Latino leaders on the power of community-led conservation

Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project Executive Director Ángel Peña (middle) and team members meet outside. Image credit: NMCO Media

In Southwest Texas, along the Mexican border, the city of El Paso is draped like a necklace around the base of the Castner Range, a former U.S. military installation. Today, the rocky, high desert outcrop is treasured by El Pasoans for, among other wonders, the spectacular display of Mexican poppies that carpet its foothills in springtime.

A groundswell of support in El Paso has risen in recent years to restore and protect Castner Range as a national monument. In this binational town, where more than eight out of 10 residents identify as Latino or Hispanic, that groundswell could be a reflection of continued high levels of support for access to, and conservation of, public land in the broader Latino community. But also at work is the local leadership of those like Pastor Moses Borjas, who is part of a community-led campaign centered around improving access to nature for El Paso residents.

“We are so blessed that we have these mountains behind us,” says Pastor Borjas, standing at the base of the Castner Range during a recent interview with the Hispanic Access Foundation. “And we need to keep pressing on, keep moving forward until it happens, until that day when our President signs off and says, ‘Castner Range will be a national monument.’”

Pastor Moses Borjas of Por La Creación speaks as Castner Range activists deliver over 137,000 petitions calling on President Biden to designate Castner Range the next national monument at the Department of Interior on July 19, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Frontera Land Alliance)

The Hewlett Foundation recognizes that, in its efforts to preserve the biodiversity and connectivity of key landscapes and waterways in the Western United States, it’s vital to support collaboration among the full diversity of people who live in and value these landscapes. That includes working with — among others —private landowners, sovereign Tribal nations, sportsmen and women, and Latino leaders, like Pastor Borjas, who are helping to uplift and engage the fastest growing population in the Western U.S.

Recently, I spoke with a few grantee organizations led by such Latino leaders — Maite Arce of Hispanic Access Foundation, Ángel Peña of Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, and Luis Villa of Latino Outdoors — who, through centering relationships and community, are helping defend conservation progress, advance new efforts, and, crucially, broaden the base of support for durable conservation policies and protections.

Since its founding in 2010, Hispanic Access Foundation has built the nationwide Hispanic Leadership Network and the Por la Creación Faith-Based Alliance, supporting members with tools such as its annual policy toolkit, which equips the public and decisionmakers with the latest polling data and policy research on conservation issues. Hispanic Access Foundation is also the force behind Latino Conservation Week, an annual event that brings Latinos together to elevate and celebrate conservation and which will mark its 10th anniversary in 2023. When asked about projects on the horizon, Maite Arce, the organization’s president and CEO, points to plans to activate and train members of its leadership network, often the frontline stewards in the fight against climate change, for disaster preparedness and response, especially wildfire.

Arce notes that when we support Latino conservation leaders, the benefits ripple out far beyond local communities. “Latinos already overwhelmingly support protecting lands and waters and taking climate action now,” she says. “It’s in our nation’s best interest to make sure Latinos are not only engaged, but have leadership roles.”

At Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, the team is led and staffed entirely by members of historically and deliberately excluded communities, and is working to ensure that members of frontera (border) communities not only have access to the outdoors, but are able to meaningfully influence the management of public lands and waters. In just three years since incorporating as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the Nuestra Tierra team and its partners helped to establish the New Mexico Outdoor Equity Fund, a $3 million state fund that awards grants to outdoor access programs serving low-income and underserved youth. The program is the first of its kind in the nation. Also at the federal level, the Nuestra Tierra team collaborates with the racially and ethnically diverse Monumental SHIFT coalition, supporting the creation of new national monuments that genuinely represent and honor lands sacred to the communities they belong to, such as the beloved Castner Range.

“This is what the 21st century of conservation looks like,” says Ángel Peña, Nuestra Tierra’s executive director. “A movement rooted in culture and tradition, not one that only prioritizes charismatic flora and megafauna (e.g., polar bears).”

Luis Villa (right), executive director of Latino Outdoors together with family members during a Latino Outdoors outing.

Latino Outdoors also embraces cultura y familia as central to its mission of connecting and engaging Latino communities in the outdoors, splitting its work into three areas: its outdoor engagement programming, Vamos Outdoors, which offers hikes, camping trips, and other outdoor events organized and led by its network of 220 volunteers; a leadership development pillar, Crecemos Outdoors, which offers professional development and training to members of its network and convenes an annual leadership campout; and its story-sharing platform, Yo Cuento. Yo Cuento has several translations: “I count,” “I matter,” or “I tell a story.” “It’s our effort to expand the narrative around who is an outdoor enthusiast and what that looks like for different communities, including Latino communities that may place more of an emphasis on family-oriented outdoor activities to celebrate a birthday, share food, have a potluck, and involve community, as opposed to an individualistic pursuit,” says Latino Outdoors Executive Director Luis Villa. “We’re diversifying the traditional, mainstream narrative, which is disproportionately focused on individuality.”

Villa shares a story from a Vamos Outdoors volunteer who recently organized a gathering of young Latinos in conservation and outdoor education at Murie Ranch in Grand Teton National Park: “When [our volunteer] Cassandra shared, in her outing report, about this experience of gathering around a campfire, people seeing themselves represented and reflected in each other in a part of the country where they typically don’t have that experience, I was really touched,” says Villa. “And it’s not unique. Community and community-building is a strong theme throughout our work.”

Peña of Nuestra Tierra agrees. And he points out that community-building is not simply an outgrowth of working together, but decidedly intentional. “Relationships are central, and a critical part of the strategy,” he says. “When we prioritize the cultivation of community, and bring people together, once those authentic relations are built, everything is workable. That’s when we are able to stay focused on the empowerment of the community and not lose sight of the true goal.”

One way philanthropies like the Hewlett Foundation can support this work is by recognizing the importance of relationship-driven, community-led conservation efforts, like the El Pasoans coming together to conserve the Castner Range. “I am excited that I see a future where new campaigns are developing from the grassroots up, which is different from the past, in many cases,” says Arce. “We want sustainable results and continuous community-led efforts. It can only happen when we provide appropriate resources.”

It will also be essential to support efforts to promote justice and equity within philanthropy, and across the environmental movement. That takes time and patience. “These inequities have been happening for centuries,” says Peña. “So it can’t be expected that these issues will be resolved in any one-off attempt. This work must be founded in a long-term strategy. It’s not just checking a box. We’ve got to be able to raise our gaze and reenvision and re-imagine the 21st century of conservation.”

In speaking with these leaders, I was again reminded that the challenges posed by climate change and the biodiversity crises require us to broaden our perspectives and support. And that our grantee partners — working in partnership with communities across the U.S. — must lead the way in helping to reshape how the conservation movement can go about preserving our lands, rivers, and wildlife.

“At the end of the day, we know that in order to address global society’s environmental challenges we’ll need all hands on deck,” says Villa, “bringing as many people, as diverse a number of communities as possible, so that we can come up with the different solutions to address these challenges. The urgency is becoming greater and greater by the moment. And we need to engage as many diverse communities as possible in this movement.”

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