The Grass Roots

Early evening here and it’s been overcast all day. That doesn’t save us from the noon swelter, but it does mean that now, around seven, there’s a breeze and it’s blessedly cool. After all the quick nightfalls of the winter and the blackout precautions we have to take to keep our house from filling with bugs, the days are starting to feel miraculously long.



It’s depressing that we’ve almost hit the apex already—I’ve spent some time in Australia and I can tell you I wouldn’t mind seeing an eleven o’clock sunset again.

I want to talk a bit about movements, how they start and grow and how I’m witnessing one firsthand here in Mexico.

We learn a lot about civil society at Georgetown. I know that in the School of Foreign Service’s core curriculum, both Comparative Political Systems and Political and Social Thought took time to look at Tocqueville‘s Democracy in America and Putnam’s Bowling Alone.



Civil society is what exists between the citizen and the state apart from business, the whole aggregate of nongovernmental operators (and loosely categorized as voluntary or volunteerist associations). It could be something as well organized as a union or it could be something as inauspicious as, famously, a bowling league. It’s the Boy Scouts and the Elks and the PTA, neighborhood associations and what used to be gentlemen’s clubs. Political theory tends to hold civil society as one of the cornerstones of healthy democracy, right along with freedoms of press and association. Civil society is how we influence politics at the most basic level (on up). If the ball field’s going to hell, well then all those little league teams, their parents, and the businesses that sponsor them, they become a pressure group that can act on the mayor or the city council or the county commissioner, depending.

One of the fundamental aspects of civil society is that it emerges from the people themselves. But there also exists a kind of pseudo-civil society that crops up in corporate states. I’m talking about states where the government organizes the body politic into entities that resemble a normal civil society and which facilitate the State’s management of the people. Placing all industrial workers into one official union to more easily manage them and prevent independent labor organizing, for example, or the creation of State art institutes to better control creative production. Real world examples nowadays would include China (almost whole hog), Cuba (slipping out of it), and Mexico (somewhat).

Here, I am intimately involved in a kind of mix between the two types of civil society. I help my counterpart to run the “Ecochavos,” a homegrown kind of Eco-Scouts. We do Scouting-esque activities like campouts, big assemblies, parades, learning about nature, service work. But in addition we have a heavy focus on projects and education. My counterpart Salvador created the Ecochavos to serve the environmental education agenda of the Biosphere Reserve (National Park, kind of) in which I live. Salvador is in charge of Environmental Education for all of the 600-odd communities in the Reserve, and his dream is to have cadres of young people travelling the hills and educating their countrymen. The Ecochavos are meant to be an educational force-multiplier, and they’re now getting involved in some of the work of the Reserve proper through their projects. For instance, my personal group of Ecochavos’ objective is to reduce solid waste pollution on the riverbanks in town (a serious problem) by 25% by the end of November. We’re planning on soliciting or building 25 new trash cans to populate the banks, putting together puppet shows on waste management and water quality for the kids who both like to heavily pollute and swim in/eat out of the river, a radio show and series of informative spots, several cleanup campaigns, four murals, and a ‘Clean River Fair’ to get the folks who live along the water involved and educated.

My kids are dynamite

My kids are dynamite

Our other 13 groups are carrying out similar work all over the Sierra.

But the Ecochavos are something more than an instrument of public policy—they’re becoming their own pressure group and power base. While we at the park office are theoretically the ones in charge of the Reserve, we’re nearly penniless and there seems to be no formal framework to enforce our authority. So we are at the mercy of the five municipalities (counties, more or less) that make up the park for our funding and for much of the development of the Reserve. Without leverage, we’re powerless to arrest harmful trends in the park—when the municipality put in a water treatment plant up the road that was over capacity on its first day, we couldn’t stop it, and we can’t force the municipality to enforce laws on the dumping of untreated sewage into the river. We just make speeches about it. When we were looking for 25,000 pesos ($1,900) to feed our kids during our recent Ecochavos assembly, not only could we not get the municipalities to pony up—the municipal presidents were as often as not openly dismissive of Chava, giving him the runaround on paperwork for weeks at a time and keeping him waiting for hours before five minute meetings in the hallway. Things are changing now.

We’ve secured a huge infusion of funds from the German Agency for International Cooperation and the go-ahead from higher-ups in the National Parks Service for the expansion of the Ecochavos program into five more states. The municipal governments are becoming more cooperative. To understand why, you have to know a bit about how government works here. The civil service is staffed entirely by appointment. The British think we’re insane to replace the upper echelons of our embassies and departments with every administration, but the turnovers here are on another level. When the PAN loses a state, all civil employees are replaced by their counterparts from the PRI. Likewise, because all civil posts are staffed through patronage rather than conventional hiring, they all become stepping stones within the party. If you want to be governor, you first shoot for municipal president, and to get that, you man a series of positions in the municipal government; tourism, youth, health. When the entire staff of a municipal seat is at risk of being replaced every three years, their outlook becomes exactly that long, and everyone is desperate to get successful projects under their belts before the next round of promotions.


So when Chava and I sat down with the directors of the youth offices of each of the municipalities to arrange transport for our kids to the assembly, the situation took a novel turn. We were asking these guys to take dozens of kids from towns that were as far as six hours away and drive them to and from Jalpan, all on a weekend, an investment of personal time and a not insignificant amount of gas allowance. When they started grumbling, Chava laid into them. He outlined our current numbers, around 500, and the prospect of our imminent expansion. He detailed the help we could provide them, staffing their events and running the projects that they would need to take credit for in advance of the next election. And then he informed them that if they didn’t want to drive us, that was fine, but the Ecochavos would be conspicuously absent from the things that they wanted to do for the next year. All that was more or less empty talk—we couldn’t coordinate a boycott like that if we put all of ourselves into it; half of our kids aren’t sure whether they even belong to Ecochavos when we show up to the further-flung communities. But our recent successes had made us seem big, and the youth directors gave us carte blanche with their microbuses to a man. Chava, whether he’s doing it consciously or not, is leveraging the Ecochavos into his own little political base. We’ve had another development along those lines that looks like it’ll push us even farther ahead.

There’s one other major force out here in the Reserve, and that’s the Grupo. The Grupo Ecológico de la Sierra Gorda was founded by a schoolteacher from the city named Pati Ruiz Corso who came out in the 1990s to try to protect this area of the Sierra Madre. The group grew, came to agreements with a huge number of the communities, set up a modestly booming ecotourism industry, and eventually prompted the government to set up the park, the first time that a civil association had ever done so in Mexico. The park office operated out of the Grupo’s headquarters and Pati ran everything personally. About 2 years ago, a new Director came out to the Reserve, decided that an NGO shouldn’t and couldn’t control a government office, and formally separated the two entities. Pati, longtime undisputed dictator of the area, did not take well to the new situation. Salvador sat in on that meeting, and he has said that she had a meltdown of epic proportion, screaming about how the Reserve was hers and that it wouldn’t be taken away. She launched a vendetta against that Director, who she succeeded in removing this past January, and the park office and the Grupo have been enduring an uneasy detente ever since.

After the split, the Grupo seems to have become more of a moneymaking scheme for Pati and her family, various members of which staff the menagerie of subsidiary NGOs that work across the region. The people of the region, though, are growing tired of the Grupo’s heavy-handed pressure and their growing failure to follow through on promises of projects and pesos. The people of Santa Maria de Cocos draw their livelihood from the Sotano del Barro, a massive vertical cave and the biggest tourist attraction in the Reserve.

Because people like to see a big hole

Because people like to see a big hole

The Grupo has always manned the ecotourism station in Cocos, but a couple of months ago, the town terminated that relationship. The townspeople claimed that the organization has failed to keep up their facilities and seemed to be skimming funds. If 10,000 pesos worth of international funding were given to the Grupo and earmarked for upkeep of programs in the community, Cocos would receive equipment worth 1,000 pesos and an invoice that had beds and wood and food impossibly marked up to meet the original total. Similar events are taking place all over the Sierra, and the power that Pati has wielded for more than a decade as the sole provider of outside funding and the final word in environmentalism is slipping away. The office, on the other hand, and especially the Ecochavos are now in the ascendant, and local politicians who were previously concerned with cozying up to Pati are now looking for new local actors and we may be them.

As a government employee but under the auspices of the Grupo, my counterpart Salvador had run Ecoclubs, youth groups similar to our Ecochavos, for ten years. After the schism, Pati took the Ecoclubs away from him, and they have been in a steady decline since then. As we grew our new movement of Ecochavos, Pati and the Grupo began to see them as a threat. For the last six months, they have been scrambling to resuscitate the Ecoclub program and harrying us in their free time. Pati has proposed subsuming our Chavos into their clubs multiple times. Failing that, she’s tried to divide the region between us, even running a fledgling group of Ecochavos out of the town down the road through bogus ‘we were here first’ claims. This past weekend, she unilaterally announced that her massive number of paper Ecoclubs would now be known as Ecochavos. We suspect that she’s caught wind of our new developments through her contacts in the state government and imagines that she can horn in on our new funding and institutional backing. She can’t.

Watching the Ecochavos grow up into a regional force and seeing that office start to take back ground it’s lost to Pati might be the highlight of my service. It’s enlightening thing to see the shifts of local power in motion and even more to be part of them. Let’s hope it’s all up from here.

2 thoughts on “The Grass Roots

  1. Pingback: All Patrols Look Out! | Another Peace Corps Blog

  2. Pingback: Teach Your Children Well | Another Peace Corps Blog

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