Maritza Morales Casanova

2012 Young Laureate, Environment
Mexico, Born 1984

Project Goal

Build a park for environmental education in the Yucatán

Location: Mexico

Helping children build a new world

Through her environmental park, young visionary Maritza Morales Casanova, hopes to meld a generation determined to care for the Yucatán’s fragile environment.

From the wellsprings of ancient Mayan wisdom and belief a young Mexican woman is drawing the refreshing inspiration to guide her people to a future of hope and renewal.

“To me, everyone who is born in the Yucatán has a drop of Mayan blood, and this provides us with the vision and commitment to our Grandmother Earth,” Rolex 2012 Young Laureate Maritza Morales Casanova explains. “Sometimes this drop of blood is just asleep inside children and all we have to do is awaken it.”

The Yucatán Peninsula, in southeast Mexico where she lives, is under fierce pressure from two million inhabitants and surging numbers of foreign visitors. Its crystal waters, flowing through a limestone carapace and sustaining a unique wildlife both above and below the land surface, face a relentless assault from pollution, agriculture and overuse.

Morales Casanova is driven by a sense of urgency over the need for the next generation of Mexicans to safeguard their environment and natural resources. As a 10-year old, she was deeply moved by the harshness and lack of respect for life she saw about her. “I saw my friends hurting their own pets and trees, and even hurting other children. That encouraged me to spread the idea of harmonic coexistence between living beings,” she explains. “It means that each single living being has a place in the world. We must respect each plant as if it were the last one; we must care for each animal as if it were the last. And we should respect each human equally.”

This remarkable childhood philosophy of caring and resilience led her in 1995 to launch her conservation organization, HUNAB (Humanity United to Nature in Harmony for Beauty, Welfare and Goodness). Three years later, she was awarded Mexico’s national Youth Prize for her plan to build a dedicated place where children could learn together how to understand and care for their environment. At the same time, she gained a degree in mathematics and studied social planning, conservation strategy, leadership and freshwater aquaculture to further her environmental goals. With her family, she also runs two toy shops to help support HUNAB financially.

Remarkable insight

Her conservation work has yielded a remarkable insight – that children, in their own small way, can do as much to save, protect and sustain our world as adults can – and sometimes more. “When we are children, we have a closer relationship with nature and are also more disposed to create and to participate with honest commitment. If, during childhood, we find a reason to take action and serve society, it can often become a project for life,” she explains.

Morales Casanova started by organizing small gatherings for her friends, showing them how to grow plants and care better for their pets. Eighteen years later, her passion is undiminished. HUNAB has developed into an organization run by children for children, with its focus on learning and sharing all they can about their environmental heritage in order to safeguard it. She teaches them: “Your hands may be small, but your hearts are immense, to care for our Grandmother Earth.”

The challenges were formidable. In the Yucatán, poverty is rife and many face a daily struggle simply to exist. The rush to exploit or destroy natural resources is rampant. Caring for the environment is a distant issue: few Mexican schools have the resources to teach the subject and few public agencies enforce it. Morales Casanova’s was a difficult message to sell and it clashed with unspoken barriers – the view that only governments can run such projects, the prejudice that only the old have sufficient wisdom and experience, the belief that only economic development matters.

By invoking the Mayan heritage and beliefs and through sheer conviction and persistence, she soon began to gather allies among local companies, business people, the media and some authorities who shared her vision. Every success gave her energy – and every setback gave her courage, she says.

Today her dreams are coming to fruition with the opening in July 2013 of Ceiba Pentandra – named for the Mayan sacred tree – a 7,600-m2 environmental education park located in the Yucatán capital, Merida. Morales Casanova has been raising money from a variety of sources to build the park’s infrasture. She is investing her Rolex Award funds in the construction of five classrooms, the educational heart of her project.

On land donated by the city, in these open-air palapas classrooms, she plans to reach out to a half of all Yucatán´s students over five years old, to inspire them to be the social and environmental entrepreneurs of the future.

“A normal school in Mexico has no environmental education,” she says. “The government is trying to include some information in textbooks – but the teachers really have no teaching materials.”

At Ceiba Pentandra learning will be experiential – and fun. “If children are just told to plant a tree, they do not learn what a tree is, how it grew from a seed, how to care for it. The action has no meaning if we do not create values. But if people learn, from childhood, to be part of the solution and to love nature and their communities, when they grow up they will be true leaders. That is what our world requires, true leaders who feel a responsibility for the environment,” she says.

Fountainhead of all life
In Yucatán, where underground water is the fountainhead of all life, students at Ceiba Pentandra will learn to become a raindrop, to find their way through a labyrinth of subterranean passages and processes. They experience how water sustains their world, its plants and animals, how it becomes polluted and unfit for use. And they learn from one another, peer-to-peer, not teacher-to-student. At the heart of the learning process is Maritza’s vision of an educational ambience where children teach children through games and hands-on activities. “Children participate because they see other children being leaders; it’s like speaking the same language.”

The palapas classrooms, which are currently being built , will feature various ecological themes: climate change, wetland conservation, protection of wildlife, waste recycling and natural handicrafts. The palapas have a sturdy metal frame to withstand hurricanes and are roofed in local timbers and palm leaves. Eventually, once sponsors are found, there will be an environmental library, a laboratory, an aquaculture training centre, an auditorium, a museum, an open-air theatre and a dormitory.

Though her focus is the Yucatán, Morales Casanova believes her idea has value worldwide. “Engaging young people in caring for their environment is essential if we are to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and ensure sustainable development for new generations. Mexico – and many regions of the world – have a culture of giving children information, but seldom offer them the opportunity to create, to propose and to take their own actions.”

For Morales Casanova, living in harmony with our world means taking the right actions – and having the values and knowledge that inform them, absorbed when we were young.

By Julian Cribb

Other 2012 Young Laureates