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.

 

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

 

 

Meet the Playa Viva Volunteers!

 

Volunteers are an enormous source of support for the Playa Viva team. Our volunteers come from all over the world and support our work in multiple aspects and bring a multitude of experience. We have volunteers supporting our farm and food production teams, our permaculture team, our kitchen staff, our turtle sanctuary, as well as teaching English in Juluchuca. Volunteers stay on average one to three months and have the option of utilizing any personal skills they might bring by taking on a personal project.

We are incredibly grateful for all of their hard work, so we wanted to share with you our current team of wonderful volunteers. Thank you all for your support!

Dani Schugg, USA

Service: Oct 15-Dec 15

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

I’m originally from southern California, but lived in Madrid, Spain for the past year teaching English at a primary school.

How did you find out about Playa Viva?
I found out about volunteering at Playa Viva through a family friend who knows David, the owner.

Why did you decide to volunteer?
I was looking for another opportunity to teach English, in Latin America this time, and Playa Viva seemed like a great fit! I was also very intrigued by Playa Viva’s core values as a sustainable hotel and wanted to see what all the rage was about. Also, have you seen the pictures?? They alone will convince you to come to Playa Viva.

What are you working on at Playa Viva?
I have a pretty mixed schedule. I teach English at the local primary school (grades 1-6) twice a week and at the high school twice a week. Then, I work in the kitchen the remaining shifts with the best chefs in Mexico!

What has been the highlight of your experience so far?

In my two months, Juluchuca has become a home away from home. From getting tacos at Lupe’s to chasing the piggies with my camera every chance I get, it’s hard to pick just one highlight. I will miss hovering over Inés, Olga and Abraham watching them work their magic in the kitchen, and I’ll for sure miss my celebrity status amongst the kiddos.

Andy Ollove, USA

Service: Nov 1-Dec 15

img_6599Where are you from and what were you doing before you arrived?

I’ve been living in New York City for the last 8 or so years and before then Baltimore. Before Playa Viva I was working in local food systems, helping to connect low income communities around the country to affordable and locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables. Otherwise I spent my days biking around the city and lamping in parks.

How did you find out about Playa Viva?

Me and my girlfriend Sarah found Playa Viva via WWOOF.

Why did you decide to volunteer?

We decided to come for all of the reasons: its social and environmental mission, its location in the beautiful Costa Grande region of Mexico, the opportunity to learn basic farming and gardening skills, and possibly the biggest reason of all: to freshen up our Spanish.

What are you working on at Playa Viva?

At Playa Viva I work as part of the food production team with Abel & Güero, cleaning garden beds, harvesting greens, turning compost, and representing Playa Viva at the weekly farmers market in Zihuatanejo. Additionally I am working with the organizers of that market to run a couple workshops intended to increase the capacity of their market and reach new local customers. This is work that I’ve done in the United States and wanted to share with the community here.

What has been the highlight of your experience so far?

My favorite part of the day is the starry-skied ride to work everyday in the brisk morning on the back of a pick up. Drinking coffee with the sunrise and watching the mist disappear from the water is a great way to begin a day of work.

Sarah Labriola, USA

Service: Nov 1-Dec 15
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Where are you from and what were you doing before you arrived?

I’m originally from Los Angeles but have been living in New York where I worked for the NYC Parks Department.

How did you find out about Playa Viva?

I found out about Playa Viva through the website WWOOF

Why did you decide to volunteer?

I decided to volunteer because I wanted to learn how to grow food and work on my Spanish. I chose to apply to Playa Viva because the volunteer program seemed more structured and dynamic than others.

What are you working on at Playa Viva?

I have been working on the food production team on the farm as well as helping out in the kitchen.

What has been the highlight of your experience so far?

The highlights for me have been watching the sunrise every morning and jumping in the ocean after a hot day on the farm!

Tristan Borrensen, Denmark

Service: Nov 15 – Jan 1(?)


img_6554Where are you from and what were you doing before you arrived?

I am from Copenhagen, Denmark and I used to be tour guide around in the Copenhagen canals.

How did you find out about Playa Viva?

By the Mexican WWOOF list

Why did you decide to volunteer?

I have done WWOOFing before in Chile and I desired having more experience in farming and agriculture, improving my Spanish and also learn more about real Mexican rural culture.

What are you working on at Playa Viva?

Currently, I am working on the trails signs. The signs need to be engraved, painted and polished so hopefully they can lead and teach the guests about this wonderful area of Playa Viva for many years.

What has been the highlight of your experience so far?

The first week I was “chaponando”, in other words, cutting weeds and maintaining the trails with a machete. It was pretty hard – but as a true ranchero or “charro” I held on too tight – consequently, I got a bunch of “bulas” on my hands. Secondly, I have repaired and sowed the tent of the turtle sanctuary, which a famous Youtuber has captured and used in his film about Playa Viva. I’ve been training the little kids of Juluchuca in football and also play with the adult Juluchuca team. I’ve been to a quinceañera and have been enjoying some beers with the locals Saturday nights. I have met a lot of great people and the delicious food here abounds and astonishes your eyes.

Johanna Ledermann, Germany

Service: Nov 30-Dec 30

img_6580Where are you from and what were you doing before you arrived?

I’m from Leipzig, Germany. Before I arrived I was finishing my BA in cultural studies with a thesis focusing on sociology of food and agriculture, working on a biodynamic farm and volunteering in theater and film festivals.

How did you find out about Playa Viva?

I found out through a random search looking for farms to work at in Mexico.

Why did you decide to volunteer?

I was interested in learning more about the flora in Mexico and how organic agriculture is carried out in the context of supplying a hotel. I wanted to work with locals since they are a lot more knowledgeable than many expats starting farms in Mexico and playa viva is facilitating this exchange.

What are you working on at Playa Viva?

Since I’m interested in the whole cycle of food I am working in the production team and in the kitchen. I will happily share my skills in permaculture aligned with the vision of playa viva.

What has been the highlight of your experience so far?

Since I haven’t been here for a long time it’s hard to already identify a highlight, though it was and is definitely amazing to get to see so many different plants I only knew from pictures out in the terrain of Playa Viva.

 

Mercedes Falk, USA

Service: Dec 1-Dec 30

img_6579Where are you from and what were you doing before you arrived?

I am from Wisconsin and I was working on a small farm helping produce vegetables and manage food processing in the certified kitchen on site there.

How did you find out about Playa Viva?

I met Melissa, the Volunteer Coordinator, a year and a half ago in Belize and subsequently found out about volunteer opportunities at PV via her awesome posts!

Why did you decide to volunteer?

I decided to volunteer because I had plans to come to Mexico to improve my Spanish speaking skills and I love working with food so much that I wanted to combine my desire for bettering my Spanish with a hands-on volunteer experience on a farm.

What are you working on at Playa Viva?

I am working on the food production team and I will be working in the kitchen. Growing food and seeing it from start to finish is one of my favorite things to do so being on both of these teams seems like the perfect, full-circle experience.

What has been the highlight of your experience so far?

Besides staying in Juluchuca and seeing all the pigs and chickens that are freely integrated into the town life, the highlight of my experience so far (all two days of it!) has been how friendly the staff has been in welcoming me and having patience with my gringo Spanish skills.

If you’re interested in volunteering, please contact our Volunteer Coordinator, Melissa, at volunteer@playaviva.com.

“Where Your Vacation Meets Your Values” — voting with your dollar (investing and spending)

Recently, I’ve been reading alot about the growth of the social impact investing space and wanted to address this in the context of social impact spending and how we vote with the dollars we spend as much as those we invest.

JuluchucaSaltIn an article by Stephanie Cohn Rupp of the Threshold Group,  she addresses the size of social impact investing marketplace and key bottlenecks to growth.  Similarly, in an article by Colin Close with InvestCloud, he discusses how impact investing is moving from fringe to mainstream.  The basic idea is to invest your dollars with your values.  Original SRI (Socially Responsible Investing) was mostly values based with churches and other groups putting up “negative” screens and asking investment advisors and portfolio manager to exclude certain investments which did not match with their values such as guns, tobacco, alcohol, gambling, etc.  The market has moved from exclusion to inclusion, from “screening out” to “advocacy”, as many of these same financial advisory groups are advocating for companies they invest in to make “positive” changes related to corporate governance, community engagement and environmental impact.

It all sounds great especially when you read that the returns from ESG/SRI has been as good as or better than the market in most cases. How do they define this? They take one index (basket of stocks) and compare it to another. One that broadly represents the market like the S&P 500 and the iShares MSCI KLD 400 Social ETF. Go look it up, here is how it is described:

  1. Exposure to socially responsible U.S. companies
  2. Access to a broad range of stocks that have been screened for positive environmental, social, and governance characteristics
  3. Use to invest based on your personal values

Now, take a look at the list of top 10 companies. They include Coca-Cola and Pepsico. I don’t know about you, but the sale of sugar water and bottled water is not in alignment with my values. Sure, I guess I could ask for a further screening to exclude these two from the top 10. But, if these are included, who’s making the list and what are their values based on?

Julia with Odin at Playa Viva
Julia with Odin at Playa Viva

When Playa Viva was just building it’s first buildings, we had a special guest,renowned American environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill, who was pondering moving to Playa Viva to live. During our time together Julia taught me what is meant by really living by your values and doing as much as you can, and should do, to save our planet.  I do aspire to many of her choices and the discipline she exercises in the execution of those values. The key to what she taught me was — We make small decisions every day in how we act, what we chose to do, and not do, how we plan ahead, how we make the hard choices in order to live with little to no impact on the earth.  We invest in impact by the daily decisions we make, by the way we spend (not just invest) our dollars.

pv_3We, at Playa Viva, have developed a motto over the years — “Where Your Vacation Meets Your Values.”  We know we are not perfect and much of what we do is aspirational at best. So when you look to make your vacation choice, we hope your vacation investment looks deeply at your vacation decisions. We ask that you engage with your vacation choice, hopefully it is with us, about your values to make sure we are in alignment.   Sure, I cringe every time I look under the bar and find a few cans of Coca-cola products. But they are under the bar, specifically for those customers who just can’t live without their fix. While on top of the counter is always a glass “jarra” full of Aguas Frescas, fresh water/juices, made with locally harvested fruits.

What do you reach for to quench your thirst? Does your vacation meet with your values?

 

Volunteers Come and Go….

The following is an article written by Samantha Orive as she completes her tour of duty as a volunteer at Playa Viva.  

2015-01-17 07.00.50Mornings in the quiet town of Juluchuca Guerrero start with a morning concerto starring the local roosters. Although rehearsals go on all throughout the day, it seems that the five am showing not only has the most beautiful voices, but there is a feeling of encouragement that manages to clear the mind and allows you to find energy for the long day ahead.

A much ruder awakening awaits you in the back of a pick up truck. A feeling of recklessness hits your stomach (not unlike a double scotch would) when you are going 80 km/hr and that sexy morning chill always comes on too strong, raising goosebumps in your arms and adventurous intentions in your thoughts.  A sense of well being spreads though out your body, it is not yet seven am and you are drunk on circumstance and high on life.

You come to doubt if Van Gogh’s starry night should actually be considered a masterpiece once you look at the canvass over you. The stars not only seem to perfectly describe their chosen constellation names, but to sit you on their comforting knees and whisper their tales in your ears. Orion The Hunter looks bright enough to jump out from the sky and continue his hunt on earth, followed closely by his loyal dogs. We all paint clumsy brushstrokes in our minds, never truly capturing the mysterious beauty of the sky.

2015-02-11 11.21.21Volunteers come and go, looking for something, someone, running from something, or maybe someone. And while you are digging trenches, weeding the relentless verdolagas, or planting row upon row of lettuce, you forget why you are here or maybe even who you are. Dirt finds its way under your nails, it changes the hue of your eyes and when it reaches your heart you conclude the questions are invalid and the answers are futile. Dirt is the absolute here.

Hunger. There is a deep hunger to learn, know, experience and share; but there is a more literal hunger that strikes exactly at eight thirty am. Stomachs rumble keeping tune with the sea and images of plump fresh handmade tortillas, dozens of eggs drowned in salsa verde, and those evil cups of coffee that seduce the strongest of wills with promises of productivity and stability come to mind. There is an instant gratification after meals at Playa Viva that turn into future life dilemmas, for how on earth will I go back to store bought tortillas?

A hammock is not merely a handy set of strings to rest, but a way of living. Within it lies enough entertainment for every evening. The trees like to divert you playing shadows with the sun, the characters in your book grow impossibly difficult to walk away off, and conversations with friends brim with candor and emotion. In the steady swaying of a hammock, a soundness anchors in the foundations of that little white house in Juluchuca.

2015-01-07 06.45.21The sun does not like goodbyes, it prefers a quick painful farewell at six forty two pm, and if you look away from the horizon you will miss it. The best comforting remedy is named Vicky, who is always more attractive when accompanied by just gathered limes and thick local salt. She may be cold hearted, but after a flirtatious conversation with her she will warm up your insides and you know you will fall deliciously in love with her every night.

The answers are there of course. The seeds will sprout in record time, the muscles will ache with pleasure, the children will laugh in bare feet, the skin will darken, the women will launder by the river, the men will sing their melancholic tunes, the smiles will grow more genuine, and at the end of the day it will not only be the sun saying a painful goodbye.