Looking after the natural common goods

Sandro Cusi and Stacey Symonds

Preservation of the common good must be a common endeavour, however philanthropy has a specific and important role to play

The Valle de Bravo-Amanalco basin is one of the fountains of Central Mexico’s environmental wealth. Not only does the watershed provide 12 per cent of Mexico City’s water, but it is also home to a wide array of important ecological microcosms, and one of the few remaining winter homes for the Monarch butterfly. However, overdevelopment, deforestation and over-use of natural resources, particularly water, have wreaked havoc on the basin over the past 75 or so years since the creation of the valley’s dam system. Procuenca has been working since 2000 to save the basin by implementing projects that foster a return to the permanence of forests, land and streams.

Valle de Bravo-Amanalco basin. Credit: Procuenca

The basic tenet underlying all Procuenca’s actions is that humans and nature are part of an indivisible living system. Humans are, therefore, responsible for their natural environment. Only when the inhabitants of a region exist in harmony with their surroundings, can they become the agents of change to restoring life around them.

Four strategic approaches

Procuenca employs an integrated view of landscape management. Given our belief that the only way to address the issue of water shortage is through the regeneration both of nature and community, the foundation has developed four strategic approaches to conservation: soil and forest conservation, river restoration and water quality monitoring, construction of eco technologies, community production and governance and sustainable community development. Each of these approaches brings together members of the community and various sectors of the local, state and even federal governments. All four combine to ensure that one of Mexico’s most important watersheds stays alive.

For the long term, we have found that financial support for projects is most reliable when sought from private sources – civil society, organisations, and businesses.

Procuenca’s first step is to seek partnerships with the local communities and their institutions. Given that most of the area in which we work is rural, we often find ourselves creating connections with small hamlets and even individual households. In this manner, we have joined forces with over 4,300 families throughout the basin to educate them and provide them with new, ecologically sustainable resources. These include rainwater harvesting mechanisms, dry toilets, wood-saving stoves, and backyard orchards. One of our largest donors, the Fundación Río Arronte allows us to make these technologies available. The impact on the region, however, is exponential. Not only do the families learn new skills, but they also save money and improve their lives. At the same time, they are no longer harming the environment around them and therefore have access to newly regenerated natural resources. This synergy is multiplied as neighbouring communities and families seek to obtain the same benefits for themselves and their surroundings.

In addition to working with communities on a household basis, we have also taken on historically damaging agricultural practices using the same methodology. Donations from local foundations have allowed us to work with local agriculturalists to reform their practices, move away from damaging fertilisers and pesticides, and regenerate agricultural soils and forests. To date, we have succeeded in transforming 3,600 hectares into agro-ecological zones.

The most reliable forms of finance

In communities that have been marked by underemployment and that rely on the harvesting of forests for income, we have partnered with the local tourist community to create a mountain bike park that is entirely run by the community and supported by the growing community of riders. This partnership has only just begun yet we have succeeded in helping protect and conserve 1,500 hectares of forest and provided employment for young members of the community. The same approach was used for the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary to counter an increasingly endangered habitat for the species in Mexico’s central highlands. For the long term, we have found that financial support for projects is most reliable when sought from private sources – civil society, organisations, and businesses. This is because while the cooperation of the government is important to be able to successfully carry out any project, given election cycles and lack of continuity from one administration to the next, it is virtually impossible to rely on government for any long-term initiative. Instead, our organisation is obliged to appeal to each incoming administration to guarantee operational permits and access and approval.

Our final focus on the quality of water deploys a slightly different model. In this case, we work with the community and local government of Valle de Bravo but are also advised and partnered by other NGOs who have more expertise than we do. In alliance with the CCMSS (Consejo Civil Mexicano para la Silvicultura Sostenible), and Global Water Watch Initiative, we can take monthly samples of the water for analysis using a robust community-based monitoring methodology. It is our hope as we go to press that we can begin to make an impact not only on the quality of the water, but also on the quantity used and wasted. This new initiative will require us to expand our horizons beyond the basin to Mexico City and Toluca and to broader corporate partnerships with specialists in those fields. As the situation becomes increasingly dire, we hope to find willing partners. However, the difficult work must be done by the government, which seems unlikely in this election year, when bad news and hard choices are not likely to be popular.

The conservation, restoration and regeneration of nature is exemplary of the common good. If we do not respect and work with, rather than exploit, nature, we cannot survive. From our work at Procuenca, two things stand out: all efforts towards the common good must be carried out across various sectors of society, including individuals. Second, philanthropic organisations should partner with expert NGOs who can reach the local and regional governments to best achieve positive results for all members of society and its natural environment. Thus, by partnering with organisations beyond our immediate catchment area (like Global Water Watch), we are trying to have a broader, more global impact.

Sandro Cusi is director general at Procuenca.

Stacey Symonds is a member of Procuenca’s board.

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