Larry Castanares is helping Mexicans appreciate the country's incredibly rich diversity of wildlife and vegetation, a necessary early step towards building a strong conservation movement.
Larry is a biologist by profession, with postgraduate studies in marine sciences as well as zoology and marine ecology. His career has included stints as a university professor, underwater diving instructor, marine research scientist, and director of aquatic flora and fauna in the Ministry of the Environment. While working on his Ph.D. thesis among the coral reefs of Veracruz, Larry realized the extent of their destruction – the direct, avoidable result of human activity. He decided to leave academia in 1985 to fight directly to preserve Mexico's very large part of the earth's biological endowment before it was too late.
Four hundred thirty-nine species of mammals live in Mexico, more than in any other country of the world, and its flora is more diverse than that of the Soviet Union, a country 11 times its size. Mexico, in fact, is one of the seven countries that contain between 60 to 80 percent of all living organisms on earth. (Australia, Brazil, Columbia, Indonesia, Madagascar, and Zaire are the others.) Mexico's population, however, is largely unaware of this legacy, and is consequently little troubled by its destruction. Larry is launching a series of communications projects to turn this around. Through them he seeks "to integrate the process of nature conservation into the everyday life of Mexican society." From printing images of nature on the back of cereal packets to starting a training school for nature guides and environmental educators for Mexico City schoolchildren, Larry is overflowing with ideas to engage the public as protectors of Mexico's endangered natural habitat. Larry implements these ideas through the Bioimagen Program, which he founded "to integrate communication and community participation with nature conservation projects."
The problem, according to Larry, begins in school. The national curriculum does address environmental problems, but, as he says, "it is more informative than formative–children are not taught to appreciate the aesthetic, cultural, economic, and ecological values of nature, nor are they taught to evaluate the different alternative actions for the solution of environmental or nature conservation problems. Therefore these problems continue when these children become decision-making adults." This neglect endangers one of the world's most bountiful concentrations of flora and fauna. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has registered 2,870 species of endemic vascular plants for Mexico, fully 14 percent of the world's total. One-sixth of them are endangered. In addition, 77 species of mammals, 60 species of birds, 40 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 40 species of fish are also endangered, according to international statistics; there is, as yet, no Mexican Endangered Species List. The extinction of species flows inexorably from the destruction of the ecosystems on which they depend. One example: researchers studied 27,000 square kilometers of the Chiapas-Tabasco-Campeche region of southern Mexico, an area that includes the Lacandon Jungle and is home to six of the seven species of wild cats found in North America. They found that 60 percent of the tropical forest existing in 1974 had been lost by 1986. Most was converted into grassland for cattle. Much is at stake, and little time is left. However, most Mexicans haven't focused on this problem yet, let alone become sufficiently concerned to take action. The residents of Mexico City, for example, complain about the smog, but most don't understand the deep risks they and the city confront. Less obvious problems, such as species extinction, go largely unnoticed. Ultimately this insensitivity is a failure of education and public communication. The problem begins in the schools but has many contributing causes. For example, the better environmental shows on television are typically produced in other countries and generally don't deal with Mexico's ecosystem and society. To the modest extent that museums and zoos inform the public, they tend to do so in isolation and without engaging people in active problem-solving. These are some of the missed opportunities that Larry is setting out to seize.
Larry has begun by raising the profile of nature conservancy. With remarkable success, he has persuaded companies to fund and promote his efforts: Kellogg's features a series of his photos and information pieces on the backs of their cereal packets; Sabritas, a potato chip producer, does the same. Larry uses the income obtained from these to promote a further series of nature images printed on the national lottery tickets. He knows that merely spreading visual images is not enough. Already experienced in setting up a low-cost Museum of Natural History in the state of Mexico, Larry is planning another in Yucatan, with interactive exhibits on the biology and ecology of the region and alternative uses of natural resources. This is part of his strategy to involve the young in the knowledge and enjoyment of natural history. Larry is just now launching a further dimension of his strategy: he's giving Friday workshops in Mexico City schools, which will lead to Saturday nature excursions. From this beginning he is planning to build the country's first school for nature guides. "How can you have eco-tourism," Larry asks, "if there are no competent nature guides to run it?" Larry plans to open Bioimagen regional offices so that such direct community level involvements can reach areas now served only by his mass audience channels such as radio and the backs of potato chip bags.