Recently, Boreas had the opportunity to spend some time down in Baja California Sur. When we weren't camping on the beach and making fresh fish tacos we were learning about the local ecosystem and how the local community both supports and grows with it. We were fortunate to have had the opportunity of a very hands-on Mexican expedition, with unforgettable experiences that we were able to bring back to our own communities.
Meet Chris Pesenti, founder and director of RED Sustainable Travel. He has been a friend of Tae Kim and Boreas from the beginning, since the two would meet up on Chris’s trips back to the states and swap ideas on their budding social enterprise ventures in the U.S. and Mexico. We have exchanged gear, ideas and insight with Chris over the past 10 years. When the opportunity came about for Boreas to come down to witness the magic of RED firsthand we gratefully accepted. Read on to learn what a conservation adventure entails, some personal accounts of what RED can do, and how you can get involved.
Why was RED created, and what is the story behind it?
RED evolved out of a decade of conservation work that I had done in coastal communities along the Baja California Peninsula. I realized that the conservation models we were implementing were incomplete, focused too much on traditional organizational structures that were stiff and limited in their ability to truly reach people. If someone is worried about the roof over their head or what their family is going to eat today, conservation issues can seem preachy, a luxury even. In 2009 I recruited my partner in the project, Luis Garduño and we launched RED Sustainable Travel, to use sustainable tourism as a vehicle to create economic opportunities linked directly to conservation. Basically, we take conservation projects such as sea turtle monitoring and turn them into travel experiences. Part of the process is recruiting local fishermen and poachers, and working with conservation partners like Grupo Tortuguero to train fisherman to perform the research activity. It’s an incredible process to watch, where the fishermen end up becoming stewards of the very resources they are extracting.
What is a conservation adventure, and how does it differ from 'ecotourism' vacations?
There are lots of definitions for ecotourism, but for us, conservation adventure takes the experience far beyond just being in nature. To me, adventure says that there is some unknown element. Every trip we run is different in some way, but they all contain elements that support conservation and research, socioeconomic development and preservation of cultural heritage. Many people that travel with RED have it in their mind that they just want to interact with the sea turtles - and that is definitely part of the experience. But without fail, travellers walk away much more impacted by their interaction with the people in this particular setting. Imagine heading out from camp at dawn with a local fisherman to pull a drift net out of the water that has caught a 200lb sea turtle. You then take that turtle back to camp together and record its data before releasing it back into the wild. You got to be a sea turtle biologist for a day, produce important research data, and you shared that experience with someone. And being out on the water with the fisherman, you get a glimpse into what their life is like. You’ve become part of this process of change, that’s the conservation part. That fisherman impacted your life and you his.
What gear do you value and use while on your academic expedition projects?
Our academic adventures run mostly out of our turtle research camp, but this year we will take local youth into the Sierra de la Giganta Biosphere Reserve, and will also launch a line of experiences that will be more mobile - on the water in the panga, overland by mule. So we will be using gear that is light but sturdy and comfortable.
How do your conservation adventures inspire people to care about the planet, and their own local community? (especially after they've returned home).
There are so many stories. We had a fellow come from Mexico City, a business executive. It was his first time to the peninsula and he was absolutely overwhelmed by the beauty and wildness of a part of this country he didn’t know existed. He stayed by the turtle’s side until it was released and cried. He later continued visiting the peninsula and got involved with local organizations here.
We’ve had students come, just out of high school or college and they’ve told us they discovered what they wanted to do with their lives on our trips. One girl created a personal website and blog last year that is still active, with posts about sea turtle and ocean conservation. University students from the Tec de Monterrey who did a field practicum on sustainable development with us have written us saying the experience with RED has changed their entire outlook on this country (Mexico). There is also the relationship we’ve built with Lush Cosmetics, which has changed my perspective on what sustainable business is. Some of the store managers had never seen the ocean before, and now that are hardcore ocean conservationists. And watching the change take place in the local kids is incredible. After just a couple days, the way they see their natural surroundings completely changes.
One of our slogans is #AdventureUnknown! How does this fit into your life and work (any good stories??)
Adventure unknown sounds like a day in the work week at RED. Last week we headed north to scout out new places to operate. You basically just pick a point on the map that looks like it might be beautiful, get in the 4x4 and head out there, see what the surroundings are like, are there fishermen around who might want to get involved? Is there a local community that could benefit, rancheros that could participate? What’s the conservation value? Getting lost in the truck on the brecha is sometimes the best thing that can happen to stir creativity. A while back we wanted to see if it was possible to connect a spot on the gulf coast to a community where we work in the sierra, or if the trip was too brutal. So two of us left with mules and two went by car and two days later we met on the coast. What an experience, traveling through lands that very few people will ever see. The mule ended being the better option - it’s the original back country 4x4.
Special thanks to Chris Pesenti, Jaime Campos, Chuy the Turtle Hunter, Beto, and Miguel Ángel de la Cueva. We look forward to hearing about upcoming conservation projects and inspirational adventure stories.