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Lessons about community empowerment from a social entrepreneur and visionary leader in Sierra Gorda to the World (en espanol)

Posted by on in Ecotourism Industry Profile
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When you travel to a new region or land in the world, there is always an experience that sticks with you. It could be something ordinary, such as a brief moment of complete relaxation when you learn something new about yourself or something quite profound, such as a chance meeting with a wise local that provides you with a different perspective about life.

Last October, when I traveled to Mexico for the Adventure Travel World Summit, I had such a profound moment when listening to Pati Ruiz speak, laugh, sing and cry about her mission for empowering the communities of the Sierra Gorda region of Mexico.

For almost three decades, Pati Ruiz has been at the forefront of a grassroots environmental movement, Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda, which has transformed the natural resource management practices of the local population and reoriented public investment from government authorities. She has worked tirelessly to declare Sierra Gorda a Biosphere Reserve as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, improve the quality of life of its inhabitants, recover previously deforested land and, in effect, create a model for biodiversity protection and sustainable development in Mexico.

Pati (pictured below, right at the Adventure Travel World Summit) contacted me after the conference as she was planning to travel to Washington, D.C. for a special commemoration. I was excited at the prospect of spending even just a half hour talking with her one-on-one. Unfortunately, her trip got cancelled. However, Pati was still willing to answer my questions, which have been transcribed below.

Pati Ruiz ATWS in MexicoEcotourism is such a popular concept right now that many governments in the world are including as part of their economic revitalization plan. How do you feel about this development?

As an operator of a region with high biodiversity value and so many communities living in extreme poverty, I believe it is important to give natural capital economic value. This way, we can offer economic development opportunities to local partners. For me, it seems legitimate that ecotourism in the Sierra Gorda is operated by the owners of our beautiful scenery. Instead of being merely employees, they are the owners of small installations and receive training in management and customer service from us, thus closing the gap between the mountain communities and national and international tourism.

Como operadora de una region de altos valores de biodiversidad y tantas comunidades de extrema pobreza, creo que de mucho vale darle valor económico al capital natural que ofrezca oportunidades de desarrollo económico a los socios locales, el ecoturismo operado por los propietarios de la belleza escénica me parece legítimo, siempre y cuando ellos pasen de ser solamente empleados a un concepto en donde son propietarios de sus pequeñas instalaciones y operan ganando capacidades de gestión y de atención a los turistas acercando las brechas entre las comunidades de montaña y el turismo nacional e internacional.

How do you feel about the governments’ approach considering that conservation education on the part of citizens is not really part of the equation?

For us, it has always been the first question: create a citizenship with a different perception towards their land so that they adopt their behavior, habits and practices. The aim has been to establish a regional collective that feels rooted to the region and proudly participates in thousands of small education, cleaning up, regeneration, restoration, productive diversification and conservation tasks

Para nosotros siempre ha sido la primera cuestión, formar una ciudadanía con una diferente percepción hacia su territorio que haya adoptado formas de comportarse, hábitos y prácticas que integre un colectivo regional que tiene raíz en la región y participa con orgullo en miles de pequeñas tareas de educación, saneamiento, regeneración, restauración diversificación productiva y conservación.

Since people are starting to pay attention more to climate change and community empowerment, what would be some lessons learned for setting up an ecotourism industry from your perspective?

I think that nature tourism operators have the challenge to lead a movement that starts with mitigating their own operation’s footprint. This challenge will generate experience, knowledge and a model for improvement and cleaning up the tourism industry. I think now is the time, through all forms of media, to promote payments for carbon offsets or other ecosystem services that give scenic resources a value, thus mitigating global warming and poverty. We need to link natural with financial capital, sharing the cost of biocapacity maintenance with the forest owners who live in extreme poverty.

Creo que especialmente los operadores de turismo de naturaleza tienen la misión de encabezar un movimiento que empiece por mitigar la propia huella de el impacto de su propia operación, que genere experiencia, conocimiento y un modelo para mejorar y sanear la industria turística. Creo que es el momento de promover por todos los medios mecanismos de pago de compensaciones de carbono u otros servicios ecosistémicos que confieran valor a los recursos escénicos en su conjunto en donde mitiguemos el calentamiento y la pobreza, vinculando el capital natural al financiero, compartiendo el costo del mantenimiento de la biocapacidad con sus propietarios, comunidades de extrema pobreza.

I read that you and your son had health problems, so your entire family moved to the Sierra Gorda Mountains to help alleviate some symptoms. You perhaps did not intend to become the leader of all kinds of grassroots organizations and impact the region the way you have done. When did you know that you were onto something? When did you know that people and communities would respond?

One of the main motives that pushed me to radically change my life was certainly the health of one of my sons, along with deep questions about modernity and its rubbish. I became convinced that that lifestyle no longer satisfied me, its values did not represent health or spaces that would generate gratifying, transcendent or real experiences, nor was it the happy world that had always hoped for. In reality, I didn’t know what surprises life would give me, however, what I was sure about was that when I returned to nature I felt at home. Although I was far from the world in which I grew up, I felt strong and on the right path. The Sierra Gorda and I simply love each other. Since I arrived here 27 years ago, life has fulfilled me with answers and deep satisfactions. From under the loving protection of a Mother, I knew what I loved.

We have been obligated to follow the disorder in the region. Everyone follows their own interests, without order or accord, everyone pulling the cover from different angles. This is why we decided to launch collective action. Firstly, life satisfied us, then it showed us all of the occasions in which we could act to protect our regional treasures, making all of the Sierra Gorda our home and taking responsibility for it.

I always knew that, in the local communities, pure love, the way of the “freedom baton”, my sandals and my accordion alone would not only open the door but also the hearts of many mountain dwellers. They have been made conscious of the environment through various methods over the years. My husband is from the region, which also helped local people to accept us.

Ciertamente uno de los poderosos motives que me impulsaron a un cambio radical de vida fue la salud de uno de mis hijos, junto con cuestionamientos muy profundos sobre la modernidad y su chatarra, convencida que aquello no me ilusionaba que no iba a vivir para valores que no representaban ni salud, ni espacios de los que generan experiencias gratificantes, trascendentes y reales, no era el mundo feliz al que siempre he estado segura de conquistar. En realidad no sabía que sorpresas me tendría la vida, de lo que si estaba completamente segura es que regresando a la naturaleza yo me sentía en casa, que fui ajena en tanto al mundo en el que crecí, plena de fuerzas y buscando camino. la Sierra y yo sencillamente nos amamos y desde que llegue aquí hace 27 años la vida me ha colmado de respuestas, de satisfacciones profundas y del cobijo amoroso de una madre sabia a la que adoro.

Obligados por el desorden a todo nivel en la región, cada quien a sus propios intereses sin orden ni concierto, jalando la cobija cada quien para su lado. Esa es la razón por la que decidimos emprender acción, la vida primero nos colmo y después se nos manifestaron todas las ocasiones que podíamos emprender para proteger el tesoro regional que asumimos, sintiendo toda la sierra gorda como nuestra casa y responsabilidad.

Siempre supe que con las comunidades el puro amor, la moda del “batón libertad” mis huaraches y mi acordeón sencillamente me franquearon no solo la puerta sino al corazón de tantos serranos que han sido concientizados de tantas diferentes maneras opor tantos años. Mi esposo de la región condición determinante en la aceptación de.

What advice do you have for civic minded people all over the world that ache for how their land/landscape is changing or being developed and want to change the prospects for their neighbors and children?

Firstly, make contact with the Earth, teach children to love it, awaken the element of surprise through becoming aware of the continuous miracles that nature provides, search for simplicity, organic health and be kind to the Earth and its children.

Recognize individual skills as gifts that must be shared, practice leadership and individual entrepreneurship. Drop by drop we will create a wave, everyone should search for a way to make people in their lives change and act, thus alleviating the pressure on the planet.

Leave hedonistic modernity and search for the entrepreneurial, innovative man with new values, such as the common good, the pleasure of giving, satisfaction of maximum effort and at the end of the day move into the next world with our hands full. We need to show a generous spirit that can create new answers for the changeable world in which we live. New values, new eyes, a spirit ready to generate and create.

Primero tomar contacto con la tierra, enseñar a sus hijos a amarla despertar la sorpresa ante los milagros continuos de la naturaleza, buscar lo simple, lo saludable organic y amigable con la tierra y sus hijos.

Asumir la capacidades individuales como un don que debe desplegarse y ejercer liderazgo y rumbo, emprendimiento individual, gota a gota levantamos una ola, cada quien desde su universo buscando la manera de contagiar, de actuar aliviando presión al planeta.

Salir del hedonismo moderno y buscar que ese hombre emprendedor, innovador con valores nuevos como el bien común, el placer de dar, la satisfacción del máximo esfuerzo y al final del dia llevarse las manos llenas a la otra vida, con un espíritu generoso que pudo crear nuevas respuestas a un mundo tan cambiante como el que estamos ya enfrentando. Valores nuevos, ojos nuevos, el espíritu listo a generar y crear.

You are now a part of Mexican history as well as social entrepreneurism history. What do you want your legacy to be?

I want these mountains that I love so much, the forests and their wildlife, to feel loved. I want them to be surrounded by a well-defined fraternal effort of organised society. I hope love for the land, values and social development opportunities will help to multiply this organised effort to conserve our sacred biodiversity, the network of life and out natural heritage.

Outside of the region, I look to replicate, share our lessons learnt, show short cuts and possible paths and awaken social entrepreneurship in each valiant area of conservation of national and global heritage.

I hope that all the horror of our present world takes a turn for the better. I hope that certain individuals recognise how important our natural heritage is, in time, and realise that we are in a state of real emergency and threat. I hope that brave hearts start beating and that they are capable of conceiving the need to liberate the world. Our spirit and talents receive returns when we live peacefully and rediscover multidimensionality. I hope people will become interested in life’s great pleasures: flying, dreaming and making those dreams come true.

Yo busco que estas montañas que adoro sus bosques y su fauna sepan y se sientan muy amados, envueltos en un esfuerzo fraterno de una sociedad organizada y bien definida que se multiplique con un gran amor por su territorio, valores y oportunidades de desarrollo social generados por la conservación de la sagrada biodiversidad, la red de la vida, nuestro patrimonio natural

Hacia afuera busco replicar, compartir los aprendizajes, mostrar atajos y vías, despertar el emprendimiento social en cada área valiosa de conservación del patrimonio nacional y global.

Yo sólo espero que de todo este horror que es nuestro mundo actual, surja lo mejor, con aquellos individuos que supieron reconocer a tiempo la herencia natural y la emergencia y amenaza actual. Que surjan los corazones valerosos que son capaces de concebir por su libertad un mundo en donde el espíritu y los talentos reciben retornos con la paz de nuestro final en esta vida y redescubren lo multidimensional, se aficionan a los grandes placeres a la dicha de volar, soñar y construir sus sueños.


Check out our amazing and sustainable vacations through Mexico including the Yucatan and others through the Mayan Ruins.



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Irene is the founder & president of Greenloons. She is a dual EU citizen who has lived in 5 countries and visited 32 more in Asia, Oceania, Latin America and Europe. Drawing upon her professional and personal experiences to address authentic ecotourism from community, ecological and financial points of view, Irene is a frequent conference speaker, Huffington Post blogger and radio talk show guest. 


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