Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Day After the World did not Come to an End ~ Tour de Laguna Manialtepec

On this, the first day of the rest of my life, I was up early; not because I was so thrilled to be alive, but because my cellphone was ringing. I’d booked this bird tour to Laguna Manialtepec, just in case the world did not end. And now the tour guide was calling. It was 6:30 am and his voice sounded as chipper as a bird. Mine sounded groggy as a frog – I’d been out to the Rockaway for salsa night and had come in just a few hours before. 

Uhh, well…I really wanted to hang-up and go back to sleep, enjoy my Saturday like a huevon (big fat Mexican egg) on the beach. 

I’ll bring you a cup of coffee – how do you take it? The guide asked. He stayed at the Casa Dan y Carmen, one block below me, where they brewed a mean cup of Oaxacan Jose – and he’d obviously grown accustomed to having to pep-up his clients this way.

Uhhhh, okay, milk, no sugar.
The boat purred as Lalo, our boatman, guided us gently out of the cove, creating a velvet ripple in our wake. In seconds, the lagoon stretched in all directions, flat, calm, deep dark green, and cushioned around the edges by thick mangroves.  I felt at instant peace, the Pisces out in such open water, the wind in my face, happy the world had not ended.   

But it turns out it wasn’t just about the water – it was about the air. We were jetting through a living aviary – birds of all kinds in winter migration here at Manialtepec Lagoon, finding safe haven and a plentiful source of comida Mexicana – nesting in the in the maze of mangrove forest – and soaring above our heads.  

Our guide, Michael Malone, a notorious birdman, had been largely responsible for preserving this bird sanctuary over the last 30 years, migrating down from Detroit himself, and working with the locals to create a tour business and more importantly, pride to be living in such a diverse and unique ecosystem. (

We navigated into narrow tributaries with high-powered binoculars around our necks, searching for gems in the trees.   Lalo, our driver, could spot them best – he grew up on this water and knew just how to look. From the stern he quietly passed the message to Michel who then translated for the gringos – but based on the Spanish I could go right to the spot with my binoculars. I got better at seeing each time – like my eyes had to learn what to look for – slight movements and color variations.  

There was an abundance of life hiding inside the mangrove, Michael Malone said.  But sometimes it had to be called out.  So he and Lalo started making owl sounds, deep throaty hoots; and within seconds the monotonous mangroves filled with chatter, the birds alerting each other to this potential predator, then darting out of the brush and over our boat to investigate. We bathed in the birdsong and watched the airshow above us, Michael and the Lalo calling out the names of characters appearing on stage:  the aguila pescador (or ospray in English), the common black halk, the squirl cuckoo, an American Redstart and a couple kinds of warblers (the yellow and the black-and-white).

My fellow-passengers, a group of Canadians, impressed me with their knowledge of the birds and all their names, but more so by the love for them. You could tell by the way they talked to them:  Aren’t you a pretty thing and don’t you know it and C’mon out honey, don’t be ashamed of that funny bill – we love you anyway. It made me fall in love with the birds too.

My favorite bird of all was the Purple Gallinule with jewel tone feathers of blue, yellow and red luminescent  in the spiky brush.  I couldn't get much of a foto with my toy fuji point and shoot.  But this shot by a photographer named Joe Costanza gives you a clearer picture. 

The strangest site of all was that of the giant Wood Storks and the Neotropic Cormorants nesting in a swampy section of the lagoon, high in the tops of dead trees - such huge birds perched awkwardly on seemingly weak, brittle, naked branches, seemed like they might easily crack those branches and fall it.  (But my Canadian friends reminded me birds have hollow bones, so little chance of that - otherwise that might fall out of the sky in flight.)  

The strangest sound was the call of the parrots, something between a lion's roar and a cow's moo.  The bird men tried coaxing them out of the bushes but no luck - only the groans. Later we managed to spot a pair from the open lagoon, perched high in a tree.  But as soon as eyes zeroed in on their green feathery forms clinging to the side of the tree they fluttered off, with twitching wings, easy to discern against a spotless blue sky.  

Along our route, we bumped into fisherman pulling in nets of mullet, and invariably surrounded by packs of pelicans ready to pounce on the castoffs.     
But my favorite moment in the trip was soaring down river toward the mouth and catching my first glimpse of the sea. This time of year, the mouth is closed up. The smashing sea has built-up a sand wall between the two bodies, trapping fish and salt water inside, thus creating the brackish ecosystem that attracts so many winter migrants to this place.  

 On the spit of beach land between river and sea we found a palapa restaurant run by a family of fisherman, part of a small colony of former-African slaves. The guide told us that the Spaniards imported 250 thousand Africans to Mexico to augment the Indigenous labor, working the mines and plantations;  and many of them ended up here on the coast of Oaxaca.  (As a basis for comparison, the Colonists imported 5 million to America and the Portuguese 3.5 million to Brazil.) 

Beneath the shade of the palapa we we drank sweet coco water and cold cerveza and watched bird life pulsing away at this ecosystem crossroads. We ate robalo fish pulled right from the sea and fried up whole, its teeth still showing when laid on the platter in front of me.  I folded white chunks of fish, along with black beans and rice, altogether into the gigantic homemade tortillas and, as I bit down, bean juice and hot green salsa spilled out onto my knees. 

When we finished and cleared off our table Michael Malone pulled out bird checklists – we each got one – and we went through the list checking all the species we saw.  In the totality of my life, I’ve never seen so many birds – or maybe I just never noticed.  

Now this was a good thing to do on the first day of the new era: be with the birds.

For more shots of the trip visit

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Viva Viveros! Cultivating Native Plants & Sustainable Lives

The dictionary definition of sustainability is the capacity to endure – in the face of challenges and threats. Anne Pellicciotto, Peace Corps Volunteer Mexico (2010-2012), learned the true meaning of this word though Viva Viveros!
Assigned to SEMARNAT, the Mexican federal agency for environmental protection, Anne quickly realized that the government’s investments were not paying off. Their 3-month PET (programa empleo temporal) projects paid the people of rural ejido communities a temporary subsistence wage for ecosystem services – enough to fund construction of native plant greenhouses and initial production – but not enough to endure. 
Building upon Semarnat’s ‘seed’ investments,  Anne’s goal was to grow these projects into small yet sustainable native plant business and target their products to the extensive government reforestation market. Applying her entrepreneurial and organization development experience, plus the support of USAID through a small-project assistance (SPA) grant, Anne created a collaborative program to engage the communities of the process of their own change.
Envisioning Sustainability – People, Planet and Profits
Focused on two remote communities, Zamachihue and Paso de Botello, both situated in the arid Zona Media of the state of San Luis Potosi, Anne’s first step with Viva Viveros was to co-create a sustainable vision – one that inspired the all-women participants to believe in themselves and the power of their collective efforts.  Drawing pictures of the past, present and future of their vivero, they began to see the virtuous cycle of benefits to them, their families and the planet.

Looking at it through the lens of the United Nations and the three pillars of sustainability, Viva Viveros had true, holistic potential:
  • People – cultivate new skills, mindset, self-confidence and pride, unity of community
  • Planet – cultivate native plants and trees that generate oxygen and benefit the environment
  • Profits – generate profits through sale of the trees to   government and industry projects of reforestation.

Building Internal Capacity – Por, para y con la gente 

To realize the vision, the women needed training, organization and business planning and development. Thus, Anne developed a capacity-development program that included a series of eight interactive sessions over eight months of visits: 
  • Session 1 - Vision of Your Sustainable Business
  • Session 2 – Internal Organization and Profit-Sharing Agreement 
  • Session 3 – Defining Your Bylaws 
  • Session 4 – Hacienda Process for Business Registration/RFC 
  • Session 5 – Bano Seco Installation & Sustainable Living Practices
  • Session 6 – Marketing & Sales – Keys to Survival
  • Session 7 – Status Reporting, Financial Management
  • Session 8 – Reflection, Celebration, Transition to the Future
Note:  Some sessions were more scintillating than others.

Creating Identity and Professionalism

If you build it they will NOT come – especially to the remote communities where these viveros are situated. Thus, critical to the viability of these small businesses was creating an identity, and then connecting with potential clients in the reforestation sector.  The USAID funding allowed Anne and the communities work with professionals to create logos, brochures, posters and even a website – still under construction but soon accessible – to potential buyers and funders, with products, pricing, location and contact information.  
Another critical element in the business of sustainability was registering the business with the municipal government and, ultimately, obtaining Federal ID numbers and electronic signatures through La Hacienda (Mexico's equivalent of the IRS) - not a simple process. But without official designations, the vivero would not be permitted to sell their products to the government.    After six months of hard work internally, three visits to the capital for appointments with the SAT, plenty of patience and persistence and fees, the Zamachihue group secured with RFC and electronic signature, and JUST in time to close the deal with CONANP.

Closing the Deal
A sustainable micro-empresa, no matter how big or small, can only endure if there is income – real earned income, not handouts. Thus, after all the capacity building, planning and marketing, and cultivation, the ultimate push was for sales. The mesquite seedlings were busting out of their bags, and the rainy reforestation season was coming to a rapid close. After months of calls, meetings, presentations, emails, follow-up, follow-up and more follow-up, an environmental engineer from CONANP (the agency for the preservation of national parks and protected areas), called back, ready to sign a contract for 20,000 trees for a reforestation project in Parque Potosi. That was our whole crop! The baby trees would finally have a home – and the Mama’s of Zamachihue would finally have their windfall. 

But the deal wasn’t done until the trees were delivered and the payment was received and distributed among the women partners. Another learning opportunity, because transporting 14 tons of trees from the vivero to the community of Canada Grande on the others side of the Zona Media was no small task – it took 8 hours and 40 hands to load the first truck!  

Sustainability Starts with ME 
Though the one-year process, Anne and the women learned that sustainability starts with ME – with each individual on the team – with an attitude of patience that allows one to remain positive despite all the obstacles – combined with persistence that prompts one to push when there’s no more time for waiting. (You can spend a lifetime waiting in Mexico. In the end, the women got their check for $80,000 pesos, to be divided up among the 20 women socias, with 15 percent re-invested into the business in accordance with the internal agreement, so that Vivero Esperanza de Zamachihue will endure.

Then there was a fiesta!

Sustainability would not have been possible for these communities without the generosity of the American people through USAID.

The Zama Mamas ~ Before and After