in the field and to see if I wanted to follow that career path. And when I found out there were free coconuts and a slackline I could use that was the deal maker.

What motivates you to keep going?

I’ve had such a fortunate start to life compared to most people in the world and working with people and animals is a huge passion of mine; even if it’s only being part of a small change. And Inés, she’s the best.

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Kyra Eddy, USA, Farm and Community Ag Intern

What’s your “story”? Where are you from and what were you doing before you arrived?

IMG_0164-2I started university in San Francisco in 2012, studying holistic health. My sophomore year I took a semester off to travel through South America which really transformed my life and open my eyes to so many things.  Since then, I’ve done my best to travel as much as possible. I graduated university a year ago, and am now working on delving into my passions more, and learning as much as I can from my life’s experience.

It’s hard to say exactly where I’m from, but I call San Francisco, CA home. Before Playa Viva, I was traveling around California in my camper van. I spent a number of months camping and hanging out with friends, as well as WWOOFing on organic farms in the area.

How did you find out about Playa Viva?

I found out about Playa Viva through and instagram page I follow. I had been looking for the next step in my life, saw an ad for the internship here. The timing was perfect!

Why did you decide to volunteer?

I had been WWOOFing for a while and was looking for somewhere new where I could be learning more and offering more. This opportunity seemed like a great option to be able to travel and practice my Spanish, learn a whole lot about farming, and really help to make a positive impact.

What are you working on at Playa Viva?

I am a farm intern. So far, I get to spend my days with Guero and Abel out on the farm. We do things like composting, weeding, planting seeds, and harvesting yummy greens and herbs for the kitchen.

What has been the highlight of your experience so far AND/OR what are you most looking forward to learn and contribute during your internship/service?

Living in town has been one of my favorite things! Casa Blanca, the house the volunteers live in, has baby piglets and colorful chickens strolling about the front yard every day. I’ve also been enjoying going out for sopes and tortas with the other volunteers.

Share the moment you felt a paradigm shift (or were inspired) to get involved with agriculture?

I truly believe that natural farming is a crucial component to a more sustainable world. Gardening has always been something I’ve been passionate about, but over the course of the past year or so I’ve been really focusing on learning and working more with plants because it’s something I absolutely love to do!

What motivates you to keep going?

Bringing the basket full of beautiful greens and fruits every day from the farm to the kitchen is super rewarding because I get tons ee the impact and importance the farm has on Playa Viva. Also ,living and working so closely with the staff every day has been really special.
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Nathan Ellermeier, USA, Farm & Community Ag Intern  

What’s your story? Where are you from and what were you doing before you arrived?

IMG_8879While getting degrees in English and Spanish literature at the University of Missouri, I spent my time exploring the forests, working at a local gastropub, and working in various capacities with local food– at markets, on farms, and harvest celebrations. Since then, I’ve watched as the arc of my story bends ever back to the realm of alternative foods, medicines, and agricultural practices. In my free time, I live in my imagination. I’m a reader and a lifelong learner, a thinker, a mover, and a laugher, sometimes a little long winded.

I’m from Kansas City, Missouri, but I definitely came of age in a tight-knit local community in Columbia, Missouri where I went to university and so relate much more to the river floaters and local growers and makers of mid-Missouri. I’m from Columbia, MO. Before I arrived, I spent a season on a farm in Columbia and then several months travelling Peru, volunteering and eating.

How did you find out about PV?

I’m plugged into a listserv run by Tufts University called ComFoodJobs. Melissa Luna sent an ad for the position to the listserv. It was the exact sort of volunteer work I was looking for at the time. If you’re at all interested in working within sustainable agriculture and the new agrarianism we see developing in small, resistant pockets of our world, I highly recommend the listserv.

Why did you decide to come back?

I left Playa Viva after volunteering for nearly four months with the intention of returning home to see family and begin another service position in the states. But as I did some thinking on my myriad bus rides home to Kansas City, I started to realize how much of my heart I’d left behind on the Costa Grande. Along with a desire to continue working on my Spanish, I made a pretty quick decision after crossing the border that Mexico wasn’t yet done with me. I don’t know if it ever will be.

What are you working on at Playa Viva?

In the Playa Viva garden, I am working with the farm managers and my fellow volunteers, Kyra and Alex, to increase on-site fruit and vegetable production through sustainable growing practices. Other projects involve working with local organizations to plant community gardens, some of them hanging, others in the ground. In our free time, we have been greening up the volunteer house by planting, starting a compost, and creating a fuel-efficient, wood-burning outdoor kitchen. I have also been giving workshops on making kombucha. Additionally, I have begun helping out with various Gente Viva Organic Sesame projects along the coast.

What has been the highlight of your experiences so far and what are you most looking forward to learn and contribute during your internship/service?

It’s safe to say that nearly every volunteer will say their highlight is living in Juluchuca, the town adjacent to the Playa Viva property. I’m no different. It’s the type of small town that seems to have frozen in time despite a federal highway running through it. I help one of our neighbors keep pigs from roaming into her family’s yard. There’s a group of kids that roams around town that like to go hunt crawdads in the town creek and teach each other curse words. Afternoons are spent in hammocks and evenings are spent eating tacos in hammocks. Kindness and contentedness sing the same note here. People here live enough to be able to listen.

Share the moment you felt a paradigm shift (or were inspired) to get involved with agriculture?

I spent a few months travelling around Peru earlier this year. On days with nothing planned, I often found myself wandering their sprawling open-air farmers markets and contemplating the nature of such agrarianism. Even though I’d worked on on farms and markets before, I still had yet to reckon with the stirrings of a passion for plant knowledge and people.

What motivates you to keep going?

Sharing food and drink friends at the end of each day. The joy in the rediscovery of life that comes when you work around living, growing things that inherently reveal a network of being much bigger than your single life or even humanity itself.

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Interested in volunteering? We accept volunteers year-round on a rolling basis. Please refer to our FAQ for more information or email our volunteer coordinator at volunteer@playaviva.com.

Taking a hard look at sustainable seafood

I’ll never forget when a guest asked me the question,

“Was this fish caught today?”

Her head turned toward the sea as she watched a local fishermen stroll by on the beach. She asked, “did one of these local fishermen catch it?”

I was totally unprepared to answer her question.

Seafood had actually been on my mind since I arrived at Playa Viva nearly one year ago. My master’s degree is in the very subject—marine resource management—so Playa Viva’s involvement with local fisheries was something I had been wondering about. Before I knew how to fully answer her question, I was hoping for the best, but I also knew that around the world fisheries are in a precarious state, how difficult they can be to manage and how difficult it is to trace where your seafood is actually coming from.

Despite the challenges, I knew I had to and wanted to investigate the answer.

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“Huachitos” (Huachinango, red snapper) ready to be prepared in the Playa Viva kitchen. Photo credit: Nathan Ryan

As part of my duties to ensure Playa Viva is on track to achieving its regenerative goals, I decided that I needed to do some research to be able to give that guest, and all our guests, an honest answer. I started by asking our chef where our seafood comes from, what he purchases and why. He assured me that he only orders fish that he knows to be native to the region and knew about some local cooperatives down the road but that we didn’t purchase directly from them.

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Barra de Potosí – one of Costa Grande’s many fishing communities

I decided to seek some expertise from one of our partners, Katherina Audley from Whales of Guerrero Research Project, who has been living and working in the Zihuatanejo area’s fishing communities for nearly two decades. When I mentioned to her our seafood purchasing list in passing, her immediate reaction was a little alarming–something I had feared. She asked me to send her a list and would look at it in detail. Her response:

“Now that I see this list, I realize recommendations, etc. are more nuanced than I realized before. What needs to happen is to go to the market in Petatlán and talk to the vendors there. Ask them where the fish comes from and how they catch it. Catch method and how far away the fish comes from change how wise each fish is to consume. If someone can go to the market in Petatlán and map out the chain from catch to table for the different kinds of seafood, and also get copies/pictures of fishing permits from local fishermen, we will be able to move forward with creating a more sustainable fishery. Can you go to the market in Petatlán and do this research?”

I could, but I knew that I needed help.

While recruiting for a volunteer for La Tortuga Viva (our local sea turtle sanctuary) I came across Romain Langeard, a prospective candidate from France who had a background and experience in marine conservation and development, including conducting vulnerability assessments with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Burmese fishing communities. Instead of working with the turtle camp, I proposed and offered the position to help conduct the “Seafood Sourcing Sustainability Assessment”, better known now as the “SSSA”. Romain accepted the terms and began work for the project this past April.

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Romain on one of our supplier scoping visits — a shrimp aquaculture production facility in Barra de Potosí

The project had two main goals:

1 – To evaluate the sustainability of the seafood served at the hotel, but also

2 – To shed light on the state of fisheries in our area and identify potential ways Playa Viva can be a leader in creating change that supports local sustainable fisheries.

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Saturday morning in Cayacal

Our findings weren’t very pretty … but first, let me give you some context.

Playa Viva is located about 45 km south of the city of Zihuatanejo, a popular tourist destination with a population of around 200,000 people. Before becoming a popular tourist destination in the 1970s, Zihuatanejo existed for hundreds of years as a remote, sleepy fishing village. In 1971 the Mexican government invested in a large infrastructure project to expand and rehabilitate Zihuatanejo, as well as develop the area to its north, Ixtapa, as a resort destination (1).

Over the last 40 years, the infrastructure needed in this area to satisfy a growing population, as well as both domestic and international tourist needs, have all caused severe impacts on the environment (2). Poorly planned coastal development has greatly disturbed wildlife habitat and resulted in a loss of biodiversity, as well as drastically decreased water quality (2). These factors, coupled with an increased demand for seafood and with that a rise in industrial fishing, have all caused a steady decline in Guerrero’s fisheries (2,3). Consequently, residents, business owners, local fishermen, and conservation actors are all rightly concerned over the health, resiliency and productivity of Costa Grande’s ecosystems.

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Puerto Xapútica, El Cayacal

During interviews with the fishing communities, fishers stated that some of the main barriers to responsible fishing is the lack of demand for a sustainable product and poor enforcement by fisheries authorities. The fishers are numerous and demand is often inconsistent and fluctuates greatly depending on seasonal tourism. Therefore, due to inconsistent demand, economic pressures felt by the fishers and poor enforcement, the tendency to overfish is high. In turn, this has resulted in an attitude of

“Why should I follow the rules if nobody else is?”

Mexico is both party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and a member of the FAO, demonstrating their long-term commitment to ensuring responsible use and development of marine resources. Through these commitments, Mexico recently developed a long-term strategy for sustaining fisheries in Mexico at the national level (4).

However, based on our initial findings, while fishing legislation exists on paper at the local, national and international level, poor enforcement, monitoring, and thus compliance within Mexico, particularly in Guerrero, renders them almost ineffective.

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Fish frenzy in Barra de Potosí

Nevertheless, while enforcement of (and thus compliance with) regulations is poor, all cooperatives expressed grave concern over the health and prosperity of fisheries. One fisher commented:

“The biggest problem in all the cooperatives is that there is not enough fish. The fish are almost gone.”

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Cooperative meeting in El Cayacal

 

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Romain inspecting fishing permits

In response to this issue, some of the cooperatives have actually implemented some of their own conservation actions. The cooperative of La Barrita has established a rotation of no-take-zones in their respective fishing area and restrictions on certain species depending on the time of year. The cooperative in Barra de Potosí doesn’t (or tries not to) fish during reproduction periods. However, they said it was challenging to get all the fishers in the cooperative to comply. 

So, what did we find?

Playa Viva’s seafood is mainly purchased from a middleman supplier in Petatlán (“Pescadería Margarita”), a town of about 18,000 people located 13 km from the hotel. Most of the products purchased from the supplier in Petatlán originate from another supplier in Zihuatanejo, whose products originate from various parts of the country or from foreign and domestic fishing fleets on the high seas. Only some species, such as the more coastal species, like red snapper, originate more locally.

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It was difficult for the supplier to confirm with certainty where each fish originated. This low traceability at the market makes it all the more difficult for a business like Playa Viva to know when, where and how seafood products were harvested.

Additionally, we discovered that there was a lack in education among Playa Viva staff on sustainable fisheries topics, which has made it more difficult to make responsible seafood choices. Unfortunately without this knowledge, the hotel was unable to understand the impact of their purchasing patterns.

Consequently, the hotel has unintentionally purchased species whose ecological status is either unknown or depleted, as well as purchased species whose capture methods do not comply with local regulations.

Given the types of seafood purchase and the lack of traceability, we concluded that the seafood at the hotel is unfortunately not sustainable.

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As you can see, even though Playa Viva is located directly on the beach with fishing cooperatives just down the road, tracing seafood is often nuanced and complex. 

Nevertheless, while the future of Costa Grande’s fisheries may look bleak for now, there is an incredible opportunity to impact the way fisheries are managed locally.
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Romain and I with a fisherman from El Cayacal, inspecting whether the fish is to size regulation. Photo credit: Amanda Ryan

Playa Viva is committed to serve as a model for change and to help create that change in their ecosystem. Romain and I spoke with a lot of fishermen throughout this project and feel that Playa Viva is in an ideal position to work with local fishing cooperatives to begin to solve the “lack of demand for a sustainable product” problem identified by local fishers.

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At Juan Manuel’s shrimp farm. He used to be a shrimper but converted to shrimp farming about 5 years ago since the shrimp had all been overfished. “Se acabó el camarón.”

Playa Viva is committed to serve as a model for change and to help create that change in their ecosystem. Romain and I spoke with a lot of fishermen throughout this project and feel that Playa Viva is in an ideal position to work with local fishing cooperatives to begin to solve the “lack of demand for a sustainable product” problem identified by local fishers.

Naturally, it will take some steps to get there.

1. Implement a sustainable sourcing strategy

The biggest need the hotel has is a strategy for sustainable seafood purchasing. The lack of understanding about sustainable fisheries prevented Playa Viva from developing a sustainable purchasing strategy, which inevitably and undoubtedly led to unsustainable purchases. We suggest the new strategy to include: 1) finalizing research on all available legislation and stock status information, 2) supporting management and kitchen staff in adapting purchasing practices and menus through educating them about sustainable fisheries (and supporting in communicating these practices to guests), and 3) identifying and building new and existing relationships with local producers.

2. Lead the creation of a responsible seafood guide

Once Playa Viva has a sustainable purchasing strategy in place, the hotel can be in a keen position to promote the demand for a more sustainable product. Playa Viva could play a key role as a catalyst for positive change in the local ecosystem. The hotel could promote sustainable fishing and responsible purchasing practices through leading the creation of a “responsible seafood purchasing guide”. Katherina and her Whales of Guerrero Research Project have already expressed interest in a partnership with Playa Viva in developing and distributing this guide to other tourism actors, businesses, and individual consumers in the area.

More resources will be required

To successfully implement these two recommendations, we’ll need to bring in someone to support the Playa Viva team in implementing a strategy and also lay the groundwork for the creation of a responsible seafood guide.

If funds can be garnered to support the next phase of this project, Playa Viva has great potential to become a leader in sustainable sourcing, help promote the regeneration of Guerrero’s fisheries, and become a true promoter of regenerative development practices.

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Romain and fishermen from El Cayacal

Time is of the essence: it will take some work, but the regeneration of a degraded ecosystem is entirely possible. This region can once again be a resilient and thriving ecosystem, where fishing provides benefits for both fisher and consumer alike.

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Fishing boats in El Cayacal

If interested in supporting the next two phases of this project, please contact David Leventhal at david@playaviva.com. Or, please donate to our regenerative trust (please write in the comment space it is for the sustainable fisheries project).

If you would like to read the full version of the report, you can download it here: PV Seafood Sustainability Assessment_Aug2017_v2.

A report synopsis can be downloaded here: SSSA-brief-v2.

References

  1. World Bank (1983). Project Performance Audit Report: Zihuatanejo Tourism Project and Tourism Development Project.
  2. Ortiz-Lozano, L., Granados-Barba, A., Solís-Weiss, V., & García-Salgado, M. A. (2005). Environmental evaluation and development problems of the Mexican Coastal Zone. Ocean & Coastal Management 48(2): 161-176.
  3. Kennett, D. (2007). Human Impacts on Marine Ecosystems in Guerrero, Mexico. In: Ancient Human Impacts on Marine Environments. T. C. Rick and J. M. Erlandson, University of California Press, Berkeley.
  4. SAGARPA (2016) Strategy for Biodiversity Mainstreaming: Fisheries and Aquaculture (2016-2022). Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food.

Poachers to Conservationists: Sea turtle conservation in rural Mexico

Written by Lissett Medrano

As we celebrate oceans this month, today is specifically dedicated to one of earth’s most ancient sea creaturessea turtles. As we honor this incredible species, it’s important to also recognize the efforts being made at the local level to preserve these endangered species. For the past four months, I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with La Tortuga Viva (LTV), a turtle sanctuary ran by volunteers from the local community of Juluchuca, Mexico. I’ve learned that these efforts are not only helping save sea turtles, they are also providing empowerment opportunities for local communities.

Some background on LTV…

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Like many other small fishing communities in Mexico, Juluchuca was once a sea turtle poaching community not that long ago. Due to the large decline in the sea turtle population, the Mexican government established many community-based turtle sanctuaries to help combat this issue. LTV was created in 2001 by ex-poachers and Playa Viva has been collaborating with the camp since 2007, providing them with financial support and other streams of revenue brought on by hotel tourism.

Working with the Camp

I arrived to Juluchuca with two main priorities –  lead the camp relocation project and the camp permit renewal process. Within a few weeks, I discovered there were many internal issues that were hindering the ultimate goal of the camp- preserving sea turtles. So a lot of my time has been dedicated to capacity-building with the camp volunteers; understanding why and how they work, along with empowering them to address the issues, was the first step.

Challenges: Gender roles, Communication and Change

Being the first and only female to work in the male dominated camp, made relationship building quite challenging at first. My work schedule is flexible, but in general my working hours at Playa Viva, which include daily morning turtle releases with hotel guests, checking the sanctuary, and doing sea turtle research, allow for very little interaction time with the volunteers who work full-time jobs during the day. Also, being a new young female in town, it would be frowned upon to jump on nightly patrols with the guys without getting to know them and the community better, not to mention being constantly told that it was “more dangerous” for a female to go on nightly patrol.

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My main contact with the camp was through the camp President, Hector, who I could only communicate with in person since he has no phone or email. Surprisingly, not an easy man to find in such a small town! Through persistence, jumping on any opportunity for group gatherings (Sundays clean ups, meetings etc), and creating new communication channels, like Whatsapp groups for camp volunteers with phones, I’ve managed to build a solid relationship with Hector and get to know the guys more.

Once I established myself as a fellow turtle volunteer, I began to organize and facilitate more meetings where we discussed issues that many volunteers had long since given up on. Most of the time, the meetings didn’t solve any problems, but they were useful in starting a trend to talk openly about issues, rather than complaining in private, which was the norm.

Another challenge was and will continue to be the camp’s resistance to change, which is not too uncommon in Juluchuca. Any suggestions to improve camp operations or try things a different way are often met with stubborn resistance. Even the smallest efforts, like using reusable bags instead of plastic, are met with reasons on why it wouldn’t work. I learned very quickly to approach new ideas carefully and always gather their opinions before proposing anything.

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In addition to everything I’m learning about sea turtles and management in community-based conservation, it’s been incredibly inspiring hearing some of the volunteers stories and seeing how some of them are already evolving into leaders through the camp. Many of these volunteers used to engage in sea turtle poaching and still have friends and family who continue to consume sea turtles. Living in a town with very little economic opportunities, the turtle camp provides these volunteers with a big incentive to shift from poaching to conservation through their monthly food stipends. One volunteer, that goes by Iguana, spent some time in juvenile facility as a teen for stealing turtle eggs. Iguana is now one of the more experienced volunteers and takes great pride in his work as a protector of turtles. He helps train new volunteers in turtle tracking and nest relocation and is also an advocate for turtle protection in a community where turtle consumption is still ongoing

Although challenges remain, LTV’s work has already contributed to the release of over 400,000 sea turtles. We’ve also taken some big steps in moving forward with the camp permit process, have shifted around responsibilities so the tasks don’t all fall on one person and we’ve identified the new turtle camp location and are working to clear the area to begin building. With continued efforts, we hope to have the camp in a place where the volunteers manage themselves, without relying on outside assistance.

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How to help

Understandably, not everyone can move to Mexico and volunteer at a turtle camp, but there are SO many ways to help. Here are a few easy ones!

  • DONATE to our Indiegogo campaign here to build a new sanctuary. The current one is in bad shape  from years of bacteria build-up and ant infestation and needs more security to protect it from the biggest threat on our beach- the badgers! Every dollar counts!
  • SAY NO TO PLASTIC. Plastics end up in our oceans and are consequently consumed by sea turtles due to their resemblance to jellyfish.
  • EAT SUSTAINABLE SEAFOOD. The biggest threat to sea turtles is commercial fish trawling. Ensure your seafood is coming from a sustainable source- you can check here.
  • SHARE THE KNOWLEDGE. Know a thing or two about sea turtles? Share the info with friends- protecting the environment is a collective effort.

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“Our Oceans Our Future”

#WorldOceansDay

Happy World Oceans Day!

At Playa Viva (“Living Beach”) it’s in our name to keep our coast and ocean healthy, alive, and thriving. Our oceans are essential to life as we know it on the planet: 70% of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean, they help regulate our climate, provide a significant portion of our food, as well as a number of economic, cultural and recreational benefits.

When the owners bought Playa Viva’s land, it was heavily degraded: the coastal lagoon once replete with mangroves was dried up and mangroves were slashed and burned by cattle ranching and monoculture agriculture. Much of the coastal forest ecosystem that once protected the coastline and supported marine life was in a precarious state.

Playa Viva has been working to reverse that through a number of regenerative practices.

LA TORTUGA VIVA

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Some of the members of LTV

La Tortuga Viva (LTV) is one of our longest standing initiatives. LTV began in 2001 (before we were even here!) through a SEMARNAT (Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources) initiative to combat illegal turtle poaching in Mexico. The camp was started by members from the local community, many of whom were once sea turtle poachers themselves, and have since become conservationists. Playa Viva has been working with this sanctuary since 2007, providing them financial support and extra streams of revenue through the tourism brought by the hotel. We’ve been focusing even more energy on the camp with a new role: Turtle Sanctuary Coordinator.

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“I’ve been working with the turtle camp the past 4 months and although I have several projects from relocating the sanctuary to supporting the camp permit renewal process, most of my time has been dedicated to capacity building with the local volunteers. Through relationship building, frequent group meetings, and new communication channels like WhatsApp groups, many internal camp issues, that have hindered the volunteers’ quality of work, are now being addressed. Some positive steps have included empowering some of the younger volunteers to share and implement their ideas for improving the operations of the camp, and therefore sharing responsibilities so that all tasks don’t fall on one person. The goal of my role is to support the camp volunteers so they can manage themselves, without relying outside assistance. Slowly but surely we are moving in the right direction!” – Lissett Medrano, former policy coordinator at Conservation International

Right now this position is not funded. We would love to secure funding for this important role as it is essential for improving conservation management capacity. To donate to this important initiative visit our page on LTV (OR donate to our Indiegogo Campaign!), where we receive tax-deductible donations through our fiscal sponsor, The Ocean Foundation.

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Turtle volunteers transplanting nests into the hatchery

PARTNERSHIP WITH COSTA GRANDE COSTA LIMPIA

More than 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into our oceans every year. Plastic pollution not only kills and harms marine life, damages and alters habitats, and has substantial negative impacts on local economies, but it also poses a great threat to human health. As plastic debris floats in the seawater and decomposes into microplastics, it absorbs other pollutants that are highly toxic, which have a wide range of adverse health effects. When fish and other marine species eat these plastic pieces, the toxins are absorbed into their body and passed up the food chain and ultimately passed onto our dinner planets.

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Photo Credit: Costa Grande, Costa Limpia

To combat this issue, in addition to the regular beach cleanup we do with La Tortuga Viva, we’ve partnered with Costa Grande Costa Limpia in their effort to clean up the beaches of Costa Grande in Guerrero and run campaigns about the importance of keeping our oceans healthy and free of plastic (80% of the waste found on beaches is exclusively plastic). Their objective is to improve the health of Guerrero’s coastline, to develop jobs for Costa Grande communities and to grow the regional economy through tourism. Villagers from each municipality undergo rigorous training so that they can perpetuate this effort, take care of their environment and change their own consumption habits.

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Costa Grande Costa Limpia brigades finishing for the day at Playa Viva

We hosted several brigades here at Playa Viva, who have collected numerous bags of plastic and other debris–large and small–from our town’s beaches and lagoon. We are overly grateful to have such an important partner in ocean health and conservation!

MANGROVE RESTORATION

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Mangrove restoration area

It has been estimated that in some areas of the world 70-90% of commercial fish species directly rely on mangrove ecosystems. Mangrove forests act as nurseries to many species of fish, crab, shrimp, and mollusk. These fisheries form an essential source of food for thousands of coastal communities around the world.

The dense root systems of mangrove forests also trap sediments flowing down rivers, which stabilizes the coastline and prevents erosion. These trees also filter sediments, protecting coral reefs and seagrass meadows (which are important feeding grounds of our beloved sea turtle!).

For many years mangroves were negatively (and are still!) impacted by the tourism industry. At Playa Viva, we are one of few tourism operations in the world actively restoring the mangrove ecosystem through the revenues generated by the hotel.

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Jose Vargas “Chenca” – the employee who spearheads all of our onsite mangrove restoration work!

At the start of our mangrove restoration project, we engaged with the local community about the importance of mangroves, who didn’t see much use to them other than firewood. They even used to cut some of the root systems down as they were seen as a nuisance when they went fishing in the lagoon and their nets got caught on the roots.

We have different areas of mangrove restoration at work on our property. Some areas we are letting nature take its course, in others we’re practicing an accelerated natural selection. We’ve opened waterway channels to restore the natural flow of the lagoon, created shade to shade out invasive species, planted mangrove saplings, and actively removed invasive species that would otherwise prevent mangroves from flourishing.

We’ve just begun phase two of the coastal lagoon restoration project and opened up a new area for mangrove restoration. We are currently looking for investors to help continue this important effort!

SEAFOOD SUSTAINABILITY

jaquorylunsford-11Playa Viva has just begun its first seafood sustainability assessment. The goal for food sourcing at Playa Viva is to provide transparency in our menus, build strong relationships with local providers, and use ingredients that are seasonal, organic and just.

Accordingly, with my role as Social & Environmental Impact Officer, I’m tasked with ensuring we’re doing all these things! When I first arrived at Playa Viva, I received a lot of questions such as, “Was this fish caught today? Did you purchase this from a local fisher? Is this seafood sustainable?” I honestly didn’t have the answers, so I began to investigate. My first stop was to talk with one of our conservation partners Katherina Audley, from Whales in Guerrero Research Project, an amazingly passionate woman who has fished for two decades in the area and actively working to promote a healthy ocean here in Guerrero.

I have been receiving a ton of support on this project from Romain, a “volunteer” with a lot of great experience. Romain came to Playa Viva to work on this project after having worked on a number of conservation and development projects in fishing communities in Africa and Asia, most recently with the FAO’s FishAdapt project in Myanmar. He has spearheaded the project, tracing where the hotel’s seafood is coming from, investigating local fishing regulations and ensuring that we are purchasing seafood that is socially and ecologically sustainable. The next stage of the project is to work with hotel management and local fishing cooperatives to source fish locally and directly from small-scale producers in order to support the local economy and regenerate healthy fisheries.

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Romain in Cayacal, meeting with local fishermen

A healthy ocean is integral to live in the coastal ecosystem of which Playa Viva is apart. We honor and celebrate the fragile strength and limited bounty of the oceans today, especially the delicate balance that people and the ecosystem must maintain in order to reverse the decline and regenerate this vital ecosystem.