Ecotourism and Spirituality in Mexico
by Ron Mader
Publication Date: December 1999
An autumn sunset.
The cackle of parrots draws my head to the auburn sky. Circling
overhead this mountain in Mexico's Eastern Sierra Madre, the birds
are searching for a place to spend the night.
"They are Maroon-fronted parrots (Rhynchopsitta terrisi), a species
which has evolved to live only among high altitude conifer forests
in Northeastern Mexico," says biologist Jose Sanchez de la Peña."
It's hard to believe. I had always thought of parrots as a tropical
species, but here we are just three hours south of the U.S.-Mexico
border in the state of Nuevo
Leon. There are many surprises here. I am learning so many things
about this country and its environment that have shattered countless
media stereotypes and preconceptions.
Mexico is poor only in terms of economic wealth. In terms of biodiversity
- the number and variety of species of flora and fauna - Mexico
is a global power. It is among five nations on this planet which
scientists have found the majority of the worlds life forms.
The parrots nest on the limestone cliffs in this area of the Sierra
Madre Oriental. The area is recovering from a regional wildfire
that destroyed 8,000 hectares in 1975. The major source of the parrots'
diet - conifer seeds - was destroyed in the forest fire. Jose's
family runs a small lodge, Renacer
de la Sierra (Rebirth of the Mountains) in the heart of the
The family has been responsible for a major reforestation project
undertaken with proceeds from tourists. The work is slow, Jose acknowledges.
It may take 800 years for the ecosystem to return. But given the
400 years his family has already lived on this mountain, recovery
is a long time away, but not unthinkable.
NOTIONS OF DEVELOPMENT
In many ways environmentalists have chosen the path of criticism.
Perhaps this has been done so for all the right reasons, but when
condemnation is made without also giving hope, it leads us all into
a spiraling path toward negativity. How many conversations have
I had with fellow environmentalists that turned into competing scenarios
of global doom?
I've come to this mountain retreat with a colleague I've met via
the Internet as we both write about borderland environmental issues.
Jose's love of the desert and mountains always impressed me. Now
I get to see where his family has lived for centuries.
Strangely in these Mexican mountains, I am reminded of Buddhist
scholar Joanna Macy's thoughtful collection of essays, Earth
as Lover, Earth as Self. The environmental problems we're witnessing
today will require as much spiritual transformation as economic
change. And it's not a question of "getting religion" as much experiencing
the spirituality of place.
Macy writes about the Buddhist practice of "Sarvodaya" - which
means "everybody wakes up." She writes:
"In my mind I still hear the local Sarvodaya workers, in their
village meetings and district training centers. Development is not
imitating the West. Development is not high-cost industrial complexes,
chemical fertilizers and mammoth hydro-electric dams. It is not
selling your soul for unnecessary consumer items or schemes to get
rich quick. Development is waking up - waking up to our true wealth
and true potential as persons and as a society."
We've heard so much about development in this decade, usually
in the form of "sustainable development." But most of what I've
seen is rhetoric or good-intentioned tinkering of the status quo,
advanced by international banks, A-list foundations and wealthy
entrepreneurs. I don't see that much has changed. It's only when
I come to places where the ideas are being worked out on the ground
that I find my spirits lifted.
I wonder what the Mexican equivalent of "Sarvodaya" might be.
There are a lot of good-natured development projects, but rarely
do they involve the entire community.
I'm going back to the basics now and asking myself some simple
questions - How do we connect to a place? How do we value our work?
What is meaningful travel?
There are several examples of ecotourism that offer a glimpse of
the path ahead - Renacer
de la Sierra is but one. This family has a multi-generation
commitment to reforestation and to the biological understanding
of their corner of the Sierra. This work alone may not provide all
of the answers needed for sustainable living, but it does provide
one of the keys to rethinking our relation to the environment.
Issues hidden beneath the lure of the Sierra and the luxuriant
cloud forests come to light when we learn how to see. There are
real campesinos attempting to feed their children by burning the
forest and planting corn, there are real environmentalists who sometimes
give their lives in service to their beliefs, and there are real
decisions that caring and educated travelers can make either to
improve or degrade the delicate environments through which they
Ecotourism will never be THE solution for environmental conservation
or job creation, but it often serves as a catalyst to other practices
critical to sustainable development, including the development of
environment-friendly lodging, interpretative tours respectful of
people and place, organic agriculture, local culture and handicrafts
and environmental education. In Spanish this is called un circulo
virtuoso or a 'virtuous
These are ideas that need to be absorbed and they'll be what I'll
be looking at over the next few years. I certainly don't have the
answers I'm looking for, but I like these questions. I have faith
that I will continue to meet people who will share their experiences
as we attempt to not only cross borders but forge new links that
Little round planet in a big universe
Sometimes it looks blessed, sometimes it looks cursed
Depends on what you look at obviously
But even more it depends on the way that you see
This article first appeared in the June/July 1999
issue of Radical