Archive for the ‘ Mexico ’ Category

Hello Campeche, Goodbye Merida

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

This is a photo that is a just a part of Campeche that sets the scene for a beautiful place, yet very much a place that attracts a tourist!

A photo of Merida, filled a tourists dream of busy a market with crafts to buy for the “authentic” dress.

Goody Merida!

Making the Connections

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

There were many things I learned over the semester while preparing for the trip to Mexico during the IGERT class sessions.  The lectures from the professors covered all the bases from climate change to the history of Mexico. This was the benefit of the course being multidisciplinary, as I was learning about different aspects of climate change, Mexico, and mangroves.  This was also great in learning about different issues that could be taking place in Mexico concerning mangroves and sea-level rise.

However, all the preparation and classes would have never prepared me for the impact the human connection would have on my perceptions.  There is so much that is not in the literature that you can only get when you go to the site you are studying.  This includes the human connections you make with the people, places, and ideas.

There were connections that I made that could not have come from sitting in a classroom all semester.  The first connection was with the people in the locations we visited; Isla Arena, Isla Aguada, and Ria Celestune.  These three different communities gave our group distinct perspectives on how mangroves are viewed, restored, and affected by sea-level rise.  Being able to visit and interact with the local people and official personal running the reserve was helpful to get a well rounded view of the complex issues, that, we as outsiders were trying to address.  For example, there was a connection I immediately made when visiting Ria Celestun that clarified the conclusion I had drawn based on literature; that Ria Celestun reserve was a controversial issue for the local people.  However, after getting clarification from both local people and a reserve official the conflict is not with the reserve, but with the top down situation of the federal government.  This was something that did not come through in the literature.


The connections were also clear in the institutions we visited; EcoSur, CICY, and CINVESTAV.  We were able to see how these three institutions were operating and working on similar issues, but not together.  It was beneficial to talk with those in academia who work intensely with the communities and issues we were addressing in the mangroves and sea-level rise. Each of these institutions works with the communities differently and this helped me make a connection in how information was collected and distributed in the communities.  For example at EcoSur the goal was to improve their infrastructure in order to benefit local communities.  Compared to CINVESTAV, who has well-established infrastructure and research programs.  This allows them to do a lot of research with the local communities, and they are striving to make their research driven by the objectives and concerns of the local people.

Many of my perceptions and opinions would not be this way and I would not have been able to make the connections without the professors and fellow trainees.  So, the last connection I would like to highlight would be the camaraderie formed between everyone on the trip. I approach a lot of issues and topics based off my own academic training in Indigenous studies.  Having the perspectives of the trainees and professors was incredibly helpful to keep me thinking and reevaluating what I was learning and observing. It was these connections between each other that helped bring the ideas, observations, and sometimes confusions full circle. As a result of this experience I now fully understand a teaching by Linda Tuhiwai Smith: “Indigenous research is a humble and humbling activity.”

Victoria Walsey IGERT Trainee, Geography

Opportunities on the Mexican Gulf Coast

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

On the eve of our departure from Mexico, reflecting on the things we have seen, one that particularly sticks out in my mind is the difference between two communities that are only about twelve miles apart as the crow flies (or the boat sails), Isla Arena and Celestún. We visited Isla Arena on Saturday, December 10 and Celestún yesterday, December 14.

Both communities have traditionally supported themselves via fishing, but both are now entering the world of ecotourism. That’s about the end of their similarities, though. Isla Arena’s tourism facilities seem both Spartan and under-utilized, whereas Celestún looks to be doing pretty well for itself on the ecotourism front. There are a couple of apparent reasons for this disparity. Most prominently, Celestún is home to an attraction that Isla Arena will have trouble matching: flamingos. The famous pink birds congregate in large numbers in the waters surrounding Celestún, drawing people such as ourselves who wish to see them. We joined about 10,000 other boatloads of visitors annually who pay local residents for a ride to see the flamingos as well as a spectacular cruise through channels of mangroves. Thanks to the presence of the flamingos, as well as Celestún’s relative accessibility via road, at least some Celestún residents have been afforded the opportunity to supplement or leave behind their fishing. There are a limited number of boat permits granted, however, which led me and some other C-CHANGE trainees to wonder if there is any tension between the haves and have-nots of Celestún in regard to ecotourism opportunities.

Flamingos taking flight at Celestun

In contrast to Celestún, Isla Arena has no flamingos, and the road to get there is much longer and more remote. The restaurant we patronized there was excruciatingly slow (though the food was tasty when it came), while our culinary destination on Celestún was a polished and efficient operation. In hopes of drawing more visitors, a museum to Mexican entertainer Pedro Infante is being built on Isla Arena, though one wonders whether the Museo API will be able to compete with iconic birds.

The beach at Isla Arena

Don’t get me wrong, friends from afar–Celestún is not in the same league as Cancún or Mexico’s other famed destinations—but is still a beacon of relative prosperity. Having seen the comparison between the two islands first-hand, I would have liked to try to find out more from the Isla Arena fishermen we talked to about their thoughts on the differences between the two places. I am curious how they perceive the differences in available opportunities. I also wonder whether the Celestún tour guides found it a hard decision to leave fishing behind, or place it on the back burner, in favor of shuttling tourists around.

Seeing the differences between these two islands also reminded me strongly of the semester I spent in coastal South Carolina several years ago. Particularly, I was reminded of the contrasts between the neighboring islands of St. Helena and Hilton Head. Both were inhabited primarily by the Gullah, descendants of freed African slaves, until approximately the 1970s. Around that time, Hilton Head began to experience rapid development into the resort complex that it is today, while St. Helena remains largely inhabited by the Gullah and their descendants. As I got to know the residents of St. Helena Island (my home base that semester), I found that many of them were happy their island had remained as it was and hadn’t experienced the newfound prosperity of Hilton Head. You often hear of people pining for the halcyon days of yore, but it was striking that many of the St. Helena residents didn’t envy the prosperity of Hilton Head even as they lived in close proximity to it. Much of this was probably due to the fact that the beneficiaries of the changes on Hilton Head were not its Gullah residents, but newcomers to the island. Nonetheless, I’m curious whether there are any similar attitudes toward Celestún on Isla Arena, or whether Celesún is a model that those on Isla Arena would be entirely happy to follow.

Brian Rumsey
C-CHANGE trainee
Environmental History

Saying goodbye.

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

It’s our last night in Mexico. We have been granted an amazing opportunity not only to experience environments and cultures entirely removed from our own, but also to communicate with local academics. It’s amazing how simply visiting a place that you have learned about can cement a connection.

The Yucutan Peninsula is a land of loud beauty. The cities are bright and busy. The grackles screech and yip in mobs of hundreds. Pink flamingos of Celestun honk over the boat motors of gawking tourists. Loud music blares from cars and shoe stores. Even in areas of silence, the features still make a strong statement.

Despite some amounts of sensory overload, it’s going to be hard to leave Mexico. Mexico has a voice, and I’m going to miss it.

I can only hope that our investigation into the effects of sea-level rise and its contingent systems will help provide some assistance to the local people. We have managed to partially address a piece of a very large puzzle for a small region of the world. It’s becoming clearer through working on the project that climate change is a massive issue; I can’t even pretend to know the scope or full implications of the impacts we make upon the environment and other peoples. I can only learn as much as I can, continue asking questions, and attempt to address climate research with people’s needs in mind.

It’s been a blast Mexico, you’ll see me around.

Photos courtesy of Natalie Parker and Rebecca Crosthwait.

A Utilitarian View of the Yucatan

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

As I have been taking photographs of the many fascinating places that we’ve visited so far, my camera lens has wandered from what may appear to be the most obvious subject to what I think of as the “edges” of a particular scene.  The colorful colonial facades of Campeche are irresistible.  The crashing waves are magnetic.  The white plastered Mayan houses are captivating.  The pink flamingos are riveting.  But what happens if we “zoom out” to capture more of the scene? Does it tell us anything about how this place actually functions?  We’ve learned that this is a challenging environment to inhabit, from a climatic and geomorphic perspective.  From the human perspective, what does it take to power the Yucatan?  Is it “sustainable”?  What are the various scales at which this is manifested?  What are the various methods that urbanization functions?  How visible is it?  This is just scratching the surface, but a few things come to mind…

Water:  As the Mayans understood well, the Yucatan Peninsula is a “watery world” that transcends everyday as well as cosmological influences of culture (Finamore & Houston, 2010).  Our journey from from Campeche toward Isla Aguada took us by the Gulf of Mexico for long stretches, thankfully interjected with bathroom breaks here and there.  During one of the pit stops, I wandered across the busy Careterra Federal 180 to look at the condition of the coastal road along the beach (Photo 1).  While the construction appeared sound, there appeared to be indications of erosion on the beach side as well as direct surface drainage from the street.  This constant of “controlling” water in the context of urbanized conditions is evident a multiple scales.  At the other end of the spectrum, our trip to Celestun revealed a number of instances where inland water was channeled or controlled by low retaining walls, in some cases more successfully than others (Photo 2). 

Photo 1

Photo 2

Ultimately, water must be utilized for human consumption, which was clearly visible on top many of the houses we that we passed; in some cases painted with pride (Photo 3).  Having heard from  CICY about projections for reduced rainfall in the Yucatan in future years, I wonder why more effort is not made to capture rainwater from the rooftop systems that are visible in many communities that we’ve passed, both urban and rural (Photo 4).  CINVESTAV officials reported that urban solid waste is a major problem in the “land-sea” relationship, with contaminants passing directly into the aquifer and into the sea; that didn’t prevent an enjoyable afternoon swim in the cenote, however (Photo 5). 

Photo 3

Photo 4

Photo 5


Food:  This trip has clearly demonstrated this tenuous land-sea relationship in many different ways, perhaps most viscerally during our visit to Isla de Arena where fishing produces not only local food but has evolved into a node of an international economic network.  The new seawall, road, and pier system that was built 15 years ago has played a part in changing the dynamics of how fish is caught and distributed, as well as protecting the local village from “northers” (Photos 6, 7).  We saw a number of “milpas” while driving throughout the countryside, and learned that just because it doesn’t look like a manicured agricultural farm doesn’t mean that it is inferior.  On the contrary, the complexity of multiple cropping, subsistence farming, and local markets combines simplicity and complexity, representing a lesson that our larger society would benefit from (Photos 8, 9, 10).

Photo 6

Photo 7

Photo 8

Photo 9

Photo 10

Energy/Communications:  While water and electricity are usually a combination to avoid, this combination is quite common at a production-level scale in the Yucatan (Photo 11).  Several substations anchor the regional grid with major transmission lines paralleling highways but also cutting across agriculture, forest, and lagoon areas (Photo 12).  As the electrical system enters downtown districts the lines frequently branch into tangled messes, often in conflict with the more aesthetic objectives of historic districts (Photo 13).  Rooftops also sprout mangrove-like propagules to attract cable TV signals, while larger system towers dominate skylines as new icons that overpower more traditional civic architecture (Photos 14, 15, 16). 

Photo 11

Photo 12

Photo 13

Photo 14

Photo 15

Photo 16

Transportation:  We discovered how a new road provided access to Isla Aguada which, like the seawall/road/pier, has impacted the economic health of the community (Photo 17).  At the same time, we have also seen evidence of how roads like this act as a barrier between ecosystems.  Mangrove density and dynamics, for example, have been restricted in many areas because of this type of infrastructure.  On the other hand, the government is attempting to reduce this impact by introducing openings below roadways to encourage hydrological exchanges to take place (Photo 18).  The bridge at Celestun’s biosphere represents another linkage to coastal communities, which has also brought its own set of economic benefits and environmental problems (Photo 19). 

Highway construction on the western peninsula is reaching another level of advanced engineering, now with overpass/underpass conditions that introduce new challenges of balancing traffic management with environmental concerns (Photo 20).  A curious coincidence permitted us to see a number of pilgrimages along highways and local roads, in the form of bicycle caravans carrying statues and adornments of the Virgin of Guadalupe back to their hometown churches (Photo 21).  Accompanied by trucks and buses, this cultural phenomenon was not only testimony to faith and endurance but perhaps also raises a level of awareness of alternative modes of transportation.  While the majority of local transportation appears to be dominated by automobiles, this annual ritual could perhaps be leveraged to inspire more alternative transportation modes. 

Photo 17

Photo 18

Photo 19

Photo 20

Photo 21

At the risk of making an abstract connection, the overall IGERT class has been dominated by the theme of mangroves, with good reason.  This trip has confirmed the importance of mangroves as a keystone species in the overall health and survival of coastal regions like the Yucatan peninsula (Photo 22).  Mangroves thrive in intertidal zones, able to self-generate their own physiology and soil context to survive.  Mangroves are a principle food source that contributes to a wide array of biodiversity.  Mangroves are a main source of energy production (high rates of photosynthesis), as well as a source of energy dissipation (reduction of storm surge).  Mangroves are also a dynamic system that migrates in correlation with geomorphic and hydrological changes.  By further dissecting these natural processes and identifying these essential characteristics, perhaps our ongoing challenges with water, food, energy, and movement can influence our future technologies and innovations in the quest for nature-human coexistence.

Photo 22

_john shreve

Cambio en la península de Yucatan, Mexico

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

Change. This appears to be a constant for coastal communities of the Yucatan, and rapid adaptation to change is one common theme we’ve heard and seen in our interactions with people living and working here.

The landforms on which the communities we’ve visited live are characterized by change. For example, Isla Arena is built on a sandspit, a sandbar built by longshore transport of sediment. Anyone who has watched waves crash along a shore knows that sand moves on beaches, a landscape ever changing with the currents and tides.  “Extreme events” such as severe flooding and hurricanes are a common occurrence when you live on a sandspit in the subtropics. And community members seem to accept this uncertainty – as one cooperative member at Celestun responded when asked if he had noticed any environmental changes in the region, “It changes all the time. What is normal anyway?”

The beach at Isla Arena. Photo by Lindsay Campbell

And, things are changing fast. Isla Arena was isolated until a road was built connecting it to the mainland approximately fifteen years ago. One fisherman shared stories of eating Cormorant eggs to survive when the fishing was particularly bad because they had no access to other food sources before the road was built. Today, that same fisherman travels to Merida for internet access to stay in touch with family and friends. A new museum will open soon in Isla Arena, a thriving handicrafts cooperative is in operation, and ecotourism facilities are popping up in hopes of generating income from tourism.

Statue of Pedro Infante in front of the new museum in Isla Arena. Photo by Lindsay Campbell

Repeated examples of resiliency and adaptation in the local communities we’ve visited causes me to wonder: Are we attempting to impose permanence on people and places characterized by change? In the face of climate change, shouldn’t we expect these people and places to show the same resiliency? I would at least expect climate change and potential sea-level rise adaptation and mitigation strategies developed by coastal communities of Yucatan to be more understanding of the inherent impermanency of the landscape and potentially more successful than strategies developed from an outsider’s perspective. After all, someone unfamiliar with the changes characteristic of coastlines might expect people living here to fear the same things they do, or to desire permanency, when acceptance of change may be the best adaptation strategy of all.

Ashley Zung, IGERT Trainee

Department of Geography

Thinking Critically about Tourism

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

Earlier this week we had the incredible opportunity to stop and visit a cenote as we drove from the city of Campeche to Merida. A cenote is basically a sinkhole. They form due to the dissolution of limestone from rainwater, and are usually part of a formation of underground caverns and pools. In this part of the Central America cenotes are common due to the prevalence of limestone in the area. According to “Yucatan Today – The Tourist’s Guide” there are more than 6000 cenotes in the Yucatan and about 2400 of them are studied and registered.

We visited Cenote San Ignacio, which is located about 20 min from Merida in the town of Chochola. In “Yucatan Today” this cenote is described as “safe and ideal for swimming”… “there is artificial light and even music!” Cenote San Ignacio was great for swimming and there was indeed artificial light – otherwise we would have been in the dark as there was only one small entrance to the cave-like pool – but there was no music (thankfully).

The cenotes are portrayed in the tourist magazine as relaxing pools to take a dip in and explore a bit before having a nice big meal at the associated restaurant. However, before we visited the cenote I did a little research and found a much deeper story. Cenote is a Spanish word, but the Mayans called these cave-pools “dzonot”, which means well. This is because for the Mayans cenotes were sources of fresh drinking water that sustained entire communities throughout the dry seasons. In fact, cenotes were seen as a one of the three symbolic gateways to the underworld. Pilgrimages were made to the cenote to collect water and conduct rituals. Archeologists have uncovered the evidence of offerings that were thrown into these pools long ago – which describes a much longer and controversial story than I will explore on this blog. (Info from Andrew Kinkella:

However, the cenote is just another instance of a place that has a much deeper meaning, but which has been reduced to a staple tourist sight in Mexico. While many tourist destinations are inviting and may seem to provide only pure relaxation and enjoyment – there is so much more that is hidden behind the tourist façade. Just a few more examples – the crumbling Hacienda hidden in the forest (which is now a fancy hotel and restaurant) represents a history of subjugation, colonization, and revolution. The Mayan archeological sights show us a glimpse of how Mayan society was historically organized – and leave more questions and curiosities that answers (see my previous post). The flamingos at Celestun are the charismatic mega fauna that draw birders and eco-tourists and perhaps get more attention in the conservation arena than they truly deserve (although they are super cool). I could go on and on…but I think my point is clear. Tourism is not as simple as it seems and participating in tourism means participating in an economy with intense cultural, ecological and social repercussions. On this trip tourist activities have presented an important opportunity to think critically about the constructed vs. actual meaning of places, how they are represented for consumption and how I can improve my own interactions with the places and people I come into contact with when I am traveling in a new place.

Local Knowledge Can Stem Natural Science Inquiry

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

We are finishing our last day in Mexico as part of the “climates and borders” course of the NSF IGERT C-CHANGE program at the University of Kansas.  Today we met with Centro de Investigación Cientifica de Yucatán (CICY) and Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados (CINVESTAV).  We had productive meetings about the scientific evidence accumulated by both organizations about climate change, local fisheries, and mangrove ecosystems.  A question asked that was interesting to me today was does local knowledge lead these researchers to research hypotheses?

CICY in Merida, Mexico

CINVESTAV in Merida, Mexico

This is a topic that I have been thinking about since we visited a local community working on a mangrove restoration project in Laguna de Terminos and after speaking with a local community at Isla de Arena.  In Laguna de Terminos we were told that mangrove success was highly dependent upon water temperature and in Isla de Arena we were told that mangrove success depended upon water salinity. As a plant physiologist, I began to wonder about plant physiological mechanisms associated with temperature and salinity stress.  I was not familiar with evidence concerning the physiological responses of mangrove species to abiotic stressors (i.e., temperature, hydrologic, salinity stress).  I formed a question:  What abiotic stressors are prevalent in mangrove ecosystems and how do they affect the physiological responses of mangrove trees?

I see now that my research question was formed from knowledge gained from local people.  Often times, as a natural scientist, I form research questions after reading published literature in peer-reviewed journals that contain information about my model organism.  I now am aware that inquiry based learning may stem from other sources of information.  This is something that I probably would not have thought about without being in the C-CHANGE program.  I now hope to find information about mangrove physiological responses to abiotic stressors which will certainly enhance our understanding of mangrove ecosystems in the face of climate change.

Tilapia and Taste

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

During our time along the western coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, most of us have been enjoying the fresh (and plentiful) seafood.  Among the most common offerings have been shrimps, crabs, cobia, sierra, and octopus.  But I want to take a moment to reflect on a fish that, though we haven’t encountered frequently, has become an increasingly pervasive part of the Mexican diet over the last four decades: tilapia.

First brought to Mexico in the 1960s by both private importers and government fisheries incentives, tilapia is presently found in every state in Mexico and is well established in the wild.  According to Guillermo, a researcher at ECOSUR – Campeche, the fish was introduced as part of a scheme to take pressure off over-fished wild stocks.  To this end, the Mexican government began funding tilapia aquaculture programs in the early 1990s.  Mexico’s total production of tilapia shifted from 27,765 t in 1987 (over 90% wild caught) to 94,279 t in 1996 (nearly 84% farmed).  During this time, Mexico became the leading tilapia producer in the Americas and the fish emerged as the country’s third largest seafood product by weight (after sardines and tuna, before shrimp and octopus). 

Perhaps the most astounding aspect of tilapia’s growth in Mexico, however, is the fact that the vast majority is consumed domestically.  The case of tilapia, then, gets at the role the state plays in constructing taste.  A mild-flavored fish, tilapia takes the essence of whatever it’s cooked in.  This makes it perfect for the many dishes we’ve eaten here in Mexico – a la diabla, al mojo de ajo, al chipotle, etc…  Because it grows fast in a variety of water qualities, the non-native fish has replaced many traditionally-consumed species.  Advertising campaigns have highlighted tilapia’s nutritional content – it’s a good source of protein and is low in saturated fat, calories, and sodium – and affordability.  Behind these efforts, tilapia has become increasingly common in Mexican markets and grocery stores, and is an especially popular fish among poorer, rural populations.  Thus, a fish introduced in the 1960s, has become is now a staple of the Mexican diet.

But the cost of manufacturing taste is potentially severe.  For example, tilapia is a harmful alien species whose introduction can disrupt the natural functioning of ecosystems.  Moreover, recent studies have suggested that farm-raised tilapia, by virtue of the meal they are fed, can pose considerable health risks.

As an environmental historian, I aim to take this lesson home with me.  In the most general sense, it shows that we must account for taste when studying history.  More narrowly, it offers a blueprint for studying the forces that inform taste and the nutritional, social, economic, and ecological consequences of that process.  But for now, I’ll be enjoying my final day in Mexico and looking forward to one last seafood feast.


Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

Today we visited Celestún, a popular eco-tourism destination because of its annual flamingo migration. Flamingos hold a prominent role in the local economy with paraphernalia displayed on the sides of taxis and in store fronts.

We were fortunate to have the opportunity for close observation of the flamingos in their natural habitat through a tourist outfit comprised of local co-ops that operate with some government oversight.

Welcome sign at flamingo boat tour site

During the tour, we wound our way through the mangroves and walked along a boardwalk within the habitat.

Following the boat ride, we spoke with co-op members and government agency representatives. Co-op members highlighted three month educational classes provided by the government for some members to learn more about the biology and ecology of the flamingos and the mangrove habitat, but expressed frustration that 50% of tour proceeds go to the government to maintain constructed bathroom, shopping, and dining facilities. Under this framework, prices doubled, becoming too costly for many Mexican families to enjoy the nature reserve.

In addition, discussion of highways in the region and their affect on mangrove habitat was an important topic among the government agency representatives. Although consequences near Celestún are not as severe as near Isla Arena, the restriction of freshwater flow has had negative impacts on mangrove health, but plans exist to alter the highway system to help mitigate this problem. Interestingly, the head of the mangrove restoration project highlighted pressure on mangrove habitats resulting from urban growth as one of the biggest challenges they face in conservation in the region.

In our short visit to Celestún, we had the opportunity to observe several characteristics of the complex relationship between local residents, government agencies, and economic growth resulting from eco-tourism. Unintended consequences, such as urban growth and increased prices, appear to have emerged, at least in part, due to government sponsorship. In turn, government intervention may have prevented saturation of the local tourism market and unregulated intrusion into the mangrove habit, thereby preventing the loss of the flamingo attraction.