UA Fulbright Will Assess Mexico Conservation Effort
An investigation by Marcela Vásquez-León will assess the socioeconomic impact of an effort to shift a Mexican community from its fishing tradition to an ecotourism refuge zone.

By Rebecca Ruiz McGill, University Communications
July 27, 2012

Efforts to provide economic incentives and other compensation to populations that shift their use of environmental resources to conservation through ecotourism to preserve biological diversity in its natural environment are spreading to the global South.

The effort is known as payment for ecosystem services, or PES, and University of Arizona associate professor of anthropology Marcela Vásquez-León will begin a study to investigate one of the most intensive single-species conservation efforts involving PES in the upper Gulf of California-Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve, known as the PACE-Vaquita region.

A PES is based on the assumption that a resource’s use and its conservation are incompatible activities and on the argument that the natural environment can best be protected by valuing and managing the environment as tradable commodities.

While there is general agreement among policymakers and conservation advocates that fishing practices are the core problem, Vásquez-León said actual empirical research on the impacts of the more than 3,000 artisanal fishers on the PACE-Vaquita is scarce and apparently has not played a significant role in the Vaquita program’s design.

Vásquez-León was awarded a Fulbright scholarship for the investigation into the Mexican conservation effort and will begin her studies with a team in August and conclude in May.

The scholarship will fund one graduate student and will include a graduate student funded by the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, as well as fund collaboration with professor Alvaro Bracamonte at El Colegio de Sonora in Hermosillo, Sonora.

The team will investigate the actual socioeconomic impact of the PACE-Vaquita PES program while gathering local perceptions of the program’s legitimacy among a productive marine community where fishing is the most reliable source of livelihood.

In 2008, the Mexican government with the support of the U.S. and Canadian governments, U.S. foundations and several international conservation groups started the PES program in the upper Gulf of California to prevent the extinction of the porpoise known as the vaquita marina (Phocoena sinus).

The conservation effort entails the application of economic instruments on a large scale (including the provision of financial compensation to local commercial fishers in exchange for their fishing gear and licenses), new legal protections (such as the creation of a large vaquita refuge zone which excludes fishers) and greatly increased surveillance and military enforcement.

Vásquez-León is not new to the PACE-Vaquita region, having studied the region before the creation of the Biosphere Reserve in the upper Gulf of California in 1993.  

“I have wanted to go back to the area and use baseline data from 1993 to assess the impact of the conservation efforts including the Biosphere Reserve upon the fishing community,” Vásquez-León said. “The fisherman had no voice in the decision to create the reserve to boost eco-tourism, and so much money was put into the effort. I want to see what the impact the conservation effort has had on the communities in the area.”  

During her investigations, Vásquez-León will continue teaching a course in Latin American studies in the spring and fall semesters as she travels to and from the research site.