The first time I met with ‘Pati’ Ruiz Corzo was in central Mexico. We sat at her office, located in the deep mountains of the Sierra Gorda region and I must admit I arrived knowing very little about her, but driven by curiosity. I knew enough to know I would be meeting a highly respected woman and had a hunch that one way or another, she would become a true influence for the rest of my life. A woman of deep spirituality and clear determination with an incomparable passion and dedicated to the defence of what she considers to be her one and only treasure in life. A story anyone can learn from.
In 1986, ‘Pati’ Ruiz founded the Sierra Gorda Ecological Group (Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda), an organisation that today represents a unique model of community ‘conservation economy’. Her goal was to create a sustainable way of living for the more than 120,000 people living inside the Sierra Gorda Reserve, the most densely populated reserve in the entire country; a non-exclusive conservation programme. And so, she did – and still does this – by empowering the historically-marginated female population of the region.
These women have lived always having to keep quiet – oppressed and humiliated by a traditionally ‘macho’ society. But today, as Pati explains, things have moved on: “When you hear their motivation as they talk, and how happy they are to be receiving their own extra ‘cents’ per month and when you see that for the first time, some of the fathers have to stay home and take care of their kids because the women have to go work… well, that’s truly my ‘cherry on top of the cake.” Her ultimate goal is to see these women become the voice of conservation in the Sierra Gorda.
Pati Ruiz Corzo spent the first part of her life as a music teacher. In Queretaro, located two hours north of Mexico City, she had spent her time among the upper echelons of Mexican society. She married, had two kids, Beto and Mario, and lived a typically normal life, until one day, she and her husband, decided to leave the city, tired of what she calls ‘the extremes of modern society’.
“For a long time, I’d put up with the dictates of being ‘modern’; searching for material success, social recognition, being a perfect housewife. There were times when these suffocating dogmas felt a heavy burden.” Pati was certain that she didn’t want her children growing up within a system she didn’t agree with.
”I rebelled against seeing my kids in competition for a ‘camouflaged’ knowledge and not a digested one. In school, their natural talents were being taken away in order to programme them for a stereotype, which I myself was opposed to. I was a teacher for too many years to not be able to see and understand how the gifts of the spirit and the character were being sterilised. Someone’s nature should be respected and should never be expected to accomplish a task imposed by others.”
Such decision was not easy. “I was afraid to leave the only lifestyle I knew, but I wanted to discover other values. I wanted to develop an intimate connection with nature – one that we had clearly lost. I heard shocking examples of kids saying that tomatoes were grown in the back of supermarket stores…my God, they don’t even know were milk comes from, but we can’t blame them for that.”
The Sierra Gorda Reserve has the highest levels of biodiversity in Mexico (the 5th most biodiverse country in the world) with regions of semi desert, low jungle and a conifer forest that could easily pass for any Canadian landscape. In Pati’s words: ”This is were I found what’s truly real and valuable for me. Pure beauty… I found a treasure. Living surrounded by nature is a pleasure. It’s vibrant and alive. Here, there is no place for lies. We all live without labels”.
This is a woman who has the ability to inspire pretty much everyone that crosses her path. With an imposing charisma, Pati Ruiz manages to speak to large audiences without fear and she almost always ends a speech by singing – reminding us how she has kept alive what she valued the most of her past musical life. An emotional touch that brings pretty much everyone to tears.
She says she was welcomed from the start by the people of the Sierra Gorda. “I was well received from day one. I learned how to talk to them in a way which meant they wouldn’t feel a distance between us and I also brought my accordion with me ande I sang to them. That helped me build real solid bridges with the people of the Sierra Gorda.”
Today Pati Ruiz Corzo shares her passion for conservation and empowerment by holding workshops that attract people from all over the world. She focuses on sharing her message with those who initially were not interested by what she had to say.
When she started out she admits it took time to convince some people to share that journey with her. ”It took some time for some of them to believe me. It wasn’t easy but I felt that the local people just wanted someone to show how we could all move together. Now there’s a huge amount of will from the whole community to overcome all kinds of challenges we face.”
Pati fought not only to convince the local Sierra Gorda community that there was an urgent need to protect their natural heritage, but she has also had to stop many large outside interests and corporations from meddling into the affairs of this 300,000 hectare UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. A geographical isolated region, ideal for hidden and illegal activities to occur, such as mining and logging, underpinned by a country swamped by numerous corruption cases which has brought her into contact and conflict with just as many unsavoury individuals.
”I’ve fought all kinds of interests and individuals, some of them truly horrible. I’ve taken on Governors, the Ministry of Transport and the National Electricity Company. They’ve tried to build dams and highways and install high voltage cables. They’ve tried to take natural resources away from the local community, but as I tell them when I send them away; the only interest and objective of this territory is its total and genuine conservation! No one touches it!”
Clearly a position that has earned her more than a few enemies, especially in the Mexican government. “What they sign up for with international treaties should actually be carried out and not just written. They need to re-orientate public policies. There is a slow response from the Government; the politicians are not being efficient and even less farsighted. But I must say that we also lack a civil society capable of playing the role of a real auditor”.
Pati and her supporters are making headway. In the last five years, the Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda has garnered numerous conservation awards including been awarded with the United Nations Champions of the Earth and the National Geographic World Legacy Award (2012, 2016).
“We adopt and adapt. We’ve try to work inter-institutionally with the local and federal governments, as well as other international organisations, even if it means that sometimes I’m forced to put on the pressure and convince them of many things they wouldn’t had done without our campaigning. You’ve no idea – it’s been like organising an anthill!
“We’ve also tried to create an active public spirit. Mexico is a ‘thirsty’ country with galloping desertification levels and we are a small but significant rescue team”. And her work is not only environmental and economic, but cultural too.
“We organise festivals part of one big cultural party made to recover our identity – to remember that we are not ‘Gringos‘ (North-Americans) but ‘Huastecos‘ (Huastec indigenous people). With so many people migrating north, there’s a strong transculturation phenomena. It’s important to feel you belong to a place.”
I stayed for a couple of weeks in the Sierra Gorda and saw the proof of the outcomes Pati talked about. More than a conservationist, she’s an activist in a country that lacks the courage to value such citizens and she’s an example in Mexico and abroad, to anyone who lacks the motivation to speak out and act on their own social conscience.
“Only civil society can change this situation,” she says. “Local answers are the only solution. We have to put our hearts and our dedication into the work and put pressure on local authorities to do the right thing. We have to innovate, do things with love and for the wellbeing of all.
“I want a total revolution! A change of values where we seek full abundance for everyone, where we recognise nature as a vital part of our lives and where we learn to treat nature with respect and care. I don’t believe in accumulating more and more. What accumulates stagnates and what stagnates rots. I believe in the simplicity of life. Once you know the true value of what is sacred you’ll have the energy to keep going to make those changes.”
Tadzio Mac Gregor was born in Mexico City to a French mother and a Mexican father. He has been involved with several social and environmental projects in Mexico, Asia and the Middle East. Having started working recently as a freelance journalist specializing in foreign affairs, environmental conservation and human development he now contributes to several newspapers in Mexico, France, Brazil and the United States