Champions Network
The Sixaola River Basin

Standard Bearers Lead BRIDGE’s Charge in Mesoamerica

With infectious enthusiasm, community activists refuse to take no for an answer in their quest to boost local and citizen participation in watershed management

“Empowerment” is one of those fuzzy buzzwords that everybody likes to throw around but that few can really define. It sounds good. But clear-cut examples in the real world can be elusive. The BRIDGE project has found a sure one in its Champions Network initiative in Mesoamerica.

When it came up with the champions scheme, IUCN identified a select group of individuals in each of its three BRIDGE regions to receive material, institutional and logistical assistance. The idea was to provide a leg up to people with influence who shared the program’s aim of improved transboundary watershed management. It seemed like a good idea, but nobody really knew what to expect. “The Champions Network was an experiment,” admitted Mark Smith, director of the IUCN Global Water Program.
In the Mekong Delta region of Southeast Asia and the Andean region of South America, the nod went mostly to people who were already leaders in the transboundary watershed management process. People like Tek Vannara, deputy executive director of the NGO Forum on Cambodia, or William Zury, general coordinator of the provincial government of Loja in Ecuador. People with proven track records. People you knew that you wanted on your side. 
In Mesoamerica, the choices seemed less obvious. A youth leader here. The head of a small-scale agricultural producer’s group there. People known and respected in their communities, but not exactly famous beyond. People like Mitzela Dávila, a woman who got her start working with an environmental youth group called Panamá Verde (Green Panama).
In a few short months after their first regional Champions Network pow wow in May 2012, Dávila and the other 14 members from four transboundary regions and eight countries of Mesoamerica had designed and launched a multifaceted program - one that included a pledge to recruit reticent local officials into discussions over shared binational watershed management. 
Of their own accord, the group adopted the slogan “vamos pa´lante” (or “Let’s get moving”). “They agreed that they had to get the mayors to come to their next regional meeting,” recalled Córdoba. OK, mostly vice-mayors showed up, but even that is remarkable given the heretofore lack of interest by local officials – and the fact that most of them had to travel hundreds of kilometers from their home countries to neighboring Guatemala, site of the meeting. 
In the Sixaola River basin, shared by Panama and Costa Rica, where Dávila lives in a community called Las Tablas, a representative of the champions group has been invited to take a seat on an important transboundary committee, creating a link between that official body and the communities affected by its decisions. “Since we have someone on the commission, we know what is going on,” said Dávila. “We can go to a community and tell them what the commission is doing. And we can take information from them back to the commission.” 
Initial successes have fueled more enthusiasm and even greater ambitions. “In our meetings, we have shown that we are united as a network,” said Dávila. “We think we can work at an even higher level – at the regional level or even beyond.”
It remains to be seen whether those larger ambitions are realistic, but then nobody predicted this early flurry of activity. Not even the woman charged with implementing the Champions experiment in Mesoamerica. Rocio Córdoba, coordinator of the Livelihoods and Climate Change Unit of IUCN’s regional headquarters in San José, Costa Rica, admitted that she wasn’t sure how to go about it at first. Or even how to name it. All the labels sounded wrong - until a consultant suggested the term Abanderado or Abanderada – depending on gender, as the Spanish language dictates. That translates into “standard bearer.” And it seems to have made all the difference. “From the start they already felt like they were wearing uniforms,” noted Córdoba. “Then they had t-shirts made up. For the next meeting they are going to get the mayors to wear the t-shirts.”
The presence of small town mayors (or their representatives) at any meeting might at first glance seem worthy of less than a shrug, but the history of transboundary water basin management suggests that, no matter how much political will exists in the respective capitals, little will happen if local governments and communities are not engaged. “Water diplomacy has to happen under the authority of national governments, but water accords need the agreement of local users,” Smith noted. Or as Vannara outlined, based on his experience in Cambodia: “At the national level, sometimes you meet with people and it is just a bunch of blah, blah, blah.” On the ground in Central America, Nazareth Porras Quirós, technical assistant for the Livelihoods and Climate Change Unit at IUCN’s office in San José, Costa Rica, put it matter-of-factly: “It is really important to have the mayors involved. Before they weren’t interested.” 
Chalk one up for the Abanderados and Abanderadas. As Córdoba, put it, “They are catalyzers.”
By Bill Hinchberger

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