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 common 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.

 

Who are the Playa Viva Volunteers now?

See what our volunteers are up to now! We have a lot of exciting volunteer projects in the works and found some wonderful people to carry those projects out. Read on to find out more!

Farm to Table: Christabel Courtauld, UK

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Christabel in front of the volunteer house in town

Where are you from originally and what were you doing before you arrived?

I am from Bristol, England. Before coming to Mexico I was head chef at a restaurant called ‘The Canteen’ for 3 years. We practiced sustainability, local sourcing & minimal food waste. Now I am keen to learn about Organic farming to complete the farm to table cycle. I travelled in Oaxaca & Chiapas for two months before starting at Playa Viva.

How did you find out about Playa Viva and what drew you to Playa Viva? In other words, why did you decide to volunteer?

I discovered Playa Viva through WorkAway. I was looking for a farm with knowledgeable people to learn from but still a work in progress. The opportunity to cook in a local kitchen is always a bonus for me. I was excited to live in a village away from the usual tourist trail.

What are you working on at Playa Viva?

I am working with the connection of Farm to table- spending time volunteering in the kitchen and in food production at the farm. I am hoping to build more information about the seasonal availability of all the produce at Playa Viva.

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Christabel working in the garden

What has been the highlight of your experience so far?

The people who we work with at Playa Viva, and in our village of Juluchuca, have all been so welcoming. It has been brilliant balancing our time between the two very different places. Oh, and the food is incredible!

Seafood Sustainability & Social Impact: Romain Langeard, France

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Romain with fishermen from Cayacal

Where are you from originally and what were you doing before you arrived?

I am from France and was having a tour of some organizations in Latin America before joining Playa Viva. Before that, I took part in several conservation and development projects in Asia, India and Africa.

How did you find out about Playa Viva and what drew you to Playa Viva? In other words, why did you decide to volunteer?

Playa Viva offered very good TOR for two interesting missions, so I jumped on the adventure!

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Gathering info from the Cooperative’s Treasurer

What are you working on at Playa Viva?

I am supporting Melissa (our amazing volunteer coordinator) on a “Social Impact Assessment” and I am doing the first seafood sourcing sustainability assessment for the Playa Viva restaurant.

What has been the highlight of your experience so far?

When the pigs are coming! And more seriously, the meetings we’ve had with the fishing communities and gathering information have been the most interesting part so far.

Organic Farming, Local Sourcing and Community Gardens: Nathan Ellermeier, USA

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Nathan enjoying free time in the village

Where are you from originally and what were you doing before you arrived?

I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. But after spending 6 years in Columbia, Missouri for school, working and digging the town, I feel like Columbia is where I’m from. I did a lot of growing up around central Missouri, at the lively Saturday farmer’s market, cruising around on my bright green Peugeot, sipping growlers of local ales with friends at spring-fed watering holes

December this last year, I made peace with my town, rolled up my bed roll and packed away my portable Columbia life. After Christmas, I caught a plane to Peru to spend time working on my Spanish, alone somewhere that was completely different. Along the way, I worked on organic farms, met wonderful people from Peru and beyond, and learned heaps about regional cuisine.

How did you find out about Playa Viva and what drew you to Playa Viva? In other words, why did you decide to volunteer?

Travelling alone affords you with a certain amount of self-discovery that might only otherwise happen on long hikes in the woods. While in Peru, my multifarious interests in permaculture, cultivation and community building began to take shape as priorities. I wanted to invest time in community education, sustainable living, and delicious home-grown foods.

This revelation came around the same time that I’d become restless with travel and was looking for somewhere a little less transient, somewhere to invest my energy where it might be felt. Through ComFood, an email listserv run by Tufts, I found Playa Viva and its mission. With its focus on sustainable community development and regenerative agriculture, it felt like the position at Playa Viva had fallen into my lap.

What are you working on at Playa Viva?

I spent my first three weeks at the hotel working out on the organically cultivated farm with Guero and Abel, learning the permacultural techniques they employ. We grow cabbages, kales, nopales, sesame, drying beans, corn, and a cornucopia of tropical fruits (cashew apples have me enchancted). Since the hotel is moving into its low-season, production has slowed down and plants have begun to bolt. So we have been harvesting and saving a lot of seed, which is exciting to be a part of. I’ve also been selling our greens at a local eco-market up in Zihuatanejo.

This past week, I’ve begun my preliminary survey on where I might install gardens to give workshops to people that live in Juluchuca and provide produce for the local soup kitchen. At Playa Viva, we hold monthly healthy cooking workshops for people who live in town. The problem is that some of the ingredients (i.e. fresh, nutrient-dense greens) are hard to come by here in Juluchuca. As a way to save water and create a space that is attractive for future workshops, I’ll be collaborating with the volunteers at the soup kitchen to build a vertical garden out of Upcycled materials. Along with this, I am researching grey water and water harvesting systems that could be practically employed in Juluchuca. By extending the use of each drop of water, I hope that the idea of gardening will become more practical and appealing to water-scarce Juluchuca.

What has been the highlight of your experience so far?

This question leaves me with too much I want to say, but I’ll try and keep it short.

One of the most lively spaces in Juluchuca is a taco stand that sits along the highway that runs through town. During the day, the spot is sweltering and filled with the exhaust from rumbling buses and the heat that radiates from the road. But when night comes, Lupe sets out chairs, carries her supplies out to the exposed kitchen space, and turns on a few orange incandescents. The energy from the town, lagging from a hot afternoon, feels like it condenses under those lights. Her restaurant has the feel of a roadside diner with all its quirks, service lingo, and mix of community staples and passers-through. But instead of breakfast, there are delicious tacos.

Ferments and tropical fruits/climate Another thing I’ve enjoyed is the endless supply of new fruits that fall in abundance as they mature. So with this comes opportunities ripe for fermentation, a particular favorite pastime of mine. So far, I’ve got a delicious tamarind kombucha on the brew. Attempts at baking sourdough bread over an open fire are also being made.

Tianguis The Eco-Tianguis market ever Saturday in Zihua is one of my favorite parts of the week. I’m the kind of person that’s excited to talk about the greens and whatever else I’m bringing to market. Since we are some of the only food producers at the market, the market feels like an exciting time for collaboration. Everyone brings something unique and handcrafted to the market. There is an exchange of knowledge and community there that I really love.

Okay, I’m almost done, but I can’t leave this post without talking about my office. Let me sketch a quick image. 50 years ago (maybe more), when this property was probably just beginning as a coconut plantation, some forward-thinker planted three little Parota trees and built a small adobe shed near one of them. Now these trees have grown into gargantuan granddaddies that throw they’re Elephant-ear seedpods everywhere, are habitat and play space for a handful of lively birds, retain water, enrich the soil, and cast beautiful patches of shade on the garden here at Playa Viva. I feel fortunate to work in such a beautiful, lush space. There are these white butterflies that fly through the garden that look like floating napkins. Adding to this are the shenanigans and camaraderie among Guero, Abel, and the rest of the food and permaculture crew. At moments tranquil and quiet, the garden livens up while the day is at its hottest.

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One of the beautiful parota trees that hovers over the garden

Toward a healthier community

 

Through our work in the community a new program has emerged. The overall goal of this new program, The Juluchuca Garden and Nutrition Project, is to foster greater physical and emotional wellbeing as well as health and nutritional awareness for the residents of Juluchuca. The process for achieving all three will be focused in three different program areas: school & community gardens, nutrition education, and mind/body awareness through yoga.

This program came about after kids in Juluchuca kept asking for yoga classes. Coincidentally, back in November, we had a guest at the hotel who wanted to lead a yoga class with her kids and the kids of the local community, kick-starting our now regular kids yoga class. More requests related to health and nutrition also began to arise: the kindergarten asked for our support to design a school garden, and the community kitchen informed us that access to nutritional food and greater knowledge of healthy cooking are severely lacking.

We’re really just in the beginning — but to date, we’ve held several kids yoga classes both at Playa Viva and in the community; we’ve offered two nutritional cooking workshops (which are held monthly) through the support of the Eco-Vegana Cooperative in Zihuatanejo, and designed a garden at the local  kindergarten.

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In order to achieve our goal of increasing physical and emotional wellbeing, we first need to better understand the state of wellbeing and nutritional awareness in the community. We decided to do a survey to measure the “state of health” in the local community. The survey asked workshop participants how healthy they think their community is, what they believe are the biggest health problems, but also more personal questions about what their diet is like, how healthy they feel, how confident they feel in their ability to nourish themselves, and what limitations they have in achieving a healthier lifestyle (e.g. is it access to food? Is it lack of nutritional knowledge and/or cooking?). This survey will serve as a baseline as we continue to do work in the community and gauge their responses to these same questions over the years.

imageWhen asked, “how do you rate the health of your community?” responses were split between “Not very healthy” (42%) and “Somewhat healthy” (42%). 16% of respondents said “Not at all healthy.”

When asked what are the three greatest health problems in your community, people responded:

  1. Diabetes
  2. Cancer
  3. Drug addiction, high blood pressure, teenage pregnancy

When we asked participants about their personal health, roughly half of respondents felt that their health is only “somewhat healthy” with a roughly a quarter reporting “not very healthy”.

image 2Improving health and wellbeing in a community like Juluchuca is no easy task — it’s a rural community with few opportunities for economic advancement and has access to only very basic amenities, including food and medical care.

We could deliver a million nutritional cooking workshops, but without understanding and later addressing the limitations, then what good is telling people how to cook with ingredients they don’t have or can’t afford?

image (2)Perhaps not surprisingly, only 15% of respondents reported that they had sufficient resources (i.e. income, education, access to healthy food) they need in order to nourish themselves and improve their health.

The most common limitation? Not enough income.

Additionally, a lot of people reported that the stores don’t have sufficient fresh fruits and vegetables. As a resident of the local community now, I myself have witnessed it — there aren’t a whole lot of diverse, healthy options.

So, what can we do for the short term? Well, for now, work with what there is!

We’re working with the community kitchen to offer free courses in which they can learn to make healthy dishes with the ingredients that are available and plentiful to them. A huge advantage the town has is that fruit trees are abundant, so there is plenty of fresh fruit to go around. For example, jackfruit–very abundant in this area–can be eaten as is, but also as a meat alternative, and the seeds can be boiled and turned into a delicious hummus. Sesame, a crop widely grown, can be used to make milk, to fortify tortillas, and to make a tahini for that jackfruit-seed hummus.

Through the data, we are able to identify opportunities where Playa Viva can support. When people were asked what are most important factors in order to have a healthy community, the top three most common responses were:

  1. Access to healthy food
  2. A clean environment
  3. Access to medical care

image (3)We’re still learning a lot from these data and from speaking with the workshop’s participants. We discovered that all participants worry about their health to at least some degree, so it’s a topic that people care deeply about. Only about half of the workshop’s participants feel confident in their ability to prepare healthy, home-cooked meals–so, that’s something we can easily provide for them. As we move forward, our plan is to continue collecting data, offer yoga classes and cooking workshops, donate Playa Viva’s extra produce to the community kitchen (not to compete with local stores but to offer more fresh produce as an option), and work to create a community garden for the community kitchen so that everyone, even the poorest, can access fresh fruits and vegetables.

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Related to the story above, this initiative addresses two of our five Core Values at Playa Viva–Create Meaningful Community and Promote Transformational Experiences. Our work with the local community is focused on education, health and economic well-being. Under the health “pillar”, we strive to facilitate improved nutrition, exercise, and efficiency/productivity in work.

Sembrado con Amor / Grown with Love

A Story of Regeneration: Moving towards regenerative agriculture on the southern pacific coast of Mexico

At Playa Viva, every aspect of our operation attempts to go beyond low-impact and actually make the place—the land and our community—better than it was. In other words, we practice regeneration.

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The farm.

Regeneration applies to everything that we do. What we do in food production is no different; we practice what’s called regenerative agriculture.

You might ask: what makes agriculture “regenerative”?

Regenerative agriculture is not just organic, and doesn’t just “do no harm”, but it actually improves the land. It represents a wide array of techniques that actively work to rebuild and regenerate soils, enhance biodiversity, increase resilience to climate change, and strengthen the health and vitality of farming and ranching communities.

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As the lead for Playa Viva’s social and environmental impact, I wanted to know… so are we actually doing that?

On an environmental level, I knew from working with our Farm Manager and Permaculture Specialist that the type of agriculture we are practicing is regenerative … but what about the social component? Are we raising awareness about sustainability? Are we changing perspectives? And if we’re raising awareness, is that awareness spreading to change agricultural practices in the region?

To begin to answer these questions, I decided to start by sitting down with the two people who grow our food: José Garza and Abel Vejar, both from the neighboring town of Rancho Nuevo. I wanted to know how they got into farming, how much they knew about organic farming and sustainable agriculture prior to joining the team, and how working for Playa Viva as a whole has (or hasn’t) impacted them.

But before I tell you what I discovered, I need to give a little context:

Today, most farmers in this region of Mexico hold a strong dependency on fertilizers and herbicides. During the mid-twentieth century, due to numerous policies and reforms, Mexico’s agrarian landscape was in a precarious state. Many rural areas of the state (as well as across the country) were suffering from poverty, land disputes, and hunger. In response to this, the Mexican government, in partnership with the United States, launched the Mexican Agricultural Program in 1943, which aimed to combat rural poverty through the use of modern agricultural technology and expansion. Through financial and technical support from the Rockefeller Foundation, the program created fertilizer subsidies, promoted the use of herbicides and pesticides, and distributed new hybrid varieties of maize and wheat, and trained farmers how to use them.

Coupled with a booming tourism industry, the coastline of Guerrero—once a verdant coastal forest replete with mangroves—was dramatically transformed through slash-and-burn agriculture into monoculture mango, tamarind, and coconut groves, and deforested for cattle ranching.

This created a significant decrease in biodiversity along with a reliance on fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides to grow food for short-term gain in disregard of long-term social and environmental impacts. These developments have had severe impacts not only on the environment but also on the local economy. Lack of crop rotation, unbalanced crop nutrition and intensive use of pesticides and herbicides have all led to soil degradation, declining yields, declining water quality, and have greatly altered the rural landscape.

The current situation is a major concern for local farmers and policy makers, who are looking for ways to improve standards of living while strengthening the natural resources that abound.

In response, Playa Viva, along with its partner business Gente Viva, is working to provide solutions through the promotion of regenerative agriculture. The mission of Gente Viva is to create a resilient food system that provides sustainable economic opportunities to farmers by connecting them with international, domestic and local distribution for their healthy, organic produce.

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So let’s begin… What did I learn from my conversations with our food production team?

Abel Vejar, 31, and José Garza (better known as “Güero”), 31, are both from the same neighboring town of Rancho Nuevo. (Actually, they’re cousins born on the same day, same year, one hour apart!) They each come from slightly different farming backgrounds: Abel hadn’t had much experience working on farms—only some experience with fruit trees—while Güero had worked the land nearly his whole life, but never farmed organically. I wanted to know more about these two: how they made their way to Playa Viva, how and why they became farmers, and what impact working in organic food production has had on their lives.

Q: When and how did you make the decision to be a farmer?

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Abel: Well, I first started working in construction here at Playa Viva. I worked for about three months and remember seeing the lettuce in the greenhouse—they really caught my eye … They’re what really caught my attention and the reason why I wanted to come here to work and learn. I really like the job as I’m learning so many things here, which is most important to me: learning. Also, in respect to the lettuce, I had never seen them before nor knew them until now. I had never grown them—other fruits, yeah, like mango, banana, coconuts, all those kinds of fruit that we have here. But I had never seen these lettuces and they stood out to me because they are really beautiful and really tasty. And yeah, I really like working in food production, because nature really calls me.

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Güero: I personally was very young when I started working the land. I was eleven years old when I started to work on my own in farming to grow corn seasonally. I was growing corn, pumpkin, cane, beans—the essentials. And from there I began to familiarize myself with the land—I was learning to harvest, learning to work with a machete, learning to plow. But yeah, I was little when I began to work the land—well, work it alone. I started working the land with my family when I was really little, maybe 7, 8 years old—the easier stuff—but I started doing farm work then. Here in Playa Viva, I started just a little while ago. About three years ago I started working here, first at the hotel as a chauffeur, then I worked in permaculture for about another six months, and then I started here in food production. I’ve been working in food production for about two seasons. It feels like I’m still just learning—lots of things that I still don’t know—but that I’m going to be learning a lot.

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Abel with his lettuce
Q: Have you always farmed organically? Did you know much about organic farming before working for Playa Viva?

Abel: No—the fruit trees I worked with, we worked with chemicals. Because to clean them, you needed liquids; to get the tree to produce fruit, you used chemicals; you also used liquids to fumigate the fruit to get rid of insects, so yeah I came in not knowing much [about organic farming]. It’s here where I’m learning a lot. Here everything that we work, everything that we bring [to the kitchen], everything is organic, all the plants that we grow are worked purely by hand and not with chemicals.

Güero: Before, we used to use chemicals all the time. We used pesticides for weeds—not the worst ones—but in any case we still used them. And here at Playa Viva, from the start I began going to courses and started learning things, primarily that they aren’t good for your health. But while you don’t see it, you don’t believe it. Then later on you start to see that yeah it’s good to eat food grown without chemicals … I actually didn’t know anything about organic agriculture [before working at Playa Viva]. In the past, when we planted tomatoes, we tried to put as little chemicals as possible, but we always used them, when there was a pest or anything. But organic-organic, I never farmed organically myself. Not until two seasons ago, so now about a full year working on my own. Before I was working with Sapo (former head of food production), so we spent a season together, planting, and that’s where I started learning and they started bringing me to courses. So yeah, I’ve learned a lot.

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Visit to the local organic basil farm for a workshop on making organic insecticides and fungicides 
Q: Has your perspective changed about organic food or sustainable agriculture after having worked for Playa Viva. If yes, how? If no, why not?

Abel: Yes, because after trying different types of fruits and lettuces, I think it’s healthier because now I can invite my family to try this type of organic food. Our food that we grow is healthier than what’s available where I live—because all of the fruit that we have in Rancho Nuevo, all of it is grown with chemicals. Similarly, things like tomato and chile are also grown with chemicals. I would like it if we were all farming organically, because like that, you would see less disease and illness. It’s cleaner eating. […] I’ve brought some lettuce home for my family to try, and this type of lettuce specifically [points to lechuga tropical next to him], and my wife particularly loved it. She said it was delicious. My family had never tried it before, but they all really liked it.

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Guero and one of his WWOOF volunteers

Güero: Yes, a lot. About food more than anything else. But yeah, if I myself grow something, it will be organic; for me, for us, because, well, it’s better … Like I told you before, I knew that it wasn’t good, but I didn’t know how bad [pesticides] were. I thought what they said about [pesticides] was just tontería [nonsense]. I didn’t understand really until I started going to courses … From that point on, I started talking with people who were already inside the organic movement and they helped me understand that what I was doing before wasn’t good. And now, my mind’s changed, now I think differently, and I think it’s good to change and to make others change as well, but it’s difficult. You can see here that [organic farming] is difficult, but you are eating something healthy, something clean, something that you know won’t harm you. But not there [in the town]; it’s different.

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Preparing the harvest for the weekly farmer’s market
Q: Are the people in your town interested in organic farming? Do you see more people shifting to or practicing more organic farming in the future?

Abel: Well, I say yes because for example in my town, a lot people are already starting to grow organic sesame. In Rancho Nuevo a lot of people grow sesame, almost the majority of people who live there do, but they grow it with chemicals. I think that now there are the opportunities to grow organically, and from there they have the means to produce organically (through Gente Viva’s program). And I think it’s good because it’s a support—teaching them how to grow organically—and that support can give us more work in the organic sector. So, I think some people are going to be growing organic sesame with Nick (Gente Viva), and they like that. It would be a good change.

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Guero selling his organic produce at the Eco Tianguis Sanka in Zihuatanejo

Güero: I think so, because in Rancho Nuevo there are already two or three people who are joining the organic farming group with Nick (Gente Viva) … The only problem here is that a lot of people don’t grow organically because they don’t have the means—in the sense that you have to invest a lot in this type of farming, more than anything the supplies, those are more expensive, and it’s more difficult. Now it is at least — later that could change, but that’ll take time … I think it’s going to happen little by little. Little by little you have to tell and teach people about it because if you don’t tell others what you see and know, no one is going to be encouraged to do so. They’ll say it’s cheaper to go to the market and buy what they’re going to eat rather than cultivating it themselves. But if you eat a tomato here, for example, you know that little tomato is clean, you know that there’s no chemicals. You can eat it right from the garden … there’s no chemicals or anything like that.

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The sprout house amongst the cacao
Q: Would you say that Playa Viva has been a transformational experience for you?

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Abel: Yes. It’s a change. It’s a change in my awareness, my knowledge, to know more about what I’m learning here in food production. And I’ll also say it’s a change to improve economically for my family, because where I live there’s no work. I mean, wherever really in the countryside, you suffer when you live in the country where there are no job opportunities, but here [at Playa Viva] there are.

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Güero: Yes … If I hadn’t been working for Playa Viva, I still wouldn’t know about organic farming … And for example, this opportunity I was given here in food production—I had never really worked in area where I was at the front of it, in charge. It’s a big responsibility but at the same time it’s an experience that you get accustomed to; you get used to carrying out your work that you yourself are responsible for. You’re responsible for carrying out everything and seeing it through … I really like experimenting with what I’m growing, that’s what I like the most. If it doesn’t work out one way, I’ll try another and see if it works out.

——

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After speaking with Güero and Abel it was clear to me that working here at Playa Viva has impacted them. For Güero’s case, you see the transformation of someone who has been farming his whole life with chemicals, who now would never use pesticides again and sees the importance of eating organically. For Abel, you see someone without any farming experience, who was so taken by the leafy greens in the greenhouse that he wanted to learn more; now after given the opportunity, he sees and understands why growing and eating organically is so important.

What’s exciting is that this is just the beginning of everything: a change, a shift, a step in the right direction. We’re just beginning to scratch the surface — both in our work with Gente Viva, food production at Playa Viva, as well as understanding what kind of impact this work is having and will have in the future.

I’m left feeling overly inspired. On at least one level, we’ve provided at least two people with a livelihood as organic farmers who now are aware of the harmful effects of pesticides and herbicides. They can feed their families with healthy, organic produce, and share what they learn here with their community.

Lastly, I was taken aback at how proud they are and that what they do is a labor of love.

“It’s all grown with love. This is what I believe: if you grow something with love, it’s going to give you better results. It serves a plant well; watering it, including talking with it. For example, whenever I’m watering this lettuce, I’m always caressing it, giving it a loving look. I talk with them, I even sing to them.” — Abel

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Guero, Abel, and their three volunteers Beth, Alice, and Christabel

 

 

A new round of volunteers: Meet the team behind the scenes

Our volunteers come from all over–from close to home here in Mexico as well as internationally–to support our work in organic food production, organic food preparation, permaculture, sea turtle conservation, English tutoring, and our local eco-tianguis, a farmers’ market that happens every Saturday in Zihuatanejo. Volunteers stay on average from one to three months and have the option of pursuing a personal project during their stay.

We are incredibly grateful for all of their hard work, so we want to share with you our current and/or most recent team of wonderful volunteers.

Lissett Medrano, USA, Turtle Sanctuary

lissettturtlesWhere are you from and what were you doing before you arrived? I grew up just a few minutes south of Washington D.C in Alexandria, VA. I was working in international policy at an environmental NGO- mainly planning for UN meetings we engaged in and some research on climate change, biodiversity and sustainable development policy.

How did you find out about Playa Viva? I saw the posting on a marine conservation newsletter I follow called SEVENSEAS.

Why did you decide to volunteer? After working in the conservation policy realm for years (at a desk), I had a strong yearning to get out to the field and work in community-based conservation. I was drawn to Playa Viva’s values and of course the chance to work with baby sea turtles in a beautiful country!

What are you working on at Playa Viva? In addition to releasing turtles into the ocean everyday, I’m working on improving best practices for the turtle program as well as engaging the local volunteers and community to build environmental awareness.

What has been the highlight of your experience so far? Riding the ATV on the beach in the dead of night under a blast of stars in search of turtle nests and observing a mama turtle make her way back to ocean after birthing 93 eggs- absolutely magical!

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On the way to the turtle sanctuary

Liza Couse, Canada, Farm to Table

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Service: January 20th – February 21st

Where are you from and what were you doing before you arrived? Originally from Toronto, I now call Vancouver, British Columbia home. Before I arrived here at Playa Viva, I was volunteering on a family-run herb farm on Vancouver Island taking care of plants, children, and goats! Previous to that, I was running a food truck for a cold-pressed juice company in Vancouver.

How did you find out about Playa Viva? I found out about Playa Viva from the website numundo.org that helps to connect people with meaningful volunteer opportunities around the world.

Why did you decide to volunteer? I came to volunteer at Playa Viva because I was seeking an educational adventure. I have a background in holistic nutrition, herbal medicine, and sustainable agriculture and Playa Viva has been the perfect place for me to put my education into practice. I am also here to practice Spanish, swim in the ocean every day, and enjoy Mexican cuisine.

What are you working on at Playa Viva? I have been spending my time working in the gardens, in the kitchen, and creating an informative plant / permaculture guide for the Horticulture Hike. In the kitchen I have been experimenting with ferments to add to the menu. This includes kombucha and a Mexican sauerkraut (complete with tomatillos and jalapeños). I also help the kitchen staff make tortillas and fresh juices in the mornings. For the Horticulture guide, I have been researching the medicinal and culinary uses of many of the plants growing here. This guide will serve as an educational tool for hotel guests to learn about the botanical offerings at Playa Viva and the permaculture techniques being applied to sustain the hotel and regenerate the land.

What has been the highlight of your experience so far? I have really enjoyed attending the Eco Tianguis – a local market in the nearby town of Zihuatanejo that takes place once a week. Playa Viva has a stand where we sell greens, coconuts, chocolate, and coffee. It has been awesome to mingle with locals and tourists, listening to great music and enjoying tamales.

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Eco-Tianguis Sanka, Zihuatanejo

Josh Milowe, USA, Farm to Table 

Where are you from and what were you doing before you arrived?

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Service: January 21st-February 16th

 I grew up on the East Coast, in upstate New York and later in Boston as well. I’ve been living in Brooklyn for 8 years, working as a graphic designer and video editor in advertising and film. I’m super grateful to have had so much freedom to take time off and travel to many places around the world for extended periods of time.   

Two years ago I completed a 3 month apprenticeship in Costa Rica at Finca Luna Nueva. We studied so much! We covered many principles of Permaculture, Biodynamic and Organic agriculture, soil science, nutrition, carbon sequestration and learned the properties of a huge array of medicinal plants. We even made chocolate, tea, cheese, butter and kombucha from scratch.

As an earthling, I love learning the many processes rooted in ancient traditional cultures in regard to food production, preservation, plant medicine and other practical knowledge. These technologies have not only stood the test of time, but have allowed many people to thrive across the world. I’ve been informally studying herbalism over the last two years and I am constantly seeking out new opportunities to learn about Permaculture principles being implemented in many different forms.

How did you find out about Playa Viva? Numundo.org !

Why did you decide to volunteer? I was very curious to learn about the permaculture technologies being used at the hotel. I was also eager to help out in the kitchen as well as on the farm. I wanted to be in an environment where I could continue studying Spanish and learn more about Mexican culture. Finally, with tropical blood running through my veins, missing some winter in New York City was a super easy decision.

What are you working on at Playa Viva? The first week I arrived, I was primarily helping out in the garden, weeding and shoveling compost, sweating and enjoying the sunshine. I spent a few days helping out in the kitchen, and two days working at the Eco-Tianguis, the local farmer’s market held every Saturday in Zihuatanejo.

My primary focus has shifted to designing a booklet for the Discovery Trail, in collaboration with Liza and a few of the other volunteers. The booklet will serve as a self-guided tour, as you walk along the trail that runs through the property. It highlights over 20 plants, including medicinal, culinary and traditional uses, as well as some information on local fauna and permaculture technologies being used here. I’ve created 30+ illustrations and I am designing the whole booklet… it should be ready soon!img_0212

What has been the highlight of your experience so far? First of all, there are so many amazing abuelitas around here! From the Grandmas who have little restaurants open for dinner in Juluchuca, to some of the incredible women selling food and crafts at the Eco-Tianguis market, and finally Lupita who holds traditional Temazcal ceremonies at her place in Playa Larga, which I was lucky enough to attend during my stay.

I’ve have also really enjoyed my time getting to know everybody at Playa Viva, including all the farm, kitchen and hotel staff. But especially working alongside Melissa and the other volunteers, spending the majority of every single day this past month together, you really grow close, quickly. We have had tons of great conversations and experiences together. It has been super fun running around with this gang of women 🙂

 

Corina Callejo, México, Sustainability and Hotel Management

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Service: February 1st-March 1st

Where are you from and what were you doing before you arrived? I am from Cuernavaca, Morelos. Recently I finished my masters degree in sustainable tourism

How did you find out about Playa Viva? One day I saw a Facebook add or news about the treehouse in a hotel in Mexico, so I decided to check it out

Why did you decide to volunteer? I wanted to get to know the hotel and the people working there, plus, I was interested in learning about the hotel management

What are you working on at Playa Viva? Another volunteer and I are working on the signs for the horticulture hike

What has been the highlight of your experience so far? Learning about the different aspects of the hotel, the different chores and responsibilities

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Carpooling back to town

Mariana Kameta, México, ESL and Farm  

Where are you from and what were you doing before you arrived? I’m from Mexico City. Before I came to PV I was working at a small company as an industrial designer.

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Service: February 1st-March 1st

How did you find out about Playa Viva? I found out about PV from a friend who had also volunteered here this past July.

Why did you decide to volunteer? I wanted to volunteer, because I had never volunteered before and I wanted to take a time off the routine and learn about organic farming.

What are you working on at Playa Viva? I’m working on the farm, making some signs for the horticulture hike and teaching English in the Primaria (primary school) and Prepa (high school) in Juluchuca.

What has been the highlight of your experience so far? I love working on the farm and learning new things every time.

 

Interested in volunteering with us? We accept volunteer applications on a rolling basis. We are also looking for committed farm volunteers with some experience to come work for us for a minimum of three months. Find out more here.  

How Playa Viva Guests and Local Community Work Together

Around mid-November a yoga retreat from Breathe Together Yoga Studio in California graced us with their presence at Playa Viva. During their stay a few of its participants took a local tour with Johnny around town, visiting the schools, the local coconut candy factory, and the small stands selling homemade jams and other edibles. During their tour, they saw something peculiar happening: they noticed large barrels of water being trucked in and families washing clothes in the river. They asked Johnny what was happening and he explained how the town’s water pump had failed.

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A couple weeks prior to the retreat, the pump that brings water into the town of Juluchuca had given way, leaving families to either purchase water or, for those who could not afford it, make trips to the river every day. The cost to replace the pump totaled about 2,000 USD. Raising funds proved to be a real hardship for the town, only garnering about $150 USD during the first round of collections. Most families simply could not afford to pay for the new pump and the supplies necessary to install it.

Guests who went on the local tour brought this need back to the rest of the group who immediately jumped on board with support and offers to help. They discussed with Johnny how much money the town needed, learning that the town still needed to raise $900. A second round of collections was in process where officials were going door-to-door trying to collect money for the pump from the residents.

The group decided collectively to donate a minimum $700 to the purchase of the new pump, which PV would buy and then receive reimbursement from the president, town, and The Ocean Foundation (our fiscal sponsor).

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Everyone in the town who made the pump possible!

After receiving the generous donation from the Breathe Los Gatos Retreat, a new pump was purchased and water once again flowed to Juluchuca. Helping restore water to the town was an enormous victory — leaving the town grateful and its donors filled with compassion.

“Helping restore water to the town for me was the highlight of my vacation. Unsafe drinking water, poor sanitation and inadequate hygiene – is one of the leading causes of death among children under the age of five. It also plays a large role in keeping people poor. I was beyond thankful for the privilege to join the retreat at PV and being able to share that thankfulness by giving back to the town who hosted us, warmed my heart and filled my soul.” – Charlene Chen, Retreat Participant