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.
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.
When 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:
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”.
Improving 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?
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:
Access to healthy food
A clean environment
Access to medical care
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Q: Would you say that Playa Viva has been a transformational experience for you?
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.
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.
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
Recently, we were asked, “what is the reason and purpose of having volunteers at Playa Viva?” Never having formalized the rational for this program, it was surprising how easily the answer flowed. Volunteers are a bridge between guests and the local ecosystem, both the landscape of the property of Playa Viva and the people of the local community of Juluchuca. We see this as a long-term investment, just as our permaculture work is a long-term investment in the biodiversity and health of the ecosystem.
The mission of volunteering, at a day-to-day level, is for volunteers to engage with the community and then engage guests in the activities they are undertaking (more about the mission on a long-term basis in future blog post). Since we were asked, it might also be worthwhile featuring in this blog the good work of some of these volunteers.
We will start with Lynda Curtis who is currently (Nov 2014) a volunteer at Playa Viva working on with the Permaculture team during the day and spending two days a week teaching English in the local community of Juluchuca.
She sent some photographs of her experience and answered a few “interview” questions:
PV: “How is the experience volunteering at Playa Viva different from volunteering at other locations?”
LC: “Playa Viva is a very unique experience compared to many of the other options through WWOOFing and Work Exchange. The surroundings are amazing and the Eco Hotel is a very special place to be a part of. There are not many places where you get to relax by the pool or sun lounges during your time off. For me the food is a big highlight. Nutrition is very important to me and the fact that most is grown organically on site is a huge plus. The normal experience might be some toast for breakfast. Big difference! The workers are really great, very helpful and I felt part of the team straight away.”
PV: “As a volunteer, do you really think you are making a difference in people’s lives and, if so, how?”
LC:“I have had a short time volunteering teaching English to the young children in town but I can already see the value it adds. It is certainly an advantage for them to have English skills, opening up job opportunities when they are older and having the confidence to communicate with visitors. There really is no option here for them to learn English otherwise so it is important to continue with this work. We are currently compiling a folder of different activities that can be used by volunteers in the future with the kids.”
PV: “Would you recommend Playa Viva to others as a volunteer experience and, if so, why?”
LC:“I would certainly recommend Playa Viva to others. The amazing thing is the freedom that is afforded to volunteer in the way you feel can add the most value. This way the community can take advantage of a great skill set and the volunteer feels fulfilled and that they are really contributing.”
PV: “What have been some of the pleasant surprises of your experience volunteering?”
LC:“The kids are always a pleasure and provide great entertainment every lesson. What surprised me is, that for the most part, they are really well-behaved and want to learn. It’s very nice to have them calling my name as I walk through town. Also, it has opened up some of the other volunteers and workers to want to learn more when they realise I am teaching English. It’s great to share knowledge and skills.”
PV: “What have been the unpleasant surprises?”
LC:“For me there hasn’t been anything that surprises me. I have travelled in Latin America enough to know about the toilet paper basket, heat, mosquitos and every other creepy crawly. I love lizards, insects…any animal really. When a tarantula got inside I was excited to hold one much to the disgust of my friends! So what is unpleasant for me is probably quite different to others. Also for me the accommodation is fine – this might be different for others too as it is basic. If I was recommending to others to stay here I think they would need to understand it’s not like living in Australia.”
PV: “How would you describe the town and the people?”
LC:“The town is a very typical of Latin American. Very basic services, pretty hot, down and dirty but has a very unique flavor which I have grown to love.”
PV: “Can you tell me a story about working with the kids teaching English?”
LC:“Well, day-to-day, the kids are super cute of course. Yesterday I started teaching them Head Shoulders Knees and Toes. We first coloured some pictures showing the body parts. Then Franz played the song and I made a fool of myself doing the song and dance with them. They were super cute and really enjoyed it. I will do it again next week and maybe take a video, haha.”
PV: “Tell us about your overall experience at Playa Viva.”
LC: “Playa Viva – such a special place that I have been so fortunate to be able to experience. Every morning I get to watch the sunrise over the palm trees while sipping on a coffee and easing into the day. On very special mornings this includes spotting a mama turtle making her way back into the ocean after nesting. Just amazing.
Working in the garden has been a great opportunity to connect with nature and every day I discover new plants and creatures I never knew existed.
While the environment is truly spectacular, the staff, volunteers and local people really make the experience something special. Learning about Mexican culture, getting involved with local activities and teaching English to the children has really made me feel a part of the community.
I am having such a wonderful life experience and I hope that many more people get to experience what I have been so fortunate to encounter.”
The rain was coming in through the ceiling of every room there and it still does whenever it rains. Many of the windows are shattered which has the effect that everything inside the clinic quickly gets covered by a layer of dust.
Contribution by Malene Jakobsen, WWOOFer Volunteer and Nurse from Denmark.
Coming to Playa Viva feels like discovering a hidden treasure. Located right on the beach of the crystalline waters of the Pacific Ocean, Playa Viva seems to blend in perfectly with the natural exotic surroundings. One easily gets carried away here just contemplating how beautiful nature is and how wonderful life is in the midst of it all.
My objective in coming here is to experience this extraordinary place and also to do some voluntary work at Playa Viva or in the nearby community. Being a nurse from Denmark the possibility of working in the nearby medical clinic in the village Juluchuca seemed like the best use of my skills. Playa Viva arranged a brief meeting with the local doctor, Jenny, where I had a chance to meet her and see the clinic, and the following day I started working there.
The clinic provides medical assistance for about 1500 citizens from Juluchuca and surrounding villages. The doctor there works primarily on her own and has therefore many functions. Apart from doing the strictly medical treatments she also functions as a nurse and as a teacher giving lessons to the community about health issues such as hygiene, birth control,family planning, and the most common conditions such as parasites, diarrhoea and dehydration. The clinic also works as the local pharmacy handing out necessary prescription drugs and supplements. Each year a new doctor works there as part of the doctors education. During that year, the doctor lives in one of the rooms of the clinic and is therefore practically on duty 24/7.
The clinic got majorly damaged during the heavy rainfall of September 2013. The rain was coming in through the ceiling of every room there and it still does whenever it rains. Many of the windows are shattered which has the effect that everything inside the clinic quickly gets covered by a layer of dust. Most of the furniture inside is broken or damaged and several basic things are lacking such as an oxygen tank for e.g. pulmonary and asthmatic conditions and also a flushing toilet.
Yet the clinic is a very active and lively place. The treated patients often stay and have a chat with the other patients waiting in line, and in the evening the youth of Juluchuca gathers around because of the wireless Internet connection in the clinic; the only one in the village.
Several days of my first week there the doctor has held classes in health issues with different groups of women, who receive financial support. I have also helped her vaccinating many of these women with the tetanus and diphtheria vaccine. Yesterday the doctor and I were invited to have lunch at one of the patients’ restaurant on the beach. It was a wonderful experience and an amazing possibility to get to know a bit more about the local culture and the people who live here.
The clinic and the doctor clearly contributes in an essential way to the local community, both in terms of prevention and treatment, especially for the poorer population, but is definitely in the need of thorough reconstruction economic support.
NOTE from Playa Viva Team – We are working with Malene and Jenny to develop a list of items that are needed, a set of repairs that need to be done and resources necessary to improve the clinic. Stay tuned for more details. The goal, like our school improvement project, is to work with the locals to provide labor while we provide the needed resources to team up with guests and make needed improvements. If you will be at Playa Viva in the Winter and Spring of 2014 and would like to assist in improving the clinic, please let us know. All ideas welcome.
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas our mailboxes, both real and virtual, are filled with holiday cards that remind us how much younger we are not getting, catalogs that remind us to be good consumers and solicitations that remind us to donate to deserving causes. Playa Viva did its part when we recently sent an email requesting support for the local community of Juluchuca and the turtle sanctuary “La Tortuga Viva” – “Buy a Baby Turtle” for the holidays.
Related to the holidays, I just got a list from our accountants of all the donations we made of free stays at Playa Viva in support of deserving causes. Primarily we support groups that promote environmental conservation/restoration and social impact. In social impact, we focus our support education, health and economic development especially for the Hispanic community. If you have a group that promotes these goals, let us know how we can help.
Los invitamos a ver este vídeo producido por Oliver Velazquez sobre el tema de Turismo Sustentable y como Playa Viva esta haciendo su parte en promover biodiversidad, la comunidad local, energía y agua renovable y limpia y turismo “deluxe” que atrae la gente local y extranjera para el beneficio de la comunidad y el medio ambiente.
Disfruta. De lo poco que publicamos en español, me da gusto tener programas como este.
What does GIIRS certification mean to you? Don’t mean to be glib, but click on the link and do the research if you are not familiar with this social and environmental impact assessment system. For Playa Viva, part of going through GIIRS certification was taking our “game up a notch” when it comes to measuring our impact on the local community, especially when it comes to our supply chain.
Last summer, Monica Oyarzun, lead a project that involved tracking our suppliers and documenting how our own supply chain meets the demands of the social impact investment community. See the slideshow below including photos of various partners in our supply chain including vendors of fruits and vegetables, meats and poultry, cheese and milk as well as various excursion providers.
In addition to the GIIRS process, we are now more closely tracking our impact on suppliers, starting with changes to our accounting system to more closely track expenditures by each vendor. While this adds overhead to our already hard working hospitality team, we hope to plug this data into methodology developed by the Overseas Development Institute to study our impact in our local community and be able to compare to other similar projects globally. The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) is the UK’s leading independent think tank on international development and humanitarian issues.