Life and work of Joann Andrews, indefatigable protector of the Yucatan Peninsula

RIDE INTO BIRDLAND is honored to present the following reportage in three installments about the life and work of Joann Andrews, Founder and Honorary President of Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan. My audio recorder was kept rolling as I interviewed Joann in the cool, ample study of her Merida home, comfortably sitting on two leather couches and surrounded by bookshelves filled with everything on the Yucatan. Her voice and narration were enthralling, her mood generous as she recollected events from a life so interesting we may call it cinematic.  Read on to learn how it all began with eight Christmas Cards and a letter from a noted archaeologist, and how she discovered a fascinating world of orchids among ancient Mayan ruins.

Joann Andrews, noted conservationist and Founder of Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan (Photo by Iván Gabaldón)

Part I of III

The thrill of discovery

The year is 1968 and the jungle covers everything except for the tiny landing strip, the plane just a bright mechanical insect descending boldly into the lush landscape of the Yucatan Peninsula.  Joann Andrews, oblivious to the sound of the propeller, looks out the plane’s window and absorbs the view.  She and her husband, archaeologist Dr. E. Wyllys Andrews II, are about to land near the small village of Xpujil, in Campeche. Seven days have passed since their previous visit and Bill’s request to Juan Briceño, head of a local Mayan family, for workers urgently needed to clear the dense vegetation engulfing the ancient Mayan city of Becan. Briceño’s reply was a reassuring “no problem” but now, as the plane approaches the uneven landing surface, Joann wonders if come next morning the men will actually be there.

A small single engine plane casts its own shadow over the landscape on its way to present day Xpujil, Campeche. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

A few hours later, having settled into the humble lodgings where Joann and Bill will sleep, the sky dome displays millions of stars over Xpujil, all of them brightly visible thanks to the near total lack of light pollution. Joann is a long way from home for a native of Virginia, but travel to remote places is not alien to her.  A 1951 graduate of Barnard College (a prestigious women’s liberal arts college affiliated with Columbia University), she majored in Political Science and later earned her Master’s Degree in Economics at John Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, specializing in Black Africa and going on to work for the U.S. Foreign Service with tours of Belgian Congo, Senegal and Cameroon. She had time to fall in love with the African landscape before being summoned back to Washington, where she arrived in November to face the city’s dreadful winter “…after being such a tropical animal”, as she herself now remembers it.

Fate, however, had a few cards up its sleeves. In 1955, while in the Belgian Congo, Joann had met Bill Andrews, who was travelling overland to visit Dr. Louis Leaky in Kenya (a prominent British archaeologist and naturalist recognized for his work on human evolutionary development in Africa). Joann and Bill’s first encounter was not meant to be their last: Christmas cards were exchanged during the following eight years, and finally Bill extended Joann an invitation to visit him in Merida, Yucatan. A Harvard graduate a dozen years her senior, Dr. Andrews had been unearthing the secrets of Mayan culture for over two decades. Joann accepted his invitation and in 1963 travelled to Mexico for the first time, where Bill Andrews awaited. Before long, “I decided he was totally charming”, she remembers with a smile. They were married the following March, 1964.

And so there she was now in remote Campeche, one week after Bill’s call for workers in Xpujil, waking up early by his side to discover with great relief that Juan Briceño was indeed a man of his word. Outside, bathed by the day’s first glow, almost a hundred men were lined up. “You have never seen such a bedraggled group of people in your life”, she narrates. “I’d say twenty percent of them had Leishmaniasis, the chicle ear, some of them with half noses and ears off. Briceño was a chiclero himself. The chicle runs in the rainy season, so to collect it they have to go through rivers of rain during the summer. Then during the wintertime they have little to do. They turned out to be fantastic workers, the chicleros. They are the masters of the forest, they know everything”.

Workers, as fate would have it, with a double mission. As Joann explored this remote part of Campeche alongside Bill, managing logistics for the archaeological team, a whole new world was about to open before her very eyes. While men cleared vegetation off the two towers in Becan she climbed up and was dazzled by what she saw: “On Structure 1 with the two towers we found sixteen different orchids, eight on one side, eight different ones on the other side, the wind having brought the little seeds to different areas”, she recalls. “To think that in this one building you would have such a change of vegetation. I brought them down, and immediately the chicleros came over to ask what the medicinal purpose was. I said we weren’t really sure yet, but I knew they’d be more interested if they thought there might be some kind of medicinal use. I told them, these are what I want, orquídeas. And they went, Ahhhh!!!, and started bringing me bromeliads too. It took less than two explanations for them to know the difference.  I was the luckiest person in the world, I had workers who knew everything in the forest, had eyes and experience, the chicleros of all people. They would bring them in! And all I had to do was identify them!”.

A partial view of present day Becán.Vegetation continues to impose its presence on the restored archaeological site. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

As easy as Joann makes it sound, identifying the orchids was not a simple task. It can only be done when the plant is in bloom, which happens for most species on the Yucatan Peninsula from December through March. This matched well with the archaeologists’ work schedule, which continued till the end of June and the beginning of the rainy season. Joann made the most of her time and worked very hard collecting, identifying and classifying orchids. She was also blessed to enlist the help of Eric Hagsater, owner of a pharmaceutical firm and the most prominent expert on Mexico’s orchids. “He’s done magnificent study on the Epidendrums of Mexico, he’s just brilliant, a photographer, draws, does everything”, she says. Hagsater helped identify some of the most difficult specimens and would also prove instrumental in exposing Joann’s findings to the “Asociación Mexicana de Orquideología” (A.M.O.), whose members were in for a shock: the Yucatan Peninsula was, against common belief, a plentiful land of orchids, specially in a particularly inhospitable habitat, the akalche. “These are swampy areas that become inundated in the rainy season, due to the heavy impervious clay soils”, Joann explains. “They harbor little thorny scrub forest trees, most of them not more than 3 meters, but almost all of them have a rough bark. Orchid pollen loves to insert itself into some appealing bark on which it can grow”.

This new orchid world was not to be found “high in the mountains, high in the trees, in places where you have continual moisture and wind going through, in Colombia or Venezuela, where you have to get up on a tree and sit there for hours, maybe days, waiting for the orchid’s pollinators”, she says. Instead, Joann discovered that the akalches are a unique ecosystem  in which orchids can thrive, with an added advantage from a human perspective: they grow on small trees, which makes them readily accessible. “No one had spent any real time working there”, she explains. To enter the akalches Joann used paths cleared by present day Mayas, “a tiny bit of a path to get in for their firewood; otherwise it would be almost impossible to get in, even with two helpers. There’s no wind at all, it’s hot, mosquitoes like you can’t believe; even in the dry season it can be quite muddy, or just cracked black soil, and then these little trees… And lo and behold, orchids like you cannot believe!”.

The unexpected abundance of orchids in such unlikely locations puzzled not only her: initial reports struck a chord of skepticism among members of the AMO. “They said no way, you’re not going to find orchids in a place like that!”.  Again she entered the akalches, this time bringing along her son David and also Efraim Gutierrez, who would end up co-authoring with her the first list and history of the Peninsula’s orchids. Together they emerged with the images needed to prove her discovery. “Eric Hagsater said, Joann, you have to come up and show the orchid world that there’s another place where orchids grow!”, she remembers. After presenting her findings with slides at the AMO’s convention in Morelia “they were just awed that you would find orchids there”.

Akalches hold water during the rainy season and beyond, to the benefit of many plant and animal species, including water fowl such as the Common Gallinule seen here. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Joann’s cumulative work has inscribed almost fifty species in the catalogue of orchids of the Yucatan Peninsula, but that doesn’t keep her from envisioning orchid-related projects yet to be done. “I always wanted to find an entomologist who would be willing to work in the akalche on pollination”, she tells me. “Orchids keep their species identity by having only one pollinator that specifically goes to one species while it’s in bloom, it doesn’t go to another species. Which is the insect, or the hummingbird or whatever, that pollinates it? In our case it’s mainly different types of bees and wasps, but we only know about fifty percent at the most, and for some of the miniature orchids we have here we don’t even know that much”. Locating and trapping the pollinators, specially insects, is a lot easier if the orchids are easily seen at eye level, as is the case in the akalches.

As for the unexpected abundance of orchids, Joann has proposed a theory: “I think that the ancient Maya used the swampy areas, the akalches, the same way as the current Maya, just for firewood. There are certain trees that have branches which emerge right from the soil; the Maya will cut four or five branches for firewood, then leave the rest, so it will recur”. Joann reasons that the ancient Maya were really careful about how they managed that resource of fire wood, never clearing and burning it to make a corn field. Moreover, the swampy area is not conductive to agricultural crops. As a result, orchids were able to flourish in a practically undisturbed environment for several thousand years. The akalches never got touched by the milpa system.

The orchids were touched in more recent times, with dire consequences, by the hands of unscrupulous or ill-informed orchid dealers and collectors.  “In the 70’s to the 90’s we had people come in, particularly from the United States, and take out a lot of orchids. Some of the beautiful orchids you’ll see on trees will be 30 to 50 years old. It takes a long time, five years before it even blooms. You can imagine, the orchid dealers would take all of the plants. A lot of them got illegally trafficked”. Most orchids in the Peninsula are not too attractive for floral arrangements but a few species, like the big Rhyncholaelia digbyana with its exceptional qualities for hybridization, caught the attention of the market. Even now, with orchids under protected status, a black market remains and the perennial threat of human depredation and orchid extinction looms on the horizon.

Rhyncholaelia digbyana (Photo © Iván gabaldón).

“I became very interested in what we could do to save what’s left of this wonderful Peninsula, and that’s how I got involved with Pronatura”, she says. “Not just Yucatan, but the entire Peninsula, because it’s one geological formation anyway”. Again she was aided by her orchid friend, Eric Hagsater, a leader in Pronatura Mexico. Her love of the forest was transformed into a force that would shape the following decades of her life and touch the lives of many others, as she created and led an organization capable of finding resources, working with government and local communities, and taking real action for the conservation of the Yucatan Peninsula.

The choice to stay in Mexico and work for the cause of conservation was one Joann Andrews had to make on her own. After eight years of joyful marriage and fruitful work together, her husband Bill had been taken prematurely by cancer. She needed to steer course for herself and six children, four from Bill’s previous marriage, two from her own marriage to him, “all wonderful children”, she says. Common wisdom may have advised heading back north. “I decided that life here was much more agreeable than taking them back to the States”, she recalls.

And so, in a good hour for the Yucatan Peninsula, Joann Andrews decided to stay.


(…to be continued)

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