I returned from Punta Allen a few days ago now. It has taken me a while to recover from what I can only describe as a trip into a different dimension. It is crazy how in so little time the mind, the body, the spirit can adjust to a new environment (or a new sleeping habit, I miss my hammock dreadfully). Maybe, my nomad life has granted me some added pliability. Maybe the beauty of Sian Ka’an helped. Or maybe we should have high hopes for adaptation… we forget we have been doing it for centuries.
Punta Allen was a completely different experience. The first thing I saw as I walked into the little town was a horde of American and European tourists that flew out of jeeps and rushed into motorboats for a tour around Ascension Bay. After being in very small fishing settlements, Punta Allen–scarcely consisting of more than four dirt roads parallel to the ocean–seemed huge to me. Fishers diluted amongst the tourism activities, and unlike the other fishing communities whose families lived in Cozumel or Chetumal, Punta Allen is home for everyone that lives there. How was I going to identify the 70 cooperative associates from those hundreds of people? Long story short, I figured out where the fishers hung out in the morning before heading out to work for a few focus group discussions on the no-take zone initiative, and then waited for them on the dock where they all unload their daily lobster catch to schedule interview visits. Pretty soon, I was going lobster fishing in the morning and then jumping from house to house in the strange and magical town of Punta Allen, interviewing until 10 pm (they have electricity there at night… if the generator works).
I lost count of the lobsters I fished, but not of the fishers I interviewed. I am happy to report an n = 90 for my total of official interviews in both bays. I might have learned the most interesting bits of information through my “unofficial” experiences, on the motorboats while fishing, in the kitchens helping to cook and savoring the best dishes I have had in my life, in the docks, where I would try to find a bit of time for myself but was always inevitably joined by a fisher who wanted to tell me more about himself and the story of his community. They refer to the lobster as their gold of the sea, and in all honesty I can say that if I was the daughter of a fisher I might not hesitate much in dropping out of school and following after his footsteps.
For final thoughts: After talking to many of the actors involved in the implementation of conservation strategies in a place where communities still directly depend on natural resources, it has been appalling to find how little time we spend listening to each other and how much of a difference it makes when we do. The importance of face-to-face interaction has been overshadowed by discursive and mediatic communication, which does little to effectively represent, understand and align different and legitimate interests. We’ve got to stop fearing complexity.
For final thoughts: I will end as I began, expressing my deepest gratitude. This experience could not have been defined by more generosity, grace and protection. I would like to thank three people that I have not yet mentioned, but whose presence and support has been vital. My advisers Sara Adlerstein and Julia Wondolleck. A phrase that I heard my first semester in SNRE in Julia’s class on Natural Resource Conflict Management defined the confidence with which I approached people: “Everyone wants a chance to participate; they just need to be granted the opportunity.” Not one fisher refused to speak to me. Sara skillfully balanced my altruistic tendencies by always reminding me to consider the natural and ecosystem characteristics of the issue, and offered me the possibility to vent my excitement and concerns in Spanish (which makes quite a difference). Both of them responded to the lengthy emails I am famous for and joined skype conferences for academic and even moral support… I must be one of their most needy students! Finally, I would like to thank fellow Fulbrighter Ranjay Singh who works with traditional communities in removed corners of Northeastern India, and is now working with the rural communities of North India. He was kind enough to guide me prior to my departure to the field. In an hour-long conversation over tea and scones in the Espresso Royal in South University, Ranjay shared with me his wisdom, which defined both the humility and forcefulness of my every step in Sian Ka’an. “Let me see how you write,” he told me and held a pen and a napkin to me. I think I gave him a confused look. “Your most important tools will be paper, pen, language and presence. Do not rely on your recorder and do not rely on your memory. Write it all down. And as for presence: like a swan you must be concentrated; like a crow, you must be able to do distant learning and value this as much as your direct interactions; like a dog, you must be alert, ready to seize any opportunity.” I believe I did.
Thanks for reading. I have loved sharing this experience. I leave you with a few more images and an invitation to write to me with any comments or questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Salud!