Rogelio Cova, one of the founding fathers of Mexico's PVO movement, is working to strengthen the weakest links in Mexico's emerging environmental movement: local government and community organizations.
Rogelio was one of the early pioneers of civil society and the PVO movement in Mexico. He began his career by introducing youth clubs to rural areas of the country. He created the "3T" organization, whose programs brought a mix of recreation for its young members and economic benefits for their parents. After working on several community development projects, he was elected municipal president in Lazaro Cardenas, Thaxcala, where he established the municipality's first primary and secondary schools. In 1983, Rogelio launched his second major national innovation, SEDEPAC, devoted to promoting soil conservation among Mexico's campesinos. In 1988, illness forced him to retire for several years. Now recovered, he is launching a third major contribution to society. Since Rogelio is well beyond the launch of his first major idea, Ashoka has elected him a Member, not a Fellow. Members are public entrepreneurs who have already made a mark on history. Only very rarely does Ashoka help Members financially, since they are past their take-off stage. The fellowship has made an exception in Rogelio's case, since he is launching a new idea after an illness-induced retirement. Rogelio became a Member of the Ashoka Fellowship in 1990.
The last half decade has seen Mexico become increasingly aware of its growing environmental problems. Legislation such as the 1987 National Law for Ecological Equilibrium have encouraged environmentalists. However, awareness and even action at the national level have not yet led to change at the state and local levels. Since most concrete environmental decisions are taken at the local level, the environment continues to deteriorate rapidly. Rogelio plans to help local communities develop the understanding, desire, and skills they need if they are to take on the many environmental challenges facing them. Only when local officials and citizens can talk knowledgeably about the causes and effects of deforestation and about the pH levels in an area's groundwater can they even recognize that the water system that sustains them is falling apart. Even then, they must know more to be able to work out the most sensible, fair ways of arresting and reversing the damage. They must also develop skills of working together-sorting out the problems analytically on the one hand and of negotiating a fair sharing of the burdens on the other. None of this comes to people automatically or easily, let alone to communities, where many minds must think together. Rogelio is developing an approach that he hopes will enable local officials and civil society quickly to learn both how to analyze the environmental problems before them and how to work together. Working at the municipal, or "bioregional," level, his approach brings the different elements of the community together in an integrated program of education leading directly to joint action. The heads of local ejidos, civic organizations, schools, and municipal authorities come together in a working group that gradually lays out all the region's environmental problems and then prioritizes both these needs and possible corrective actions. These small (typically 20) representative working groups, with the help of Rogelio and his colleagues, gradually work towards consensus. In the process Rogelio seeks to build their cultural pride-and therefore a sense of responsibility for taking care of what is theirs. As consensus develops in this core group, Rogelio works to bring the broader community along as well. He encourages the committee to use local radio to explain its thinking. A mobile ecological van, or "school," and special three-day camps for groups of up to 21 youngsters further strengthen this broader educative effort.
Mexico's environmental problems are internationally notorious. A capital city with air so bad that it sometimes kills migrating birds passing overhead, is drawing down its underground water supplies so rapidly that there will be nothing left in 10 years. Historically one of the six most species-rich habitats in the world, it is cutting its forests and selling its wildlife so uncontrollably that soon there will be little left. Mushrooming waste streams flow no one knows where. In Rogelio's home state of Thaxcala, 35 percent of the soil is severely degraded. Overall strategy is important. However, nothing will happen unless local communities learn a great deal very quickly and take up the initiative. Grand national waste-management plans ultimately will do little good unless hundreds of local municipalities manage the wastes they generate well. That requires recognizing the need and then acting. That in turn almost always requires their biting a hard bullet political bullet, e.g., by siting a waste treatment facility near someone. Enforcing national standards against local people is not much easier.
Rogelio's plan is straightforward-to make his "education and action" approach work in three communities in Thaxcala. He'll fill in and refine his approach as he gains experience. Most important, successful demonstrations will give him the persuasive arguments he needs to persuade government and others to apply the approach broadly across the country, his ultimate goal. The first community where Rogelio has begun applying his approach is Espanita. The first working group meeting successfully produced a 12-month municipal action plan dealing chiefly with garbage, erosion, and deforestation. The Espanita pilot program has had a number of signal successes in mobilizing the broader public. For example, a group of secondary school students decided to give the municipality's resolve to deal effectively with wastes a strong supportive push. Among other things, they organized a conference led by a well-respected engineer and attended by representatives of seven municipalities, industries, educational entities, and community groups.