Environmental Secretary Victor Alvarado Champions Both Nature and the Poor

Environment Secretary of Mexico's Veracruzs state focuses on links between healthy ecosystems and healthy communities. Extraordinary biodiversity distinguishes Mexico's Veracruz state, which stretches for several hundreds miles along the Gulf of Mexico. Victor Alvarado's position, as Veracruz' Environmental Secretary, is to broker a healthy relationship between the state's thousands of plant and bird species and its 7.6 million humans.

Secretary Alvarado, who became Environmental Secretary in 2010, is not a typical conservationist, although he was trained in contaminated soil remediation and environmental risk. For a time, he worked in public service agencies to serve poor families. He observed how a degraded environment hurts farmers who need healthy soils and urban dwellers who need clean public water. As awed as he is by Veracruz' natural riches, he likewise marvels at the state's cultural diversity and indigenous communities' long-standing traditions of environmental stewardship.

"Cities live from the environmental services provided by rural areas," said Alvarado. "I want to help communities' livelihoods and culture thrive in a way that doesn't damage the environment."

"However, I don't like the term 'payment for environmental services'. I like to think that we can support, compensate, help guarantee rights through subsidies, through education, through scholarships. Payments don't capture that."

Sitting on the ocean coast and soaked by prodigious amounts of rain and wind, Veracruz's mayors often spend limited budgets on recovery from weather-related disasters. "We're the first state in Mexico to institute a climate change law, to minimize our vulnerability." The law creates a state-wide climate change council and requires mitigation and adaptation planning.

"We have a good structure of environmental laws here in Veracruz, of territorial planning. The private sector's investments have to conform to the rules. But the work is new, only three years old. "

At the same time, Alvarado says, the best protection is to conserve ecosystems -- which means lending support to the communities that conserve them. Municipal governments are one key ally in that work. Mayors feel firsthand diminishing water quality and quantity and may understand the importance of protecting groundwater recharge.

That's precisely why the state government, through Alvarad's office, established an environmental fund, known by its Spanish name, the Fondo Ambiental Veracruzano. Capitalized in part by 1 percent of municipal water tariffs and a percentage on vehicle smog tests, the fund supports non-governmental organizations,municipalities and universities to protect watersheds through local actions like reforestation, including the replanting of coffee groves -- fundamental to Veracruz' economy. Alvarez' new environmental fund seeks partners to help communities implement conservation and economic development projects.

In February, more than 150 projects were evaluated by the secretary staff, external peers and a technical committee. Dozens of local natural resource and watershed management projects will be awarded funds, a new way of working in community-led environmental protection and community development in Veracruz.

Secretary Alvarado looks forward to working with the newly-elected mayors in 2014. They "will be the ones to put on boots and see first hand the affects of climate change. They hear nature talking, see typhoons in the Philippines, the mudslides. They know it's time to act." There's a "necessary urgency," he said. "We need to do something today so that in 30 years, we can begin to see how it helped."

Despite the enormity of the task, Alvarado seemed energized. "We're at a turning point to change the way we do things," he said excitedly. "If we can't get along with nature, there's no economic model that will work".

I asked him what if public officials don't act? "People will live badly due to this inaction. No politician can say they didn't see the risks coming."

Mexican politicians don't tend to score well on environmental protection. Advocacy groups such as Veracruz' La Vida o la Mina (Life or Mines) charge that they sacrifice Mexico's natural resource base to mining concessions, dams, tourist resorts, urban development and lining their own pockets. Big money prevails over biodiversity and community rights.

Secretary Alvarado feels buoyed, however, by the vision of his boss, the state's young governor, Javier Duarte de Ochoa. "We agree on the priority actions for the environmental fund." Citing "irreversible" environmental impacts, the governor supported Alvarado's opposition to the proposed open pit Caballo Blanco gold mine. "We have to take care of our shared natural heritage," Secretary Alvarado said. "Businesses are an important part of Veracruz. But we have to sit down together and manage the risks we all face."

Daniel Moss is Coordinator of Our Water Commons (a project of On the Commons) and active in the Reclaiming Public Water Network. He has recently published a report on public water utility investments in water source protection and watershed conservation entitled "Urban Water Utilities and Upstream Communities Working Together".