The Necaxa River Watershed, or Cuenca Hidrográfica del Rio Necaxa (CHRN), is a federally protected zone in the states of Puebla and Hidalgo. Situated within the cloud forest ecosystem of the CHRN are five reservoirs that capture water for the production of hydroelectricity. The CHRN is a RAMSAR site, attracting migratory birds and supports a diversity of plant and wildlife species such as bromeliads, orchids, otters, boa constrictors, ocelots and many more. The CHRN also provides a livelihood for communities who make a living off of farming, fishing and tourism and whom rely on its forests for wood for the construction of their homes, cooking and heating. The CHRN was declared a protected area with the intent of protecting hydroelectric production and environmental services provided by the region’s forests, soils and water for the benefit of communities and as part of Mexico’s national initiative to mitigate and adapt to the climate change.
With the help of 2 directors and 15 teachers at two schools, we designed and implemented an environmental education program focused on two major problems- the lack of awareness of the fact that the area is a federally protected zone and the contamination of reservoirs from waste. Prior to the program, 20% of teachers and 16% of students knew they lived in a protected zone. As far as waste management goes, every year 40 to 46 tons of garbage is removed from each reservoir.
In designing the program, the Peace Corps manual “Environmental Education in the Schools: Creating a Program that Works” was used as a guide and Participatory Analysis for Community Action (PACA) tools were used to develop relationships with community members and obtain information on the area. A curriculum was developed, implemented and then evaluated by teachers. Our goal was to have 50% of the students be aware of the federal designation of the CHRN as a protected zone and to have at least 50% of classrooms separate inorganic from organic waste. This would then allow for pepenadores (people who collect and sell garbage) from the community to pick up the trash. The municipal trash service wasn’t an option since it just mixed everything on pickup. The second school opted to enter into Terracycle, a program that collects and pays for your garbage. The school decides how to use the money-scholarships, books, materials for school fairs, whatever they want.
In three months, 525 students and 15 teachers received presentations and training on the importance of the CHRN, RAMSAR sites and migratory birds, source separating garbage, recycling inorganic waste, composting organic waste and municipal waste management practices.
What initially began as a project in the schools spread to the community, where I was asked to give composting workshops to fertilize home gardens.
By the end of the program teachers reported that 80% of students could name the protected area and its major characteristics, compared to 16% at the start of the program and 11 out of 15 (73%) classrooms separated inorganic from organic waste.
Personally, I am very happy with the results, and with the hard work showed by community members. Their teamwork and curiosity to learn is what made this project successful. They turned every challenge into an opportunity and from day one were ready to work as my partners. My kids were pretty great too, curious and energetic about learning.
Like any project, there were challenges. There was no outside funding, and all resources came from within the community (a fact that I loved). After all, most of the materials used were garbage anyway. Teachers didn’t respond to emails, but the solution to that was to just plan and discuss everything in person, which meant more time in the community and less time in the office-no complaints there. Things got rescheduled, but never canceled. My colleagues in the office wanted a “bigger” more “flashy” project, but I convinced them that if we started with something the community already had interest in, and which was relatively easy (solid waste management is something I felt very comfortable with and garbage is a simple topic for younger kids to understand) then later we could do more. I was right-when we got done with these two schools, the supervisor of the school zone called and said he had 16 more schools who wanted to work with us in developing a program.
This project taught me the power of using participatory methods in developing a community project, the challenges that go along with it, the importance of identifying natural leaders in the community and then developing a working relationship with those people. I also learned to adapt to the working style of the community, and to keep things in perspective, remembering that life doesn’t just consist of projects. There were times when I almost forgot that, which I think it’s easy to do when you come to a foreign country leaving your friends and family behind for two years, ready to give all of your time and energy to protecting one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. What kept me in check was reminding myself that I was working with communities living in some really tough situations-robberies, alcoholic parents, single-parent homes, domestic violence, etc. My respect goes out to my Mexican counterparts, whom despite all this wanted to work with me to solve environmental issues.
I would like to acknowledge Peace Corps, CONANP staff in the CHRN, and the directors, teachers and students from Primaria Miguel Hidalgo in Las Colonias de Hidalgo, Huauchinango, Puebla and Primaria Ignacio Manuel Altamirano in Xaltepuxtla, Tlaola, Puebla. Specifically Lic. Elizabeth Licona Santiago, Lic. Diana Carpintero Martínez, Lic. Leticia García Gante, Lic. Juan Agustín Hernández Melo, local environmental educators Moises Cardona Ramirez and Fernando Trejo Castro, and Dirección Ecología, Huauchinango, Puebla. In addition, this work could not have been completed without sustained and regular direction from my graduate adviser, Dr. Mike Walter, and committee chair member Mrs. Rebecca Schneider. I also thank them for their patience in working with a graduate student in a different country, time zone and sometimes questionable internet connectivity.
The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.