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Rural Mexican Communities Rich in Resources, Poor in Capital

MEXICO CITY, Sep 24 2012 (IPS) - The La Ventanilla community in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca has not given up in the face of devastating hurricanes, but has organised to protect mangroves and animal species like the Olive Ridley sea turtle.

“We have sufficient natural resources, but the hurricanes destroy everything,” said Atanasio Martínez, a member of the La Ventanilla Ecotourism Services cooperative.

“We are seeking to preserve the species, develop ecotourism, support research and capitalise on the local fauna,” Martínez told IPS.

The cooperative in La Ventanilla, a village of some 100 people who live as subsistence farmers, growing crops like corn, sesame seeds and pumpkins, emerged in 1997, after Hurricanes Paulina and Rick tore through the area that year. The village was once again struck last June, by Hurricane Carlotta.

La Ventanilla is an illustration of the fragility of the livelihoods of rural communities in Mexico, which stands in the way of their sustainability.

“The rural sector is precarious and has little access to capital,” Sophie Ávila, an academic at the Institute of Economic Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told IPS.

Ávila is carrying out a study on the “means of life” – social, human, natural, physical and financial capital – in the San Pedro Pochutla district of Oaxaca, which covers 18 municipalities with a total population of around 200,000 people.

“Natural capital includes agricultural inputs, physical capital is based on infrastructure and tools, financial capital on income and credit, social capital on local networks, and human capital on formal education,” Ávila explained about her initial findings.

Studies on means of life are just starting in Mexico, a country of 112 million people in 19 million households, 39 percent of which are in rural areas.

Oaxaca, one of the poorest states in the country, with 570 municipalities home to 3.8 million inhabitants, has become the scenario of such studies due to its natural riches and the vigour of its social organisations.

On the other side of Mexico, on the Caribbean coast, the situation is not much different, Denise Soares, a researcher at the Mexican Institute of Water Technology (IMTA), has found in the southeastern state of Yucatán.

“People are not given training on how to protect themselves from hurricanes and floods,” she told IPS. “There are no support networks, and the economy is fragile, because it is based on fishing and growing fresh produce, which are very vulnerable to hurricanes.”

Soares began to carry out her study last year in the towns of San Felipe, Celestún, Ixil and Sisal on the Yucatán coast, which have a total combined population of just over 14,000 people.

Of these towns, the one that has made the progress in the management of natural resources and disaster management is San Felipe, which has an early warning system and recycles its waste.

Soares carried out 400 surveys among the local residents and 33 interviews with key actors, such as municipal authorities.

The preliminary findings included deforestation of the mangroves, which are endangered along Mexico’s Caribbean coast; the growing use of land to graze livestock; and the development of salt production.

“There is some degree of decay of livelihoods due to growth of natural disasters and insecurity. I don’t think there are appropriate policies for those resources,” Hilary Warburton with the UK-based Practical Action told IPS.

PracticalAction is an international sustainable development organisation whose mission is to reduce the vulnerability of poor people in developing countries and increase their access to markets, infrastructure and new technologies.

In La Ventanilla, the members of the cooperative are working to rebuild the damage caused by Carlotta, with little financial assistance from the government.

“There is a shortage of economic resources for taking care of the animals that the authorities confiscate and turn over to us. The tourists only show up in high season, from March to August,” Martínez said.

The cooperative has raised 1,383 crocodiles in the community’s lagoon and has released between 18,000 and 25,000 Olive Ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) every year. They also raise tame white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), another endangered species.

In Pochutla, the factors that have the greatest influence on the local population “are land, pollution, non-timber forest resources and water,” Ávila said.

“It is necessary to strengthen social capital through networks, improve the products, work at the local level to assess unmet needs, and change the municipal focus on disasters from reactive to preventive,” Soares said.

This year, the researcher will divulge the information gathered, and in 2013 she will work with the local communities on designing actions, based on the available data.

“Local communities can make a difference. For that, what’s needed is a policy that goes beyond economic growth and a focus on employment,” Practical Action’s Warburton said.

 
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