How CI's Patricia Zurita Puts People in Charge of Environmental Conservation
Patricia Zurita recalls her childhood as “nothing too extraordinary,” in Quito, Ecuador, training to be a gymnast and playing high school volleyball. Now, as the Senior Director of CI’s Conservation Stewards Program, she works with over 16 countries, traveling nearly 75 percent of her time organizing field teams to enact environmental agreements with communities all over the globe.
Her career and her travel miles may seem extraordinary now, but her philosophy could not be simpler: Find out what motivates people to conserve.
Zurita’s first passion was art, prompting her to enter the Arts and Graphic Design School in Ecuador. However, after an inspiring seminar on Andean bird conservation with a very persuasive instructor at the School of Environment, Zurita realized her other passion – conservation.
After college and three years working with the Park Service in Ecuador, Zurita won a coveted World Bank Scholarship that allowed her to complete her master’s degree on Natural Resource Economics at Duke University.
Valuing the Earth’s Natural Assets
Zurita’s first experience with the concept of “payment for ecosystem services” came during her master’s project with the National Park in Flores Island in Indonesia.
There she made the argument for how forest conservation directly affects the local economy: by changing run-off patterns caused by deforestation, the water sources used for daily use would be preserved.
Zurita credits her early education and family influence for helping her discover what she calls “cool solutions to make conservation something people want.”
Making the CI Connection
Zurita’s first introduction to CI was a chance encounter during the Latin American Congress of National Parks in Santa Marta, Columbia. There she met CI’s Rod Mast, who like Zurita was also working to resolve issues with oil production in protected areas of South America.
It wasn’t until 2002, however, that Zurita formally joined CI as a director of the Policy and Economics Program of the Andes. In 2005, she was asked to head the Conservation Stewards Program.
Despite her worldwide travels, Zurita is hesitant to reveal her favorite destinations. With some gentle nudging, she admitted that China holds a special place in her heart among all of the places she’s visited.
Traveling to China shattered many of her preconceived notions, she said, and she described both the landscape and the people as simply “breathtaking and amazing.” When Zurita is not traveling, she loves to cook, walk and read, and spend time with her husband, Fidel.
Zurita believes that she has found the key to implementing conservation with a practical balance of economics and preservation. She finds enormous fulfillment in her job and her success adds to that joy.
In China, conservation agreements helped a Tibetan nomad community become empowered to protect the land they’ve been roaming for generations while gaining management rights.
After the Sichuan earthquake, the CI team used the conservation agreement model to help communities who suffered to rebuild their lives while helping to restore and protect key areas of Panda habitat.
In South Africa, she found that by sitting down with local residents and listening to their stories, she could provide farmers with economic incentives while helping CI conserve the Karoo. In Colombia, conservation agreements are being recognized by local authorities as a tool to help them patrol and control traffic of threatened fish species between Colombia and Brazil.
With a record of success among local communities, it’s easy to see that Zurita's straightforward philosophy benefits people by conserving natural assets.
“By designing a conservation system that acknowledges that conservation should not be done for free and at the cost of the poorest of the poor, we are building an economy around conservation and making it an option that local people can really choose to do,” Zurita says.
“Through our program we are building true conservation stewards who are helping us save the biodiversity of the world.”