A new way to view conservation
The recent J-term in Oaxaca provided me with a new way of viewing the motivations of conservation. A major part of the conservation in Oaxaca is done in Voluntary Conservation Areas, land that is designated and managed for conservation by communities. In Oaxaca, of the 198 conservation areas, only 7 of them are government-controlled. I was amazed that so many communities are eager to change their own practices for the sake of their environment, without outside motivation.
I am used to conversations about conservation that include how people try to get around conservation rules, or concerns about the opportunities lost because of conservation. Many of the speakers we met in Oaxaca spoke of how valuing the land is key to the conservation movement. Some of these communities start this process because of the economic promise of improved productivity of land or the option of ecotourism in the future. However, based on the communities we discussed with partners in Oaxaca, it seems that Voluntary Conservation Areas are often started because the community values the land and what it already provides.
Water is connected to the landscape
In several of these communities, value comes from the fact that the landscape provides water, an essential part of life. In a community like the one I am familiar with, where water is viewed as a processed resource that comes from our tap, there is a separation between the idea of water and the land around us.
However, in the communities we visited, the landscape-water relationship is more immediately recognized. This recognition came through in a striking way at the site of La Mesita, where water was the incentive for creating the conservation area and is a major part of the continuing community education.
Many of the sites we visited had been motivated by water, and eagerly showed us water catchment and filtration areas. However, these were practical installations that blended in to the operations of the site as a whole. While the speakers and our group were aware of and interested in the installations, a new visitor may have never noticed them.
La Mesita had a different approach. The cistern at La Mesita lies under an installation called The Ark. This modern structure provides a striking visual, and an additional space to gather and discuss the initiatives of the reserve. The Ark earned its name because the weight of the water that the cistern is able to hold is approximate to the estimated weight of water that would have been needed to buoy Noah’s Ark of the biblical story. The image invokes the idea that water is an integral part of sustaining the community into the future, as Noah’s Ark carried the survivors of the flood into their new life. The story of Noah’s Ark provides a familiar and relatable way to share the value of water with others and help form a connection to water that may not have there before. The connection also instills a sense of hope for the future.
The Ark not only shows how water will carry the community into the future, but also invites others—especially the youth of the community, a major audience for the reserve— to join in this celebration of water, creating a continuity in the community’s values and actions over time. This spirit of celebration of the community’s plants, animals, and resources is a constant in the work of La Mesita, from the nature of their projects, to the presentation of their infrastructure, to their educational efforts. Their work doesn’t just conserve resources, but prepares for a culture of value and conservation in the future.