“You can’t call it sustainable when you cut down the mangrove,” Paul Sanchez-Navarro Russell is in the middle of a rant about hotel development. I’m sure he has no shortage of these as the director of an ecology conservation organization.
“There are solutions to the problems [Akumal faces] in resource destruction and bad management,” Paul continues. “But [these solutions] need to take precedence over the immediate economic interests of a few.”
Obvious, yes, though it’s this message that needs to be said and said loudly if Akumal has any hopes for reducing human impact and recovering what it’s lost so far.
Having worked in environmental policy for years now, it’s clear Paul is up for the challenge, if not inspired by it.
Six years ago, Paul stepped up as Director of Centro Ecologico Akumal (CEA), the ad hoc environmental authority in the Akumal region.
“I was really inspired by the challenges of strengthening the organization and to be able to work on so many issues focused in one area,” he explains.
But being able to work on so many issues is what accounts for Paul’s very hectic schedule.
“There is no typical day,” he laughs.
Last Wednesday, Paul took a sick sea turtle to the animal hospital before conducting a press conference and then dealing with an electrical failure that shut down the entire office.
When I met with him a week and a half ago, he was wired on Diet Cokes and stealing time away from rubbing elbows at an eco-fashion event in Tulum.
“This is sort of normal,” he insists.
Though he may not be able to predict his erratic day-to-day, Paul has very clear goals for Akumal:
– to establish a locally managed sea turtle refuge
– to protect the mangroves and ecoparks surrounding the tourism area
– to use sustainable water treatment technology to control water pollution
He also wants to continue to be able to see the stars at night, and, of course, for the lost coral reef to grow back.
At Matador, we would like to see all that as well.
Founded in 1993, CEA is a non-profit organization dedicated to marine and coastal protection, sea turtle protection, and water quality in the Akumal region.
Roughly ten years later, the organization recruited Paul from their technical advisory committee. Previous to CEA, he served as the Biodiversity Policy Advisor for World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) International as well as for both the WWF México Program and Pronatura.
Currently, the majority of his efforts concentrate on harmonizing Akumal’s growing tourism industry with CEA’s environmental conservation agenda.
“We want to demonstrate to everybody that you can have business without hurting nature. Right now, [Akumal’s tourism industry] is not sustainable, but we’re working toward it.”
It’s not easy trying to convince everyone from government officials to independent fishing boat operators to look beyond the immediate financial gratification of current tourism practices and endeavor to establish something sustainable, but it’s all Akumal has.
In the last three years, the region has lost almost 80% of Mesoamerican reef due to water pollution and the influx of tourists.
Fortunately, CEA’s presence is bringing about a positive change: beach front hotels have agreed to help facilitate the nesting of endangered sea turtles; the Mexican government has made it a federal offense to interfere with sea turtle ecology; and CEA is developing eco-certifications to encourage hotels to practice sustainable tourism.
How You Can Help
The organization accepts volunteers for each of their six programs throughout the year. Interested parties should visit the website for more information and volunteer applications.
“Remember that each action you take to improve how you use the Earth is important. There is no effort too small. Expect more from yourself than you do from others.”
Couldn’t have said it any better, Paul.
You can read more about Global Environmental Issues on Matador.
For other volunteering abroad opportunities and information, check out our Volunteering Abroad focus page.