A beginner’s guide to community-based conservation

Written by Lissett Medrano

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

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

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

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

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

FUNDRAISING FOR NEW CAMP AND PERMIT RENEWAL

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

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

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

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

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Submitting paperwork in Mexico City: SEMARNAT

CAPACITY-BUILDING

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

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

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SOME TAKEAWAYS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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.

 

La Tortuga Viva: Predator-Proofing 101

 

Turtle Sanctuary

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!

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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!)

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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!

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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!

 

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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.

To make a donation click here.
Read the 2012-13 Annual Report click here.

The Bridge to Discovery – Volunteering at Playa Viva

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.

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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.”

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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?”

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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?”

Lynda Curtis 3LC: “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.Picture9

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.”