Devil Fish

Community-based Environmental Management in Oaxaca, Mexico
by Emma Kelley -- April 20th, 2015

After two days of exploring Oaxaca de Juárez, the field portion of the Community-Based Environmental Management course with Dr. Elizabeth Shapiro began!  We started off Monday morning with a tour of El Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca – the ethnobotanical gardens of Oaxaca.  Designed by artists rather than botanists, these gardens were truly unique and showcased the amazing flora of Oaxaca.


The class exploring the gardens in the stylish hats provided by the tour guide. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


A chili plant! Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


A Ceiba tree. These trees were sacred to Mayan culture. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


A cactus. This garden had cacti in every kind of formation possible. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


So many different kinds of cacti! Photo Credit: Emma Kelley

The most interesting thing I learned about at the gardens was cochineal, a small bug that lives in cacti and produces a red dye.  Produced exclusively in Oaxaca, an incredible trade system developed around this dye during the colonial period.  El Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca has these bugs and we got to see (well, squish) them first-hand.


Cochineal. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


The striking red color that was and still is used as a dye. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


Cochineal. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley

On Tuesday morning, we all piled into a van and began a long trek up into the mountains to San Juan Lachao, one of the most incredible community-based environmental management operations I have ever encountered.  The community of San Juan Lachao has their hands in everything – sustainable forestry management for both the sale of carbon credits and a sustainable timber harvest, as well as a water bottling plant and a sustainable coffee operation.  We were lucky enough to tour all of these and spoke with the community members who both established and now run these operations.


Our introductory presentation at San Juan Lachao. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


Sustainable forestry operation. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


Our class watching the sustainable timber harvest. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


My classmates at the MICHIZA coffee operation in San Juan Lachao. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


MICHIZA Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


Planting the seeds. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


Our class at the coffee plant nursery. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


Coffee plants! Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


The coffee plant nursery. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


Roasting the beans. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


The final product. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley

After a wonderful morning sipping the most delicious coffee and talking with the leaders of the San Juan Lachao community, we all got back into the van (with backpacks full of coffee beans, of course) and made our way down to the coast to visit La Ventanilla.  La Ventanilla, named for the “window” in a large rock formation, is another community-based environmental management operation in Oaxaca.


La Ventanilla – “the window.”  Photo Credit: Emma Kelley

The people of the La Ventanilla cooperative run mangrove tours, as well as a wildlife sanctuary. They also manage the sea turtles who nest on their beaches. We were fortunate enough to walk the beaches Wednesday evening and see a turtle laying her eggs.  When the female returns to the ocean, the cooperative leaders uncover the nest and transplant it to an area where they can better monitor and protect it, preventing it from being harvested by poachers or other predators. Many of the cooperative leaders were actually former turtle-hunters, who turned conservationists following changes in the laws protecting turtles.  Protecting the turtles now offers a better livelihood than harvesting them for these cooperative members.


Walking from the cabins to the community-run restaurant where we ate our meals. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


A sea turtle laying her eggs on the beaches of La Ventanilla. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley

Thursday morning, we toured the mangroves and saw the numerous crocodiles that this cooperative now protects.  We also toured the wildlife sanctuary and listened to one of the community leaders tell the story of how La Ventanilla came to be, including how their community-level governance system works with the operation.


The class listening to a safety brief before touring the mangroves. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


Talk about a croc! Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


Touring the mangroves. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


A baby crocodile in the wildlife sanctuary. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley

La Ventanilla also has a mangrove nursery and plants these small trees to restore the mangrove forests in the area.


Mangrove nursery. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley

Thursday afternoon, we reluctantly piled back into the van and departed La Ventanilla, driving six hours through winding and misty mountains back to Oaxaca de Juárez.  On our final day, we visited three more organizations based in Oaxaca de Juárez, including CEPCO (Coordinadora Estatal de Productores de Cafe del Estado de Oaxaca) a sustainable coffee cooperative, where we learned more about how Oaxaca’s history has facilitated, or even necessitated the development of these operations.

That evening, we all ate our final meal together at Los Danzantes, toasting mezcal drinks, taking our last bites of mole, and chatting about everything we had learned on this trip.  This field course was over far too quickly and left my brain racing to catch up with everything we saw and learned.  I look forward to visiting Oaxaca in the future to see how all of these operations develop as time goes on (and to buy more coffee, of course).


  1. Annabelle Smyth
    Apr 20, 2015

    It sounds like you guys had a blast! Is this something that happens every year? Where can I get information if this is going to happen next year?

    • Emma
      Apr 21, 2015

      I believe the course runs every two years, but I’m not 100% sure. Reach out to Dr. Shapiro to find out when she’ll be running next – it was a great course and I’d highly recommend it!

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