Life and work of Joann Andrews, indefatigable protector of the Yucatan Peninsula (part II of III)

RIDE INTO BIRDLAND is honored to present the second installment of our reportage about noted conservationist Joann Andrews, Founder and Honorary President of Pronatura Península de Yucatán. Read on to learn how she created the first English-riding club in Yucatan, and later used it as a springboard to further the cause of conservation and help save the Peninsula’s forest reserves.

Forest in the Yucatan Peninsula (Photo © Iván Gabaldón)

Part II of III

The urge to preserve

A visitor to Joann Andrew’s study will surely notice the large, vertical ink-on-paper rubbing that flanks its entrance, an original work by engraver Merle Greene Robertson. A native of Montana, Merle Greene Robertson received a classic arts education in California, then worked at Tikal in Guatemala, at Palenque in Chiapas and at various Mayan archaeological sites in the Yucatan Peninsula, attaining wide recognition for her life’s investigative work on Mayan culture. She pioneered the use of a technique to directly imprint the walls and monuments of Mayan cities unto large format rice paper, making thousands of these rubbings during four decades of hard work. In many cases her detailed prints are all that’s left of original stones that have since fallen prey to looting or decay.

When Merle Greene Robertson started her field work in Yucatan in 1968, she had already been forewarned that Joann Andrews was someone she needed to meet, and whose acquaintance she would thoroughly enjoy. At the time Joann was in charge of the library her late husband had spent decades collecting, which according to Dr. Robertson’s memoirs she kept “not only up to top academic standards but open to scholars, both Mexican and outsiders”. At first Merle was a bit intimidated, but she had no reason to be. “When I finally called Joann Andrews, she and Tulane University’s Middle Research Institute became for me, as she has for many others, a valuable source of research. She also was a vital link with home and civilization – mailing address, telephone connection, later a parking space for my old Volkswagen Beetle – as well as an admired friend.”

The friendship of these two American women, explorers in a strange land that both managed to make very much their own, spanned several decades. They remained friends until Merle Greene Robertson’s passing in early 2011 or, one should say, to this day. “I miss her terribly”, Joann confides. Their appreciation was mutual, as evidenced by the following quote by Merle Greene Robertson about Joann: “she’s a person who knows a lot about any subject”. The statement, not to be taken lightly considering its source, provides us with a valuable clue to Joann Andrews’ mind. How else could she, having formally studied Political Sciences and Economics but not Archaeology or Botanical Science, work so effectively with the teams of archeologists and then go on to become a noted orchid expert in her own right?

Merle Greene Robertson (File photo)

As it turned out, her political skills were also about to be called into play, often in unexpected ways. For if Merle was bent on preserving Mayan culture through its images, Joann had become determined to protect the natural landscape of the Peninsula, a mission that would entail dealing with people, including private citizens from all walks of life, government officials, politicians and international organizations. Her good friend, Eric Hagsater, offered some advice, based on his own experience in local politics: the best of intentions often floundered and it was difficult to get much done inside the framework of being associated with one political party. Joann was also very much an outsider, an American in a country where President Echeverría himself loudly voiced the prevailing anti-US rhetoric. “I had people accuse me of all things”, she says with the humor now afforded by time. “I was collecting orchids, but I must be CIA if I’m going down to the Guatemalan border”.

Her plan to open a local chapter of Pronatura, an organization based in Mexico City, also rubbed uncomfortably against an ingrained Yucatecan sentiment by virtue of which the Peninsula resents both attention and oblivion from the country’s capital. Those who knew Joann well, however, anticipated that she would work hard and succeed. Again in Merle Greene Robertson’s memoirs, the author writes: “When in the early 1980s Joann focused her energies and knowledge on getting a conservation group started on the Peninsula, I knew it would work and that she would get great satisfaction in making it a success”.

The trojan horse that allowed Joann to permeate Yucatecan society would turn out to be precisely a horse, or rather, her love of horses, aided no doubt by her industrious personality. An active rider all her life, Joann is widely recognized as the pioneer of English-riding in Yucatan. Over three decades ago she founded the Peninsula’s first equestrian club at Hacienda Tamanché, managing all club affairs personally with careful attention to detail. “Every month I sent the twelve or so members an accounting of what I had done with the money, which sounds like something everybody would do, but it was most unusual here”, she remembers. These were the same people her local chapter of Pronatura needed to enlist: industrial, high society, concerned citizens who also loved nature. “I asked them whether they would be willing to join me in Pronatura, and I think the fact that I had been so financially correct was one of the reasons they said yes”. She would set it up with them at a local level, and they in turn could have faith that it would be a serious undertaking.

From the beginning she was also successful in securing funds from larger, international organizations. “We were very fortunate to have excellent funding from the World Wildlife Fund, also from The Nature Conservancy, who was interested in trying to convert what you would call paper parks into real reserves that could protect the flora and fauna inside”. Mexico’s reserves had meager government resources, lacking even basic funding for park rangers, yet the law expressly prohibited any direct payments from NGOs to reserve personnel. As a solution Pronatura devised a plan to provide canastas, baskets filled with much-needed goods and supplies. “In August they would ask us if we could include pencils and little cuadernos for the children, they didn’t even have money for that. We were in a strategic place with really useful tools to help out”.

As for working with the government, “it’s not easy, it never was. But we never went in asking for money, we had the money, and that put us on a slightly different level”. When Salinas became president Joann saw the general situation improve, “he put in many new reserves and gave support”, she attests. He also made it government policy to cooperate with NGOs. “We were among the first NGOs, and I would say that from that point on we’ve always had a very useful relationship with the government, give and take, but it’s always touchy”. One must always be willing, she points out without a hint of bitterness, “to take the back seat and let the government officials get all credit when the big presentation comes, but that’s all right as long as things get done, it doesn’t make any difference”.

White-nosed Coati (Nasua narica), one of the many species of mammals that thrive in the forests of the Yucatan Peninsula (Photo © Iván Gabaldón)

Through years of work Joann gained political experience and honed her skills at charming people into supporting Pronatura. Once, she remembers with zest, she invited a good friend for lunch. “I said, Carlos, you have to help us with Pronatura. He later told his friends, don’t go to lunch with Joann Andrews, it’s the most expensive tacos you’ve ever had!” A press clipping from the Sarasota Herald Tribune, dated back in 1989, provides a now historical glimpse into her fundraising work: it reports a visit to Southwest Florida by environmentalist Joann Andrews with the goal of raising 25,000 dollars for the protection of the Yucatan Peninsula’s tropical rain forest, specifically by cooperating with the Mexican government in the management of the recently created Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. Audience members in Sarasota each paid $10 to hear her exposition about the importance of tropical forests, the scourge of deforestation and the now well known threat of rising temperatures around the globe. Many of those who attended donated additional funds. She also promoted an idea that would soon be put into effect: working with the local communities “to establish beehives that take advantage of the rich flower population of the forest, and sell the resulting honey – a crop that benefits both man and nature”.

Honey production is a truly sustainable activity, good for both humans and the environment (Photo © Iván Gabaldón)

The case for honey production as a truly sustainable activity is one that Joann continues to make with pleasure and conviction. “Of all the economic activities”, she says, “bee-keeping is by far the most ecological. The bees pollinate the very trees that have fruit on them, and it’s marvelous, everything is good about it”. She eventually obtained the funding needed to initiate the program, which remains successful to this day. In its first stages, however, it would provide her with a dire reminder of the unexpected cascade of consequences that may spring from even the best of intentions, particularly when the human factor is involved.

Having secured funding to get the bee-keeping program started, Joann enlisted the help of a Merida businessman who was willing to provide local communities with training, resources and technical support, and would then act as commercial liaison by shipping Yucatan honey to buyers in Mexico City. A meeting was arranged with the men of various ejidos in southern Campeche, near Calakmul, and the idea was presented to them. “It all sounded good to me”, Joann says, “but all these men were grumbling, listening with serious faces”. The meeting was a total failure, the men rebuked the proposal and accused the businessman of being a coyote. “They said all he wants to do is buy our honey cheap, then make lots of money on it, and we’re not going to work with him, we know those people”, she recollects.

After the meeting, a crestfallen Joann was getting ready to leave when a group of local women approached her. “Don’t pay attention to our husbands, they just don’t want to go out and work every day. Is there any way we could do it?”, they said. After some conversation it was agreed the program would be set in motion with sixteen local women, the only additional requirement being the special protective equipment they would need to work with the bees while they were nursing.

The women worked with dedication and managed to produce a modest first crop, which earned them a little money. A year later, however, their expertise had increased and a truly good crop was achieved for the first time. One Saturday night, around 10:00 pm, Joann received an alarming call from the Pronatura representative in charge of the project. A horrible crisis had caught everyone off-guard after a meeting that had been initially considered successful: having tallied the production and given each woman an envelope with the money earned for the kilos of honey she had produced, the women went to their homes only to stumble upon the male dominance deeply ingrained in their communities. “The husbands said”, Joann remembers with contempt, “we’re the ones that allowed you to go out and that’s our money, it’s not your money”. Most of the women had no choice but to relinquish their earnings, “two of them got beaten up and one of those fled home. It was the first time they’d ever gotten any real money on their own”.

At first Joann wasn’t sure what to do. Not one to be easily defeated, she managed to enlist a volunteer, “someone involved in solutions for these kinds of situations”, whom she praises to this day for his smart approach to the problem. After setting up a new meeting with the women and men of the ejidos, “he came in with a big blackboard, and he had all the women sit on one side and all these surly men on the other. Then he said, I’m going to write up here everything each one of you would like to do with the money. I’ll start with the women”. As she observed in silence, Joann realized her collaborator was setting the stage for things to fall by their own weight. “Over and over the women would say, I want to buy shoes for the children, or books, or a dress for them. The children were always first, then things like a new sewing machine. He would write the items and put checkmarks, shoes for the children, check, books for school, check. I’d say about ten percent said cosmetics, but that was good too”.

Having finished with the women, the negotiator turned to the men and asked them what they would do with the money. “Of course everybody knew that they wanted to go to the cantina and drink it up”, Joann points out, “so they grumbled and grumbled… and finally one of them said, Well, that looks all right to us. That’s what we would like to do with the money too”. The mediator, however, was not so easily satisfied: he asked for assurances and got them to express that indeed they would let the women have their money and spend at least 70 percent of it on their children. “Isn’t that marvelous?”, Joann says with a huge smile. “There was the pizarrón, what is it that you would want to do? Go to the cantina would have been so bad!”, she laughs. As a result the men learned to respect their women’s rights to work and to invest the money earned in the welfare of their own children.

First introduced to the Peninsula by the conquistadors, alcohol has since remained a pervasive social ill among Mayan communities. This scene from a 2012 play by the “Laboratorio de Teatro Campesino e Indígena” depicts a Mayan woman flogging her drunken husband back home. This community theatre group, directed by María Alicia Martínez Medrano, stages impressive performances with a cast of hundreds of villagers of all ages in X’ocen, near Valladolid, Yucatan. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón)

There are currently at least four active cooperatives of women that produce premium organic honey in the Peninsula and sell it both locally and to the international market (mostly Germany), and the project continues to be promoted as there is still room for growth. Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan has since implemented other programs, cooperating with the Mexican government in Federal Reserves such as Calakmul in the state of Campeche, of which Joann says, “it’s a huge success, the guards themselves have done a really good job of keeping the hunters out”. The organization has also obtained funding to buy land and turn it into natural protected areas, as is the case of El Zapotal, 2.358 hectares of forest purchased in 2002 as part of a strategy to preserve important habitat and attenuate the strong pressure of agrarian economy on the Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, in northern Yucatan.

The challenges remain many and constant, the threats to the environment ever-present and always changing. Now bearing the title of Honorary President, Joann remains actively involved in Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan. Summing up her experience, she says: “I was very fortunate right from the very beginning, I had some wonderful people joining in. We were also exceptionally lucky to have a fantastic director, María Andrade.” When asked if she truly enjoys the work she has to do for the environment, perhaps as much as she enjoyed the thrill of discovering a new world of orchids in the Yucatan, her reply was a joyous “Yes! I enjoy it. To see something take off, you can imagine how that feels good. One of the great gratifications I had was just to see it bloom into certainly the strongest conservation group in the Peninsula”.

As it happens, just like her dear friend Merle Greene Robertson had anticipated.


(…to be continued)

For more information about the programs and activities organized by Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatán, please visit their website by clicking on the logo below.

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