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Building Cultural Sensitivity in Conservation

When the rain starts, we're not ready. Ten of us stand in the truck bed, grasping to the railing as the vehicle lurches down the muddy trail. "Aquí!" Our community partner Sapo (“toad” in English) grins, pulling up a dusty plastic tarp from below our feet. We stretch it over our already-soaked heads as the truck continues weaving through the forest.

As the Water & Cities Fellow with Conservation International Mexico, I've learned that you have to be adaptable when working in the field. Since September I've been supporting an initiative to protect the watersheds of Mexico City in partnership with local actors and indigenous communities.

Mexico City faces a complex water crisis. When it rains, parts of the city flood and every day approximately 1,000 people settle in the city, creating an ever-growing thirst to quench with an ever-dwindling water supply. The aquifers that provide 70% of the water to 23 million people in the megalopolis are greatly over-exploited. Uncontrolled urban expansion, poor land management, and pesticide use in the watersheds that recharge these aquifers complicate the situation all the more.

Conservation International works to curb these impacts and create a common dialogue across city, rural and natural landscapes. Sometimes this has meant pulling on my boots and heading to the mountains at 5:00 am. Other times it's meant business casual with government officials downtown.

The rain continues to pelt our make-shift roof as we pass potato farms on one side, forest and native grasslands on the other.

The challenges of uncontrolled urban growth, poor land management, and pesticide-ridden farming are complex. Development isn't just bad: when working in rural zones the goal is not to tell indigenous community members how they should envision their towns, but rather provide them the resources and technical experience to do so as thoughtfully as possible and with natural systems in mind. Planting trees isn't just good: while many urban residents and sponsors think that the hills should be covered with trees, the ecosystems of Mexico's watersheds are more complex than this and include native grasslands that also need to be protected, sans trees. Learning to synthesize these intricacies and communicate them to our colleagues, partners, and regional programs have been one focal point of my work this year.

Work trips like these remind me that while these mountains are indeed key to water security in the region, they are also a physical embodiment of Mexican cultural heritage. It's something bigger than the articles I write, the excel sheets I analyze or the meetings I attend.

This land is home to nearly 100 indigenous communities, whose members include the community partners with me in the truck bed. Through their stories, the urgency of action is made all the more pressing. Through their experiences, I am all the more certain that a future for the Water Forest does not exist without the deep integration of traditional knowledge.

Since graduating from Stanford, I've been challenged to put my principles into practice and test out frames for ethical and effective service. Questions I posed in class I now ask on a day-to-day basis. How can I best support community-driven environmental work in Mexico as an American? In what ways can I build cultural sensitivity in how I approach conservation? Where does my voice belong and how can I uplift the voices of others?

Living history fills the watershed and at each turn continues to teach me.

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