Preparing a New Cadre of Conservation Leaders for the Challenges of Protecting the MAR
José Domingo Caal, a native of Izabal on Guatemala’s vibrant Caribbean coast, has dedicated his work to improving the local livelihoods and conserving the natural resources of his home region. A founding member of the Mayan Association for Rural Wellbeing in the Sarstun Region, José Domingo works to raise awareness of the link between environmental conservation and the welfare of coastal communities. In 2015, José Domingo was selected as a Fellow in the Mesoamerican Reef (MAR) Leadership Program, where he met Guillermo Gálvez from the Foundation for Eco-development and Conservation (FUNDAECO). Deciding to join forces, the two men are now collaborating on a project to determine the economic valuation of Guatemala’s Caribbean mangroves for conservation. “The MAR Leadership Program has been an inspirational and motivating space to learn and share experiences,” said José Domingo.
Launched in 2010, the MAR Leadership Program seeks to accelerate conservation impacts in the Mesoamerican Reef Ecoregion. The Program enables early- to mid-career professionals from Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico to design and launch ambitious projects that address present or emerging threats facing the region’s coastal and marine ecosystems, while providing leadership skills that will serve them throughout their careers.
The program aims to advance long-term conservation of the MAR by equipping a critical mass of local leaders with the knowledge, tools, and networking opportunities they need to initiate and implement high-impact conservation projects.
The MAR Leadership Program operates on the basis of “cohorts” of professionals that work together to address the most pressing environmental threats facing the MAR. Each year, the program selects a theme and encourages project design around a common goal. Recent themes include Promotion of Sustainable Fisheries and Establishment of Marine Protected Areas, Conservation and Valuation of Mangroves, and Blue Economy for Sustainable Development.
Over 12 months, the Fellows receive individualized and group training from recognized experts to help them become more effective leaders, and assist them in designing and implementing bold and replicable conservation projects in the MAR region.
Training modules include skills in project design, fundraising, negotiation and conflict resolution, strategic communications, and team building. Of equal importance are customized trainings that each MAR Fellow can access through the program, catering to their specific professional development and project incubation needs.
Program Director Maru Arreola believes that the MAR Fellows are today’s agents of change and the voice of the Reef’s future. Maru and her staff make Fondo Mexicano para la Conservación de la Naturaleza in Cancún their home base, where they support the Fellows and help to disseminate the program’s objectives and recruit for future cohorts. “Thanks to The Summit Foundation and other generous supporters, the MAR Leadership Program is helping a new generation of conservation leaders build a practical vision for the sustainable development of the MAR region,” said Arreola.
“My experience as a MAR Fellow has been extraordinary. The program has given me tools and training to work with the communities in a more effective manner,” said Blanca García, one of three Guatemalans from the class of 2011 MAR Fellows who are working in the Punta Manabique area. “As MAR leaders, we are breaking barriers and opening spaces for new ideas, such as community participation, which the authorities haven’t always supported.”
García observed that the network Fellows create is vital because they are all working for the protection of resources that transcend international borders. “As MAR leaders, our challenge is to promote the creation of something new that will benefit the natural resources of the entire MAR region, because the fact is that ocean connects all of us to the entire Caribbean,” she said.
Two example of these successful synergies between Fellows and the region’s key partners are the Managed Access program for Belizean fisheries and the Fish Right Eat Right certification to curb illegal fishing and promote responsible seafood consumption. The ambitious Fish Right, Eat Right initiative is being implemented by a number of partners that include former MAR Fellows. 2016 MAR Fellow John Burgos is with the Belize Tourism Industry Association; 2012 MAR Fellow Adriel Castañeda and 2016 MAR Fellow Isabel Martinez are at the Belize Fisheries Department; and Janelle Chanona, a member of the MAR Leadership executive committee, is the director of Oceana. Other project partners include Wildlife Conservation Society with 2015 MAR Fellow Ralna Lewis, The Nature Conservancy, and Environmental Defense Fund.
In the northern part of Quintana Roo, Fernando del Valle, 2014 MAR Fellow, is implementing his project on best practices for sustainability in hotel operations. The project studies the environmental performance of 12 participating hotels, pinpointing areas of opportunity and developing a management system to reduce waste, electricity, and gas consumption. During the initial assessment, hotels achieved an average compliance rate of 41.5%, which increased up to 58.3% throughout the training and follow-up visits. “Being part of the MAR Fellows network has helped me find the necessary connections and funding for my work,” said Fernando.
In Mexico, 2011 MAR Fellow Gaby Nava is successfully implementing her project to restore Elkhorn coral and fish biomass in Xcalak Reefs National Park. Her work is supported by Maricarmen García, Xcalak Reefs National Park director and 2010 MAR Fellow. Now, Gaby is working to scale the project to the regional level, with a special emphasis on recovering no-take areas.
Though MAR Fellows come from diverse backgrounds and sectors, they share a passion for conserving the region’s marine treasures. As 2010 MAR Fellow Ian Drysdale of Honduras said, “The program brings together amazing minds from all four countries. It allows us to exchange ideas and opinions, and learn how other people are dealing with similar issues.”
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