Three and a half years ago, I was lucky enough to be hired by the Mexican Fund for the Conservation of Nature (FMCN) and the Summit Foundation to direct a totally new program called Leadership in the Mesoamerican Reef. I remember that Lorenzo Rosenzweig, CEO of FMCN, showed me the project proposal, and when I read that the objective was to accelerate the conservation of the Mesoamerican Reef System by strengthening the capacities and leadership skills of young conservationists in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras and help them launch innovative marine and coastal conservation projects, I had to say yes. I was so excited to take on this amazing opportunity and begin a new adventure.
The Mesoamerican Reef System (MAR) is the most important barrier reef in the Americas. It extends for more than 1000 kilometers along the coasts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. This region is unique due to the biodiversity it houses: sea turtles, manatees, more than 65 species of coral and more than 500 species of fish, including the fascinating whale shark. The MAR Ecoregion includes oceanic habitats, coastal zones, tropical forests and watersheds that drain into the Caribbean basin. The diversity of natural resources in this area has had an effect on indigenous cultures for generations. Today, many communities depend on the health of this ecosystem.
Three years later, with a total of 34 trained fellows, 20 functioning conservation projects, and a network that is becoming more and more unified, I can say that we are truly contributing to the creation of a critical mass of conservation leaders who are making change happen. Just by observing the personal transformations in all of the leaders over the course of their training, it is clear that MAR Leadership is having an impact that will strengthen conservation in the region.
The Program operates through cohorts of 10-12 fellows who come from a variety of backgrounds and sectors, including local tourism entrepreneurs, media professionals, government agencies, community leaders, and academics. As long as their professional endeavors bear a direct connection to the health and integrity of the coastal/marine environment, they are eligible to participate. Fellows from each cohort share the collective and individual objective of developing innovative solutions to resolve the main threats facing the MAR. Each program year has a thematic focus, which varies according to the conservation needs of the reef:
2010 — Sustainable coastal development and tourism
2011 — Sustainable fisheries and the establishment of marine protected areas
2012 — Establishment of a network of multifunctional marine refuges
Many fellows are moving their projects forward. Belizeans Nicanor Requena (2011 MAR Fellow), Adriel Castañeda (2011 MAR Fellow), and Seleem Chan (2012 MAR Fellow) are working together to establish fishery replenishment zones and apply sustainable fishery management strategies, like managed access, throughout the country. Mariela Ochoa (2012 MAR Fellow) leads a group of 250 volunteers who have already planted 100,000 mangroves on the island of Guanaja in Honduras; Guanaja’s mangroves were decimated by hurricane Mitch in 1998, leaving the island vulnerable to storms. Gabriela Nava (2011 MAR Fellow) is running 34 coral nurseries in Mexico that have the capacity to produce 2500 colonies a year. Ana Giro, Blanca García, and Pilar Velásquez (2011 MAR Fellows) worked with fishing cooperatives to declare the first three fishery replenishment zones in Guatemala: La Graciosa, Punta Gruesa, and Laguna Santa Isabel. And like these examples, there are many others from this group of passionate conservationists who are working in their communities and countries, putting into practice the skills they have learned in the MAR Leadership Program to help protect the MAR ecoregion.
The MAR Leadership Program is committed to leading with a network mindset for social change. We encourage fellows to exchange ideas and information for collective impact. One example of this is Kim Ley (2011 MAR Fellow) supporting fellows Kirah Foreman (2011 fellow from Belize) and Mariela Ochoa in training fishers in sustainable lobster fishing. Kim has placed more than 900 lobster shades (casitas cubanas) on 225 hectares of seafloor; these shades improve the survival rates of juvenile lobsters and allow for more sustainable fishing practices.
2013 has been a year of self-reflection, analysis, and a lot of learning based on our experiences over the last three years. It has been a year to focus on supporting fellows in fundraising, implementation, and strengthening their network. We are currently planning the 2014 cohort of MAR Fellows and seeking new opportunities to involve more donors, partners, and anyone else who wants to join the collective effort to conserve the MAR ecoregion. We know that if we want to broaden the conservation impact in the MAR through “intelligent investment” in people, we can’t go wrong.
Watch the MesoAmerican Reef Leadership Program miniseries, part of CauseCentric’s People and the Sea Documentary Project. See 2012 MAR fellow’s, Gabriela Nava, Maricarmen Garcia and Kim Ley, in action!