25 Mexicans: Sonia Ortiz, guardian

Eleven years ago, Sonia Ortiz took a trip with her young son down the Usumacinta River, which forms the border between Chiapas and Guatemala. Toucans flew overhead, howler monkeys roared, and she and the other travelers dined nightly at well-appointed, candlelit tables as fireflies flashed around them.

One day when hiking, Ortiz saw a poor family beside a trail, the children emaciated with distended bellies. Is this my country? she wondered. Then, as they returned upriver, the group was ambushed by young boys with machine guns. Ortiz doesn’t know if they were Mexican or Guatemalan; all she knows is that they did it because they were poor. They took everything the tourists had, and Ortiz and her son arrived in Palenque barefoot and shaken.

“Who is going to give these people jobs?” she wondered. It’s not fair, she thought, that a few in Mexico have so much and the rest almost nothing.

Ortiz realized that in order for tourism to help rural people, they must be providing the services, but she could help initiate the projects. She met a woman named Patricia Luevano, who shared her vision of saving land and improving people’s lives within Tamaulipas’ magnificent El Cielo cloud forest.

Javier Villareal, who had been working in local villages, joined them, along with renowned ornithologist Hector Gomez de Silva. Together they have trained local men as bird guides, organized the El Cielo Festival for birders and butterfly aficionados, and improved the local economy, following what Sonia calls the “three C’s”: conservation, consciousness and community.

De Silva has determined that to protect all of Mexico’s bird species, 42 sites around the country must be preserved. Now, Sonia Ortiz and her team are gearing up to apply the El Cielo conservation and development model around Mexico.

Note: This article was originally published in our November, 2007 issue.


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