After my first couple days at Playa Viva, I remember walking down to the turtle camp, a nice 10-15 minute stroll down the beach from the hotel, and introducing myself to the two turtle volunteers who happened to be working that morning: Eusebio and Celedonio — two brothers who had been working in the camp for several years. I had no idea what I was really getting myself into. Yes, I had worked in conservation before; yes, I had worked in small, rural communities; but I had never quite worked at the intersection of tourism and conservation. Additionally, although I have a Mexican father and had traveled to Mexico many times before, I had also never worked and lived in Mexico.
My Spanish was rusty and all I knew about the turtle camp was that I was now managing the relationship between the camp and hotel and that the camp was a popular attraction for the guests at the hotel. I began to do my research, talking with past Playa Viva volunteers who had worked with the camp, and began to observe the operations of the camp. I had observed some less than favorable practices and knew as well we were very overdue for the federal permit required to operate a turtle sanctuary. The more I began to uncover, the more I realized I couldn’t do this alone.
To boot, this was just one of many projects and priorities. On top of the daily turtle releases with the guests, I also had a volunteer program to run, a social impact evaluation to conduct, guest education and integration, community projects to roll out, and more all at the same time. I simply didn’t have the time or emotional energy to mobilize a team of 14 volunteers from the local community to provide them with the tools necessary to be effective conservation stewards.
I knew that I couldn’t do it alone. I knew that I needed help.
I put out an ad for a “Turtle Sanctuary Coordinator” in October of 2016 (an unpaid position mind you), less than a month after I arrived at Playa Viva. That first round I got a bunch of applications and the last one that rolled in, about a month after the rest, turned out to be a gem.
I read Lissett’s cover letter and resume, discovering that she and I were ironically from nearly the same hometown in Northern VA, and knew pretty much immediately she’d be a great fit for the role:
Specifically, I would be able to deliver the following – exceptional organization to track, monitor and improve the daily procedures of the conservation program and volunteer team … Lastly, as an avid world traveler and having built relationships over long distances, I have strong understanding of diversity and other cultures and welcome new environments.
This was exactly what I needed and I wasn’t disappointed.
For nearly 11 months of the past year, Lissett dedicated herself to supporting the coordination and management of the turtle camp and its relationship with the hotel. As a unique turtle camp-Playa Viva volunteer, Lissett’s responsibilities were twofold: support the sanctuary and its fourteen volunteers (all from the local community) to ensure they are following best conservation practices and engage hotel guests (mostly international) in hatchling releases and educational tours of the sanctuary.
Aside from the most pressing task–working with the sanctuary president to renew the sanctuary’s overdue federal permit–she simultaneously helped to organize and manage the nearly all-male volunteers (initiating regular monthly meetings), coordinated (and raised funds for) the construction of a new sanctuary, organized capacity building activities for the volunteers, and engaged hotel guests in hers and the sanctuary’s work (including daily sea turtle releases).
Lissett was the first volunteer to work formally in this capacity with the sanctuary. Having never actually worked with sea turtles before and without much guidance, her ability to take on and find solutions to the various challenges presented—e.g. breaking through cultural norms regarding her gender as a woman, building relationships with men from a rural machista culture, and the slow, bureaucratic process of working with local, state and federal government in a foreign country, to name a few—was impressive.
“Building relationships with the volunteers proved to be one my biggest challenges. I was a total outsider and it took months of one on one time with each of them and some (literal) heavy lifting during weekend cleanups/ construction to gain their acceptance and friendship. Without these relationships it would have been impossible to accomplish anything – from getting them to show up to a meeting to constructing the new sanctuary.”
Finally, after months of hard work poured in, Lissett, the turtle camp President, Héctor, and camp Secretary, Beto, were ready to fly to Mexico City to submit the permit application to SEMARNAT (Secretariat for the Environment and Natural Resources).
The Mexican government doesn’t make the acquisition of said permit easy: in addition to the mountain of documents required, submitting the permit directly in Zihuatanejo (1 hour by car) could take up to 9 months to process. So, Playa Viva paid for the three of them (Lissett, Hector and Beto) to go on a three-day trip to the big city and submit it directly to headquarters to speed up the process. That trip was Héctor’s and Beto’s first time on a plane and Beto’s first time out of Guerrero.
A pretty amazing thing to see and be a part of.
So now, finally… the good news! After submitting the permit in mid-October, we recently received the once elusive permit from SEMARNAT to legally operate and run the turtle hatchery.
The whole process was a massive reminder for me that things are possible and often all that’s required is a little patience.
Working in Mexico is not for the faint of heart. Things move very slowly and the community work we do down here is full of challenges. You’re constantly pushing uphill, constantly working against entropy.
Sometimes you feel all your battles are uphill, with no end in sight.
Nevertheless, over the course of several months Lissett charged uphill, seamlessly worked across two different cultures on a daily basis, gracefully dealing with rural machista culture, turtle camp politics and the demands of the hotel. She never gave up.
Thanks to her, we have new leadership positions within the camp, which has helped camp organization, and she helped paved the way for Débora, our current camp coordinator who is also doing amazing work.
The permit process, although cumbersome and although we’ll have to do it all over again in just a few short months, will now be a lot easier this next time around.
Looking back, it’s incredible to see how much progress has been made in a year and a half for a small turtle camp outside a rural community of 350 people, entirely run on donations from Playa Viva guests.
It makes me wonder what is possible in the next year and a half.
For the moment–however brief and fleeting–the feeling I have is this:
Sometimes the largest hurdles just take time, a little patience and the right attitude to get it done.
I really wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into when I decided to quit my job of 5 years and move to a small rural community in Guerrero, Mexico to work with sea turtles, especially since I had never “worked with turtles” before. But after spending 10 months working alongside the Juluchucan volunteers that manage La Tortuga Viva (LTV) sea turtle sanctuary, I have a much better understanding of what community-based conservation entails. One thing I’m definitely sure of now is that I made the right choice and this experience has paved a clearer path of how I want to continue to support preserving this planet and its vulnerable species. There were many lessons learned and even more people I am eternally in gratitude toward.
Given that I was the first person to formally work with the camp in this capacity (as “turtle sanctuary coordinator”), my experience was an open canvas and I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to completely take charge and make this role my own. At first, it was a bit challenging adjusting to working with little direction, but ultimately I thrived on the lack of formal structure in this role, which enabled me to cultivate leadership skills that I hope to continue develop and apply in the future.
As mentioned in a previous blog, I dedicated a bulk of my efforts in my first few months in building relationships with the volunteers, mainly composed of males. A few of my priorities included:
Renew permit with Ministry of Environment (SEMARNAT) required for nest relocation
Construction of new sanctuary
Capacity building of camp volunteers
Improve turtle release with Playa Viva guests
Environmental education and awareness
Facilitate partnerships with local turtle camps
Improve data collection
However, as I began to learn more and more about the issues in the camp, I ultimately dedicated most of my energy toward the first three priorities: permit renewal, new sanctuary and capacity building.
FUNDRAISING FOR NEW CAMP AND PERMIT RENEWAL
It is a conservation best practice for artificial hatcheries to be moved approximately every 2 years to prevent the buildup of bacteria and ants caused by egg shell remains, which threaten the success rates of hatchling turtles. LTV had been operating for many years without relocation and the hatchling success rate was suffering. Also, the camp had a significant amount of wear and tear and was no longer effective against predators such as the tejones, local badgers that managed to get in and prey on multiple nests on a daily basis. After assessing the cost and qualities of supplies needed, we realized it was much higher than expected so decided to fundraise through a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo.
There were many hurdles every step of the way in building the new turtle sanctuary and getting the permit paperwork ready. There were challenges for even the most simple of task; for example, borrowing some tools for construction was met with surprising resistance. After a month in the process of acquiring the supplies, it seemed that every action in this process would require strategic thinking and would take much longer than expected. There is no local Home Depot to pick up wood or black shade mesh required for these types of sanctuaries. I worked with multiple staff at the hotel in locating, ordering and delivering these supplies to the new sanctuary location. I didn’t always make the best choice and it was tough to come to realization that I should have gone about things a different way. In the end, all the hardships I experienced and approaches that “didn’t work” will enable me to better address these type of issues in a different context in the future so I took them as lessons learned.
So many people were involved in helping with the permit process and the creation of this new camp and I am beyond grateful to all the family, friends and other donors who supported these projects. Through this collective effort, up to 6000 turtle eggs will be monitored at a time in the new camp.
Below is a brief timeline of the process for both tasks.
Another exciting opportunity for the camp were some of the capacity-building activities that we were able to begin. Throughout the year, despite some resistance, we established semi-regular meetings to discuss internal issues that were hindering the effectiveness of the camp and I worked to rally and empower the volunteers to talk about these issues openly. Though these efforts sometimes clashed with the views of the President, it’s important to facilitate these exchanges in order to build an organized and high-performing team of motivated volunteers.
We were also able to organize a few capacity-building workshops with the volunteers. With the help of Joao Gouveia, a fellow conservationist in the area who has experience in training turtle camp volunteers, the camp received training on sea turtle management, biology and handling with the aim of improving sea turtle hatchling success. For many volunteers, this information was new and they were eager to learn more and apply their new knowledge in the field during their patrols. These quarterly trainings will continue in the new season.
I’ve learned an incredible amount about what conservation “on the ground” really is. Here are some of my takeaways/advice for anyone looking to work in community-based conservation:
Focus on the big picture- it’s impossible to solve all the issues;
Sea turtle conservation in rural Mexico = working with people 90% of the time;
It is absolutely essential to understand what incentivizes and drives the community to conserve or not conserve;
Community-based conservation is a complex ongoing process and there isn’t “one way” to do it successfully but a multitude of ways to address it.
Although the new camp, permit and capacity building opportunities are incredibly exciting news, the most rewarding part of my work with the camp were the relationships I built with all the volunteers. Being an outsider and in a new role, it was a tough integration on both sides that took a lot of time, patience and learning. As I began to say my goodbyes to this beloved community, a few of the guys, including the Camp President, reflected that they were really proud of what we accomplished and having someone so invested in their work has given them more reason to “echarle ganas” or “work hard” which made the all hardships worthwhile as they are the ones that will ultimately be the protectors of this vulnerable species in the community.
It was bittersweet but I left Juluchuca full of hope for the future of the camp and its volunteers. For an extended update of LTV’s activities this year, you can check out the Season 8 Report here.
As we celebrate oceans this month, today is specifically dedicated to one of earth’s most ancient sea creatures—sea 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…
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.
My main contact with the camp was through the camp President, Hector, who I could only communicate with in person since he has no phone or email. Surprisingly, not an easy man to find in such a small town! Through persistence, jumping on any opportunity for group gatherings (Sundays clean ups, meetings etc), and creating new communication channels, like Whatsapp groups for camp volunteers with phones, I’ve managed to build a solid relationship with Hector and get to know the guys more.
Once I established myself as a fellow turtle volunteer, I began to organize and facilitate more meetings where we discussed issues that many volunteers had long since given up on. Most of the time, the meetings didn’t solve any problems, but they were useful in starting a trend to talk openly about issues, rather than complaining in private, which was the norm.
Another challenge was and will continue to be the camp’s resistance to change, which is not too uncommon in Juluchuca. Any suggestions to improve camp operations or try things a different way are often met with stubborn resistance. Even the smallest efforts, like using reusable bags instead of plastic, are met with reasons on why it wouldn’t work. I learned very quickly to approach new ideas carefully and always gather their opinions before proposing anything.
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.
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.
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
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
Playa 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.
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.
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
With an average of 6 turtle nests ransacked by predators each night, the more that our volunteer team can reach and relocate to the safe, secure haven of La Tortuga Viva Turtle Sanctuary, the better!
Yet our rivals – mainly coatis and tejones – are a cunning bunch, and as they refuse to rest on their laurels, nor can we.
So as they continue to adapt and find new, innovative ways to defy our sanctuary security measures, so must we strive to stay one step ahead. (And if there’s anything we relish, it’s a challenge!)
Cue our January renovation project: Predator-Proofing Round Two.
Our mission? To rethink our security strategy, helping us to remain in the winning corner for the 6th year running…
Step 1: Strengthening the Structure
While our unique position – just a stone’s-throw away from the seashore – is one of our favourite features, Playa Viva’s picturesque setting still brings with it a couple of drawbacks. Case in point: weathering.
Although we carefully select the most durable local materials available when building our 100% natural structures – from our eco-casitas and yoga studio, to our plant nursery and turtle sanctuary – we’re also well aware, that soon enough, these will all require an upgrade.
Thankfully, many hands do indeed make light work, and so our team of volunteers – permaculture staff, locals and international workers – made replacing the 100+ wooden posts that lined the sanctuary perimeter, and provided sturdy support for the mesh roofing, look a lot easier than 5 days of solid work under the burning sun would suggest!
Step 2: Climb-Prevention Canopies
Fearing that turtle egg predators weren’t far off mastering their mesh-climbing skills, and would soon be scaling our wired walls with spiderman-like ease, it was time to put our heads together. Head of permaculture, Sapo – known for his awe-inspiring problem-solving powers – came up with a solution in no time, a mosquito-mesh canopy, along with a comprehensive construction plan detailing how exactly the design would work.
(That’s one of the beauties of being part of a living, breathing, continually-evolving project such as Playa Viva; who needs a blueprint when you’ve got your killer instincts to rely on, and sufficient head-space to hear them!)
Thus, the team set about cutting the mosquito mesh to size; threading pliable wire through the top and bottom (the top, to attach it to the wire mesh; the bottom, to hold the mesh between posts in place); fitting wooden supports to the perimeter posts; and finally, attaching the mesh to the wooden supports. So coati be warned – you may get up, but you certainly won’t get over!
Step 3: Blocking the Diggers
Having dealt with the ‘up and over’ style of break-in, our final step was to thwart the attempts of those who may call our bluff, and choose the ‘down and under’ approach…
For this solution, mesh came up trumps again – as did Sapo – who decided that a deeply-embedded, double-mesh-whammy would create the ultimate predator barrier.
And so, trenches were dug, wire mesh walls were pulled down and repositioned, and an extra mosquito mesh was laid on the inside – all ensuring that no creature, however great or small can pass through the net…quite literally!
La Tortuga Viva (The Living Turtle) Background: Situated at the southeast corner of Playa Viva, the sanctuary is run by an all-volunteer staff, comprised of members of the local community. These are fisherman and farmers who recognized the damage being done to the local turtle population and decided to make a difference.
During a recent visit to Playa Viva, we made our second batch of soap with Lorraine, currently on tour of duty as the Yoga/Massage/Host at Playa Viva. She just sent us this note related to continuing with our soap making efforts.
“I was able to make soap on Sunday with Gabriel. The minimum amount being 10 liters. After re-reading the information sheet on bio-diesel it states that for every 1 liter of soap 50 milligrams are required of essential oils. I experimented with one liter adding chocolate and peppermint. The remainder I left un-scented. This being the 3rd batch ready for use 2/21/13.
What I did do was re-melt the remaining pieces left over after cutting the 2nd batch and scenting two samples and adding oatmeal to one. I left the rest un-scented which smells nice and not overly fragrant. This will be ready for use 2/27/13.
I cut round pieces and asked the housekeeping team to place them in the rooms instead of the regular soap. We now make a point to inform the guest about Playa Viva soap in the rooms. Since then we have had a total 4 sales at $5.00 for a three pack. The guest love it!
The only thing I would make other than bar soap would be the liquid soap that is used for general cleaning because the glycerin would be good for all wooded surfaces.
My recommendation: in order for your soap product to come out, once the proportions are established would be to:
pay Gabriel [who currently runs the bio-diesel production] to make it
let it set for 3 weeks, then have the housekeeping staff reheat it, (I taught them how to do this)
at this time you can add fragrance (which can be costly) let it set another 3 weeks before using.
This process allows the Sosa [lye] to evaporate leaving a nicer product.