By Abigail Rome
Partnerships for conservation—that’s what the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) is all about. And partnerships are exactly what excite Luis Murillo.
As regional coordinator for CEPF in the Talamanca-Bocas del Toro and Talamanca-Osa biodiversity conservation corridors of Southern Mesoamerica, Murillo develops and nurtures alliances among a variety of organizations and institutions, including his own employer, Conservation International, in order to advance conservation.
But for the 46-year-old Costa Rican, it’s not the signing of each new CEPF grant contract with partners that provides the reward. He cherishes the processes of getting to know and understand the people and organizations, sharing his interests and experience, developing mutually supportive interactions and maintaining evolving relationships.
Murillo takes pride in the community-based groups that he has assisted for periods of months and sometimes years. As these groups are usually loose associations of farmers, environmentalists and indigenous peoples, often with little formal education, Murillo helps them strengthen their skills in designing projects and preparing fund-raising proposals as a core part of his responsibilities.
“It’s not easy for many of these groups,” Murillo says. “They have no idea how to fill out a CEPF grant proposal. I meet with them numerous times, and help them determine what they want out of their projects and how to present themselves and their visions. In the end it is they who have written their proposals, not me.”
Murillo reinforces his belief in self-reliance when he speaks with members of the Organización para el Desarrollo Ecotursitico Naso (ODESEN, or the Organization for the Sustainable Development of Naso Ecotourism), one of the Naso Indian community-based environmental organizations he has adopted.
As he sits under the newly thatched roof of the Naso’s Wekso Ecolodge near Bocas del Toro, Panama, he tells community members, “You are the owners of your project. What you are doing, the investments you are making, are for yourselves.”
He encourages them to think big and long term and to integrate their values into a cohesive working strategy. Not surprisingly, this is exactly the philosophy that has prevailed throughout Murillo’s own professional life.
With a bachelor’s degree in agronomy, his first job was technology transfer as an extensionist with agricultural cooperatives. Reforestation was one of the strategies he promoted. While Murillo’s focus was on agricultural output, he quickly noted that conservationists and producers didn’t seem to work together. He saw the need to bring them together and also involve other community members in environmental concerns.
Following his instincts, Murillo obtained his master’s degree in agricultural sciences and natural resources management, and shortly thereafter went to work with a leading conservation research and education organization, la Organización de Estudios Tropicales (OET, or the Organization for Tropical Studies). It was in this capacity that he was able to put his ideas into practice by training community members, many of whom were farmers, to become environmental leaders.
As the coordinator for community programs for OET, Murillo helped community members in environmental conflict resolution and brought government officials and decisionmakers into dialogue about environmental issues.
Little did he know that this job and his subsequent work in the AMISCONDE project, integrating conservation and development with farmers near La Amistad Biosphere Reserve, would have direct relevance to his current work with CEPF.
Some of the same environmental leaders and farmers he trained then are now being supported by CEPF to apply conservation practices in their daily income-generating activities.
Murillo’s most cogent messages to the conservation world can be summed up in a simple two-sentence statement: “People don’t live from conservation. We must link our projects to production,” he says, as he describes the complex web of partnerships and projects that he and his Conservation International colleagues are putting together to produce conservation coffee.
His case in point is one of his favorite projects: coffee production that reduces use of agrochemicals, protects and enhances soils and increases farmland biodiversity—creating forest cover and thereby enhancing natural corridors adjacent to protected areas near La Amistad Biosphere Reserve.
Murillo is a busy man, spending much of his time on the road, visiting and meeting with partners of the nearly 30 projects in southern Costa Rica and northern Panama that he helps manage for CEPF. He loves his job, but he has one big regret: he doesn’t have much time to write about his experiences, to share the challenges and successes he’s had working with a wide variety of environmentalists—ranging from small scale farmers living hours from the closest road to project managers within conservation organizations to CEOs of large international corporations.
“Others need to know about the experiences I’ve had helping people live well while also doing conservation,” he says. If Murillo’s passion to share his knowledge with those who can benefit isn’t the essence of partnership, then what is?
- April 2004