May 9, 2003

Love for the land

PROBEA; this year’s environmental achievement award winner

By Mariana Martinez

Doretta Winkelman looks tired but radiant; she just came back from San Francisco where she and her Mexican counterpart Dolores Monterrubio took part in the annual Environmental Awards Ceremony, accepting one of the awards on behalf of the staff of Bioregional Environmental Education Project (PROBEA).

The EPA Region 9 Environmental Awards program –up and running for five years now-acknowledges commitment and significant contributions to the environment in California, Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii, Guam and tribal lands. Forty-four groups and individuals were selected from more than 200 nominees received this year from businesses, media, local, state and federal government officials, tribes, environmental organizations and citizen activists.

During the Ceremony, EPA Regional Administrator Wayne Nastri said, “These organizations have applied creativity, teamwork and leadership in addressing many of the San Diego area’s most pressing and complex environmental problems. Thanks to their efforts, our air, water and land will be cleaner and safer for generations to come.  The winners set an example for all of us to follow.”

They got off to a rough start.

Doretta is a founding member of PROBEA, one of the only two award winners in the San Diego Area; she has been working in environmental issues in the border region for over ten years as a part of her goals as Director of binational education in the San Diego Natural History Museum. Her place of work, the Museum works as a program manager and fiscal agent.

PROBEA is a collaboration of organizations from México and the United States born between 1991 and 1993.Those first two years where tough: People from San Diego came to Tijuana offering to give away teaching and educational material to environmental organizations, but people involved with the organizations where very suspicious about the “gringos” intentions or commitment to help the programs in the long run. Tijuana’s experience with donations and US involvement or “binational collaboration” often left the Mexican partners feeling left out of the planning and decision making process, which made help from the Americans feel more like a hand out.

Doretta remembers that time as one of great challenges, one that she was willing to take on” I’ve always found that the important thing is not just creating, binational, bicultural relationships but to establish a (personal) relationship first and that takes time. To establish trust, and find out what the other person is interested in and answer, why are you coming over here to talk to me? Why are we going over there? So the most important thing is to establish the connection, and then begin to work together.” She said.

It took the ten founding partners –five from Tijuana and five from San Diego-two years to establish a trusting equal partnership, designing strategies for environmental education and organization building. They decided to concentrate the program in teaching teachers – so they can multiply their knowledge in the class rooms – designing courses ranging from a six day training to a two-day course where the teachers learn about: Recycling and making compost, water issues in the region’s estuary (where the Tijuana River and the Pacific Ocean tide meet) and ways they can help the Mexican government on water and environmental issues.

The program focuses on getting teachers to understand kids and their various ways of learning, and helps them link learning with outdoor experiences and projects. Doretta explains, “We use learning and teaching techniques to deliver our training. We’ve chosen the hardest audience because they are so inundated with what they are required to teach, and so many demands on them, they have to meet the basic standards of education…. the environment is an informal part of education so what we are attempting to do is; all of the materials that we give to teachers, we correlated them to México’s basic education science, language, arts, history, math standards, so if they are using our materials they can justify that if I teach this or that lesson, it meets this standards of education in primary or secondary level.

I don’t think teaching about the environment will ever be an official subject, but there is a gentlemen in San Diego who is been doing a study for eight years about using the environment as an integrated context for learning; meaning that if I take my students outside to this ravine or valley, we can study geology, or we can go to the beach, or go in to the back yard of our school and measure erosion, so if you take children outside and use the environment as a tool for teaching any subject, that’s how it makes learning more relevant, interesting, fun and the students can relate to why they are studying, because they are using it in a practical since.”

Getting the fruit of hard labor…and planting more.

In 1999 PROBEA began expanding, starting a teaching program in near by Tecate, where Fundación La Puerta (The door Foundation) built and education center, directed by a PROBEA “graduate” who is now using and adapting the techniques he learned, bringing groups of students to visit the center and capacitating teachers in the area.

Since then, similar experiences with the teaching program developed by the PROBEA team have multiplied in Ensenada and Mexicali, and they have been invited to adapt their programs to the needs of the South Baja California bioregion, planed to start next year.

In 2002, they trained 340 teachers and 30 volunteers about local watersheds, conservation, and water quality protection.  They helped produce a 30-minute educational CD-Rom in Spanish and English about the Tijuana River Watershed.  They obtained funding to develop a Spanish-language version of the “Ocean Oasis” film, which depicts the biological diversity of Baja California and the Sea of Cortez.  They translated, edited, and produced a Spanish language website and teacher’s guide for “Ocean Oasis.” 

PROBEA’s efforts have provided twelve years of ongoing support to teachers, impacting over 30,000 children, resulting in increased awareness about environmental threats to ecosystems, and adoption of behavior changes to prevent future degradation.

Similar to their experience in Tecate, PROBEA staff is currently getting involved with an ecological park called Ecopaque in Tijuana “PROBEA has a signed agreement with COLEF (Northern Border Research Institute) who owns the land and the water treatment center called Ecoparque in Tijuana, PROBEA, as well as Los Niños –a kids foundation– and Aldeas ecológicas – conservation Villages – we are all collaborators in turning that park in to an environmental education center, to be a model demonstration site for people from around the area, from San Diego, Tijuana, anywhere can come to this center and see how water is treated; how to build community or school gardening; how to do composting on a large scale; worm composting; solar energy, we hope to teach how to build dry toilets and build classrooms so the children from the schools of Tijuana who come to Ecoparque around the year have the opportunity to learn lots more,” tells Doretta.

Most schools from Tijuana already have a yearly scheduled visit to Ecoparque so this would only add to the experience for the ten thousand children coming in trough out the year.

Success in binational environmental organizations.

Doretta, Dolores and the rest of the PROBEA team find the 2003 EPA award very satisfying, but don’t stop to think about what they’ve done, but rather what is left to do with this never-ending process of team networking and commitment. After ten years, Doretta wisely sums up their recipe for success “We find compromises: one culture may do it this way, the other culture may do it that way so we find a common ground where we can agree we can do it separately, we give each other space to do it differently and have a lot of patience and flexibility with each other. We spend a lot of time learning about each other’s culture and that is done especially by asking questions. I’ve discovered many times that one or two words may have entirely different meaning to the person I’m speaking to than it does to me and it changes the whole delivery of the communication. ”

When it comes to binational commitment, they turn to nature for an analogy “One of the most sacred mountains in the world is in Tecate, mount Puchumaa, its name meaning high sacred place; the peek is in the US but the base of the mountain is in México.” And you can only get there from going from one country to the other.

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