Responsible Tourism in a Lost Mexican Paradise

Emilio Godoy*

HAVANA TIMES, Sep 10 (IPS) — It’s a mixture of volunteer work and tourism. The visitor pays to spend a few weeks in contact with nature and carry out the chores of an organic farm. The idea behind it all is to cultivate environmental awareness.

In Mexico, Alan Vázquez rises at seven in the morning and his first task is to feed the animals on “Las Canoas Altas” ecological ranch, located in Erongarícuaro (which means “place of waiting” in the indigenous Purépecha language), a municipality in the southwestern state of Michoacán.

“The experience has surpassed all my expectations, because I had never been on an ecological farm before. I’ve learned to make bread, to cook and to build panels for the beehives,” said Vázquez, 25, a student of land-use planning at the public Autonomous Metropolitan University of Mexico.

“Las Canoas Altas,” a property of 2.5 hectares owned by Belgian Vincent Geerts, is part of the Mexican chapter of World Wide Opportunities in Organic Farms (WWOOF), an international initiative that began in Great Britain in 1971 under a different name: Working Weekends on Organic Farms.

The founder of the network was Sue Coppard, who worked as a secretary and loved her London life, but missed her childhood in the countryside. It occurred to her that if she offered to work for free on a farm, the owners might give her room and board. On her first try she had 15 companions ready to join her for the “adventure.”

“The network is a good mechanism. The basic factor is coexistence, beyond the agricultural training,” said Geerts, an organic farming enthusiast who arrived in Mexico in 1979. He joined WWOOF in 2005.

On his land, Geerts grows vegetables, medicinal plants and grains. He also raises horses, chickens and ducks, and keeps bees for their honey. Geerts bought the land 10 years ago in this municipality of 12,000 inhabitants.

The WWOOF network is active in 99 countries, including Belize, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina and Brazil. Mexico joined the effort in 2004 under the initiative of psychologist and business manager Arturo Farías.

Today there are about 50 Mexican farms registered with the network. And about 500 people take part in the experience in this country each year.

Farías used his expertise in the ecotourism industry as a basis for this new approach. He spent five years developing a sustainable farming project in Valle de Bravo, in the state of Mexico, neighbouring the national capital.

“People can’t avoid contact with nature. They have to live with it,” Farías told Tierramérica.

“Wwoofing” mixes rural tourism and volunteer work. In Mexico, the aspiring “wwoofer” pays an annual membership fee of 20 dollars, contacts some of the network’s farms, and, once accepted, the farm provides room and board — and instruction for the chores to be done Monday through Saturday.

The entire system is conceived as a way to bring people closer to a sustainable development model in rural areas. Geerts and Farías followed similar routes, as both attracted volunteers even before joining WWOOF.

This experience in Mexico is awakening interest among travellers from Europe, Canada and the United States — and amongst Mexicans themselves, like Vázquez.

In July, Geerts received Mexican visitors, as well as visitors from Argentina and Philippines. The only requirement he has is that they speak basic Spanish, in order to facilitate communication and instruction.

“When the volunteers leave here, they take something valuable with them,” said Geerts.

His project began with clearing out the weeds and rocks from a wasteland located a few kilometres from “La Aldea del Bosque,” another WWOOF farm.

These farms can serve as authentic environmental laboratories. At “Las Canoas Altas,” Geerts collects rainwater for household use, and plans to install a solar-powered water heater in order to reduce consumption of natural gas.

“There is a real benefit, which is the exchange of ideas. What many farms are lacking is people who are proactive with knowledge,” said Farías.

The ages of the volunteers ranges from 18 to 35, and in many cases they know nothing about sustainable agriculture. Often, the volunteers go on to visit WWOOF farms in several countries.

“I would do this again, and I would recommend that people sign up for the programme,” said Vázquez after spending the month of August at “Las Canoas Altas.” His reaction is common, as evidenced in the journal that Geerts keeps, with testimonies and comments from volunteers who have passed through Erongarícuaro.

The most active Mexican WWOOF farms are located in the central region, around the capital, though new efforts are taking off in Michoacán and Oaxaca, in the south.

Despite its relative success, the programme requires improvement in tracking the stays of the volunteers and the communication and exchange between the member farms.

Internationally, WWOOF has several thousand member-farms and some 100,000 volunteers.

However, in Mexico, the rising violence associated with drug trafficking cartels has already begun to sow concern among foreigners seeking the life-changing experience of living and working on an ecological farm here.

(*)This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)