CEF Spotlight

Lessons from Chiapas

Last month, as part of CEF’s annual Leadership Development Challenge, thirteen outstanding leaders from CEF member companies were chosen from a highly competitive field of applicants from around the world to embark on a life-changing journey to Mexico City and Chiapas, Mexico, led by FEMSA Foundation Director and C.K. Prahalad Award Winner, Vidal Garza.

After meeting with conservation leaders in Mexico City, Vidal and his intrepid “Chiapas Delegation” traveled to the Comon Yaj Noptic organic coffee cooperative on the steep slopes of the Sierra Madre, meeting with the women and families that grow, harvest, roast and pack the beans. They then embarked on an unforgettable hike into the El Triunfo Biosphere, where they traced the path of the water all the way to its source, and along the way witnessed firsthand how both companies and communities are dependent on functioning “natural infrastructure” to ensure fresh water supply, sustain agricultural production, and ensure resilience to drought, flooding and erosion. As CH2M HILL winner, Brandy Wilson wrote in her blog, Chasing Water in Chiapas, “The cloud forest acts like a giant sponge, holding and absorbing water for release through these springs to nurture Mexico. During the past few years, cities, corporations, and other entities have recognized how critical preserving the forest is to serve people and enhance natural capital resources, and have banded together to create water conservation funds to protect watersheds.

The 2014 Leadership Development Program immersed the attendees in an innovative conservation model being implemented across Latin America called Water Funds—a multi-stakeholder effort that truly integrates people, planet, and profit. Ran Tao, a winner attending from the Coca-Cola Company, described the three-pronged approach this way:

People – Proceeds of the Water Fund in Chiapas support a cooperative of coffee producers that actively implement conservation practices such as afforestation, plant shading and water barriers to combat land degradation and protect the local environment, which supports long-term cash flows from sustainable annual harvests and ongoing social services such as education, health care and insurance: the cooperative is currently focused on brand building and direct selling, i.e. a flagship brand – Café Metik – featuring coffee produced exclusively by women.

Planet – El Triunfo (the Triumph) biosphere reserve, a rich and diverse cloud forest ecosystem that stretches across the highest altitudes of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas, which tower above over 100 coffee plantations, continuously produces soil rich in organic matter and infiltrated water high in mineral content for the surrounding farming economies; the government-protected reserve is home to a diversity of plants (over 800), birds (over 350, 80 of which are endangered), and other animals, including the resplendent Quetzal.

Sierra Madre de Chiapas feeds directly into the Grijalva river (one of the two largest rivers in Chiapas), which has four dams that represent 40% of the country’s hydrological power capacity, whjch represents 8% of the total electricity produced in Mexico.

Profit – The “Water Fund” concept relies on a mix of public and private funding to capitalize a trust, which employs a financial institution such as a bank as the fiduciary trustee and an NGO as the conservation trustee, thereby placing a financial value on ecosystem services: this concept can easily be applied to water, women and wellbeing, social enterprise and other Office of Sustainability priorities.

The Latin America Water Funds Partnership, established by TNC, FEMSA Foundation, the Inter-American Bank and GEF, strives to create 32 water funds by 2016. As of today there are 17 water funds in operation. As an example of how it works, the Monterrey Water Fund aims to capitalize about $30 million to yield $1.5M each year. This, in addition to concurrent funds from other participants, will allow roughly $3M to go to water conversation investments annually. So far, the fund has achieved 40% capitalization.

Following are a selection of reflections from the “Chiapas Delegation.”

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Philip Dahlin, Director of Sustainability, Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies, Johnson & Johnson

“Police work wouldn’t be possible without coffee,” Wallander said. “No work would be possible without coffee.” They pondered the importance of coffee in silence. ― Henning Mankell, One Step Behind

Like many other people I know, I cherish my cup of coffee in the morning and like many others, it does make my mornings a bit easier and more enjoyable. Being admittedly a bit of a coffee snob, and as a sustainability professional, I probably start out with more knowledge than the average person about coffee, its supply chain and associated environmental and social impacts. But I did not fully appreciate, not only what it takes to get those carefully roasted beans to my cup in the morning, but the real impacts that producing those beans have on the communities that produce the coffee. That is, until I participated in the 2014 Corporate Eco Forum’s (CEF) Sustainability Leadership Development program and visited the coffee plantations of Chiapas state in Mexico. But it would be a mistake to examine coffee in a vacuum – coffee is only one element of a an integrated agricultural system that relies heavily on the protected environs of the Sierra Madres and associated ecosystems in Chiapas state and the success of these agricultural systems are in turn critical to the continual survival and advancement of the communities in Southern Mexico. So it is was heartening to see that in the communities we visited, there was a deep appreciation of the ecosystems that provide them sustenance and a way of life and a very sophisticated understanding of the interdependencies between man and his environment.

Perhaps the most impactful take away for me from the trip was seeing how communities that have a common interest and purpose can work together for the collective good of all, including the environment. So in addition to the fresh air of the Sierra Madre, seeing the cooperatives working together in harmony was also a breath of fresh air away from the egocentric world that we tend to live in.

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Dorothée D’Herde, Director of Sustainability, McKinsey & Co.

Our journey in Chiapas was a truly humbling experience that disconnected us from emails and deadlines and connected us to what those emails and deadlines are ultimately all about:  our purpose, nature, life and each other. We shared moments of learning, of reflection, of laughter. We felt touched and inspired by the energy in the stories we heard about working together to – tree by tree, (coffee) bean by bean and drop by drop – conserve and regenerate ecosystems. One very magical moment was when a cloud of butterflies flew up as we turned a bend on the winding path up the mountains, their wings glistening in the light with strength and delicacy. I feel stronger in my convictions, driven to act faster and bigger, richer for all the conversations, calm and energized. Thank you CEF, FEMSA, TNC, The Water Seed Fund, Fondo el Triunfo, Comon Yaj Noptic. Thank you Chiapas. 

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Holly Emerson, Senior Analyst, Center for Energy Efficiency and Sustainability, Ingersoll Rand

Coffee, birds and scientists. Conde Nast could not have planned a better experience for me. I was one of fifteen professionals with a passion for sustainability that came to explore the idea of an eco-social nexus and the critical role of water in the country of Mexico. Our adventure was well crafted, taking us from the economic center of Mexico, looking at life through the filter of taxi windows in Mexico City; to the cultural center of Chiapas, the city of Tuxtla in the southernmost state in Mexico, viewing the topography from thousands of feet above the earth in an airplane; ending at our destination in the most rural of places, the rainforests of El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve, with a rough ride, wide open, experiencing all the smells and sights that Mexico has to offer. I came as a blank slate, prepared to take in whatever the adventure brought me. But I also came with questions. I came questioning the value I bring to the environment and society. I came with healthy skepticism that humanity can truly live in harmony with the environment. Aren’t we just a very large footprint after all? And I came with wonderment about water. What connection will I make with water? After all, this trip was all about water. The experiences were magical and earthy. Eating a hearty meal of freshly butchered chicken at a remote coffee plantation in the buffer zone, taste-testing coffee at the Comon Yaj Noptic, gazing at a night sky so dark you could see every star, and hiking through the several different layers of rainforest. The water, a central theme, seemed hidden in plain sight. It was ever-present, at the table, the headwaters, nourishing treasured coffee plants, cutting a canyon through the mountains, forcing humans to find a path across, however rickety.

Our journey was laced with jewels of knowledge from our hosts, José Luis Aranda, of the Water Seed Fund, and Alejandro Hernandez, a scientist with The Nature Conservancy. We hiked up the mountain, first through the hillsides full of coffee plants, then dramatically entering the el Triunfo Biosphere Reserve, finally emerging through the thick fog of the rainforest at the birth of the river. Gradually the picture of how the local economy and one of the most endangered ecosystems on earth live in harmony, and even thrive, started to unfold. Emerging from the rainforest the following day I was left to ponder the implications and applications of this nexus of civilization and wilderness. Those fifteen professionals? We discovered that we were each unique: the photographer, the linguist, the pragmatist, the dancers, the DJ, the videographer. And we each contributed: levity, youth, deep thoughts, comedy, perseverance, knowledge. I was told only a select few have the opportunity to experience the wildness of El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve.

I will always cherish my adventure in the rainforest and the rarity of the experience. When I go back it will be on my motorcycle and I will photograph the dogs, explore San Christobal and maybe even count birds in el Triunfo Biosphere Reserve. And I will think about the waters that are hidden in plain sight.

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Kyle Frandsen, Sustainability Project Manager, Balfour Beatty

This was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity! Our time in Mexico City at the Coca-Cola FEMSA Headquarters was a great learning experience. Mexico City was a nice transition into Mexico before we journeyed deep into the rainforests of Chiapas. Chiapas is an incredibly beautiful place where I enjoyed learning about rivers, birds, culture, and most importantly coffee! I was inspired by the women of Café Metik and it was great to learn the process of creating the perfect cup of organic coffee. The part of this trip that had the most impact for me personally and professionally was the people. This trip was a great opportunity to learn from like-minded, passionate individuals. I plan to keep in touch with the other attendees and organizers of this adventure throughout my career in sustainability. As a result of this trip, I now have a network of people working in sustainability at innovative and diverse companies.

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Octavio Gonzalez, Lean Enterprise & Sustainability Manager, Bose

It was a great experience for me! The opportunity to meet all these people with a huge background in sustainability was priceless! This experience went beyond my expectations; the participants, the organization, the place and the chance to share with this great team will help my growth personally and professionally! The chance to meet the coffee plantation people and how proud they are from their jobs, what they do to protect the environment not only for their own benefit, they do it because is what we are going to leave to the future generations – opened my eyes to reflect and think on what I’m doing to protect the planet and to influence others on doing the same!


Jasper Jung, Senior Analyst, Sustainability, General Motors

Collective action is something we frequently talk about in corporate sustainability – the importance of engaging the entire value chain to drive long-term value. Our trip to Chiapas, Mexico was a unique opportunity to see it in action and observe firsthand how collaboration can be so successful in a beautiful place with great people. This trip helped us all better understand how collective action can drive value for many types of communities, industries and organizations. The community in Chiapas is a leading example of how we can come together and seize opportunities with social, environmental and economic benefits. The people there showed us how to collaborate in a way that creates an incredible product – arguably some of the best coffee in the world – and do so in a responsible manner that respects the resources like water that we all share. I appreciated the opportunity to learn and share perspectives, along with more than a few laughs, with a talented group of sustainability practitioners that I’m now happy to call friends, as well. It also was nice to take in all of the surroundings and ride around the countryside in the locals’ Chevy pickup truck!

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Erica Ocampo, Manager, Sustainability and Advocacy, Dow Chemical Company

What a great experience was to see firsthand the Eco-Social Nexus with all the amazing people of the Chiapas delegation. By following the water path, it was absolutely clear how every single thing in nature, including us, is connected to everything else. Relearning the complexities of the ecosystems that support our existence took me to a place of continuous self-reflection. As we immersed in the lush vegetation of El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve, it was remarkable to see the incessant transformation of nature as we went from a dry forest to a cloud forest in just a few hours’ hike. Nature’s wisdom to adapt and transform itself to not just survive but to thrive in these different ecosystems is humbling.

Can we as individuals and companies do the same? Adapt, transform, thrive? I strongly believe that we can, we have and we must continue to strive! A small community with few resources showed me during this trip that it is possible when people work together.

Having the opportunity to share thoughts with other sustainability professionals was very reassuring. And even though we all work for very different companies, with very different subcultures; all of us face similar challenges in our line of work. The sustainability journey truly starts with each of us. Understanding our own misconceived ideas, challenging our own beliefs and continuously evolving to empower ourselves to take individual action. I love what I do, I feel incredibly fortunate that my profession is not only my job but my hobby and my passion. And having the opportunity to see what others are doing to make the world better for all is uplifting. It showed me that with the power of individuals comes the power of collective action.

Thank you CEF for this great opportunity, and for all of you my new friends: Hasta la próxima!

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Steve Stawarz, Principal Solutions Consultant and Sustainability Lead, Oracle

The program was amazing, enlightening, and inspiring. It made me think about how to put some of the lessons into effective action at the industry, political, and community level. Some examples of questions I am pondering: How can my employer as a corporation help with water conservation? How to make water conservation a higher priority for political parties? How to get my hometown to increase its efforts for water management from a use and waste perspective?

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Ran Tao, Senior Manager, Sustainability Strategy, the Coca-Cola Company

Leadership requires immense strength, resolve and discipline. It requires one to exercise the discipline to cast aside differences when joining hands with others in the pursuit of a common vision for a more appealing, just and resplendent world. On the morning of November 13, 2014, in the cloud forests of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas, the emerging leaders of the 2014 Challenge went on a hike to glimpse the elusive, threatened and resplendent Quetzal. To me, the Quetzal – or rather the pursuit of watching her – was the perfect metaphor for our work. We came from all over the world, from different Member companies, cultures and points in our lives to Chiapas, Mexico, for a week, in order to understand the system that supports the Quetzal, her natural habitat that is the cloud rainforest and the local coffee economies in the foothills below. We hiked with each other, ate together and even sang songs.

A pinnacle of our journey was to witness the Quetzal, a magnificent creature that symbolized the culmination of the entire system. That morning, we shared binoculars, poured over bird books, pointed each other to rustling branches, knelled to examine tracks and took in the blissful silence every few steps. In the end, I did not see the Quetzal. But in not seeing her, I achieved something better: I understand her now. The Quetzal is a dream, a vision, an ideal. We will always be chasing her.

Now that we have all returned to our respective countries, homes and jobs, we will be working to glimpse the Quetzal everyday be stewarding the natural systems that perpetually renew her. We will need each other to succeed. We must hike together, taking note of tracks, clues and hints along the way, and help each other understand the sublime system that makes the Quetzal possible. Only together can we understand and protect her. This knowledge, along with enduring professional and personal relationships to act upon it, was what I got out of the 2014 Challenge.

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Sunil VarmaDirector of Environmental Assessments, Disney Worldwide Services

I am glad there are things like “cloud forests” – they are a rare type of beauty, and I felt privileged to walk through that beauty with a very merry group of people. I also feel privileged to have access to the many of the miracles of modernity that helped us on the trip – Bluetooth, Bose, bug spray, beverages, and cameras. I wish all people get access to both types of miracles – pristine nature and modernity. I am glad there are groups – thanks Eco Forum! – striving to increase the likelihood of such an outcome, and am happy to work alongside them. Perhaps 20 years from now my daughter will move around in a driverless vehicle, and still have a chance to catch a glimpse of that elusive bird with a rainbow for a tail.

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Brandy Wilson, Enterprise Sustainability Program Manager, CH2M 

What’s better? Building a reservoir or using a forest as a reservoir? Some people may feel more secure with a built reservoir, because you can calculate how many acre-feet of water it will hold and control the timing of runoff. Others might feel that a forest offers more security, because you cannot fill a reservoir without water coming from somewhere. The answer, most likely, is a bit of both. But the real question I encountered at El Triunfo was this: how much more can a forest hold than water?

The cloud forest holds an incredible diversity of plant and animal life; species like my 45-degrees-north Idaho pines and Latin America’s tropical-belt orchids grow side-by-side. Likewise, diverse groups of people, such as farmers, conservationists, and corporate managers, work side-by-side to preserve the water-giving forest. At the eco-social nexus, conserving places like the cloud forest of El Triunfo is complete common sense. The forest literally catches and filters water, providing sustenance for those who grow coffee on the slopes of the Sierra Madre as well as people in cities in faraway valleys. Corporate and community investments in forest conservation pencil out in terms of water supply and quality.

Seeing something that works in sustainability, firsthand, was an inspiring and affirming experience in a line of work that is often perceived as aspirational. Now, in addition to everything else, the El Triunfo forest holds the commitments of the group of us who visited—my new friends are an impressive and powerful force for a better world.

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