Ducks Unlimited de México's efforts to protect and conserve threatened wetlands benefit wintering migratory birds, a host of resident wildlife species, and local communities
By Ashley Lewis, Wayne MacPhail
Walking through thick canopies of red, black, and white mangroves, Gabriela de la Fuente leads a group on a tour near Celestún on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. She points out areas that are degraded and describes restoration techniques that are bringing many mangrove forests back to life. She identifies a flock of blue-winged teal overhead and explains that more than 80 percent of North America's blue-winged teal winter in Mexico. She's in her element.
De la Fuente is Ducks Unlimited de México's (DUMAC) assistant director. The people she guides are part of DUMAC's RESERVA program, the first internationally focused, hands-on training program for natural resources professionals focused on wetlands. RESERVA attendees hail from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa.
De la Fuente's own conservation education journey can be traced back to her childhood, when she would listen attentively to the stories her father and brothers would tell about their hunting and fishing trips. Although she was too young to join them, a love for the outdoors was in her blood. Years later, de la Fuente decided to pursue this passion in college. She studied a wide variety of topics related to hydrology, biology, and engineering. Shortly after graduating, she returned to her home city of Monterrey, where the DUMAC office is located.
"One day I just decided to stop and leave my résumé," de la Fuente says. "A few years later, they gave me the opportunity to work at DUMAC, and here I am 27 years later."
Education and training are among de la Fuente's top priorities, and RESERVA is DUMAC's flagship education tool. Upon completion of the program, the professionals she is guiding will return to their jobs energized by the knowledge they have acquired and the hands-on skills they have developed in conservation leadership.
Their newly earned skills will be essential. Eduardo Carrera would know. As DUMAC's chief executive officer, Carrera delicately navigates a landscape of sometimes conflicting interests. He's trying to save his country's precious mangrove swamps and other sensitive habitats that are so important to the waterfowl that overwinter in his country. Carrera relentlessly explains the importance of mangrove swamps to government officials, developers, and business owners. These swamps are the winter haunts for millions of migratory waterfowl from the United States and Canada, including species like redheads, northern pintails, wigeon, and, of course, blue-winged teal.
Nearly 20 percent of coastal Mexico consists of mangrove swamps. Mangrove trees and shrubs, with their deep, complex root systems, are suited to saline conditions. The swamps they anchor are full of rich, organic matter that produces food—like aquatic invertebrates—for hungry ducks.
On Mexico's west coast, especially in the state of Sinaloa, intensive shrimp farming has flooded, choked off, or diverted water needed for the long-term health of mangrove swamps. Shrimp farmers build artificial ponds predominantly in adjacent salt marshes, stock them with shrimp, and dig channels to supply the ponds with freshwater and seawater. The altered flow and increased salinity of the water eventually kills the surrounding mangroves. A satellite imagery survey that DUMAC carried out from 1992 to 2003 revealed that 28,202 acres of mangroves were lost to shrimp farming during that time. Carrera says the survey images are a powerful educational tool to show government officials the consequences of shrimp farm growth. "They can see that something is happening in the coastal areas that they need to pay attention to," he says. "They can see that they need to start implementing stronger regulations."
The real tragedy is that, while this kind of farming can bring short-term economic gain, it is ultimately unsustainable. Along the coasts, shrimp farms are often established and then quickly abandoned due to disease and pollution. "They get a good harvest for one year and can't do anything else, but the damage is already done," Carrera laments. "We're not saying don't build shrimp farms. We want to engage with all the parties involved to help improve these practices to make them more sustainable and better for the environment."
There are other threats to Mexico's ecosystems. For example, those living in deep poverty inadvertently place a burden on the land. Many poor and rural communities lack proper sanitation, and waste can freely enter and pollute nearby wetlands. Some of the larger villages need to dramatically reduce the waste going into wetland areas. In response, DUMAC has started building wastewater treatment facilities that often include constructed wetlands. By stepping in at the grassroots, infrastructure level, DUMAC has restored some important wetlands for migratory and resident waterfowl. In some smaller villages DUMAC has installed dry baths, biofilters, and biodigester toilets in homes to reduce water use and increase the quality of wastewater the villages produce.
Many villagers lack a clear understanding of their inadvertent ecological impact. This makes rural education an important part of what Carrera calls the "social component" of his organization's challenges. He believes that when people receive environmental education they come to recognize themselves as part of the problem— and the solution. They become more receptive to new ecotechnologies and change their attitude about the environment they depend on. "They need to realize that maintaining those wetlands will directly benefit their own way of life," Carrera says.
Back with the RESERVA participants, surrounded by the water and wildlife that continues to inspire her, de la Fuente is providing another generation with the knowledge and tools to embrace conservation as part of their lives. "I have always loved my job and am so grateful DUMAC gave me this chance to follow my passion," she says.
North America's conservationists and migratory waterfowl are grateful to southernmost duck diplomats like de la Fuente and Carrera.
Ashley Lewis is senior communications specialist for Ducks Unlimited Canada. Wayne MacPhail is a freelance writer based in Hamilton, Ontario.
Safeguarding Mexico's Wetlands
With a modest annual operating budget of only $3 million to $4 million, DUMAC staff operate with tremendous efficiency. Over its more than 40 years of conservation work, DUMAC has restored and enhanced more than 1.9 million acres of habitat throughout Mexico and classified 27 million acres of wetlands and uplands as part of the Wetlands Inventory Program.
The Dr. Edward D. and Sally M. Futch Charitable Foundation
The Dr. Edward D. and Sally M. Futch Charitable Foundation supports waterfowl research, conservation education, and habitat restoration projects of Ducks Unlimited and Ducks Unlimited de México (DUMAC). Since 2007, the foundation has contributed more than $2.5 million for DU programs in Texas and Mexico. Ed was a caring physician, adoring husband, sportsman, conservationist, and philanthropist. He and Sally shared an acute interest in the Gulf Coast of Mexico and Texas, supporting dozens of conservation projects, studies, and policies beneficial to waterfowl and people. In DUMAC's RESERVA program, they saw an opportunity to impact conservation for generations to come and signed on as enthusiastic, significant supporters. The RESERVA program has trained more than 650 natural resource professionals from 22 countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. Managed by the Futches' niece Anne Brown, Mike Hughes, and DUMAC President Bill Ansell, the foundation ensures that Ed and Sally's conservation legacy lives on in perpetuity.
CORPORATIONS for Continental Conservation
Since 2015, Axalta and Ducks Unlimited have worked together on a range of activities that benefit the environment and people. Axalta's Bright Futures program, which makes a positive impact in the communities where their employees live and work, is focused on supporting environmental stewardship and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education initiatives. Through this program, Axalta partners with leading science museums and educational centers in Philadelphia and Detroit to make STEM resources more accessible to everyone.