Development Works Here with Alejandro Arrivillaga

| 4 Minute Read
Environment and Natural Resources | Biodiversity Conservation | Environmental Management | Natural Resource Management

Development works here because great people work here. We’re excited to introduce you to our team.

We’d like you to meet Alejandro “Alex” Arrivillaga! Alex is a biologist and the deputy chief of party for the USAID Guatemala Biodiversity Project. He shares some of the insight he’s gained over the course of his 25-year career working with communities to develop shared solutions for biodiversity conservation. Alex is one reason #DevelopmentWorksHere.

1. Can you tell us about your previous work in biodiversity conservation?

I have worked on conservation and sustainable resources management projects for more than 25 years, including in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Belize, Mexico, Philippines, Indonesia, Mozambique, and Brazil. All my development roles have involved sustainable use of natural resources and conservation of biodiversity in protected areas. Although my previous experience centers on marine and coastal resources, I have also had the opportunity to work on inland resources and watershed management. For instance, I worked on an environmental impact statement in the highlands of Guatemala for the construction of a hydroelectric power project. The project had originally planned to construct a water reservoir to provide power to surrounding communities, but I realized that not implementing the project was more beneficial to local communities due to the loss of biodiversity that would result from the construction. This realization taught me that development sometimes comes from unexpected places. The team finally decided to build the reservoir in a different location where the impact would be less damaging. This situation made me realize the importance of listening to local communities to figure out what the best solution is for a given context — rather than always sticking to pre-determined ideas of how development should happen. My work has provided me with countless other opportunities to network with local and regional authorities, academia, conservation agencies, and stakeholders in a continual process of collaboration, learning, and adapting.

Alex (second from left) works with colleagues on a mangrove reforestation activity for the USAID Guatemala Biodiversity Project.

2. Why are you drawn to international development?

Being a developing country national, it was a natural choice for me to focus on improving the conditions of my fellow Guatemalans and those of people in other Latin American countries. Through a process of self-discovery, I realized that humans are not just threats to biodiversity but also the solution in many cases. At an early stage in my career, I had the opportunity to study and live in a remote village in coastal Guatemala and learn firsthand about the harsh conditions people must endure, including endemic diseases such as malaria, cholera, and dysentery. Moreover, my years of experience in development have provided me with the opportunity to witness successful and not-so-successful development programs and to learn from both.

3. What makes you believe that development works?

In my experience, successful development happens when beneficiaries actively participate in and are empowered by projects. On the other hand, the impact of projects that do not consider people’s culture and preferences during implementation rarely transcend the project’s lifetime. I observed this firsthand working with forest concessions in north Guatemala and with fishery communities in Mexico and the Philippines. Looking at the indicators for the Sustainable Development Goals, one can see that — although gaps are closing — there is still a long way to go. Despite this reality, it has been rewarding to observe how non-beneficiary communities have started adopting best practices they’ve seen nearby beneficiary communities following. This was the case with communities in coastal Chiapas, Mexico that shared a marketplace with communities with which we were working. They started noticing how community members from the project’s location were bringing bigger and better products to sell at the market, and they started inquiring about the methods our beneficiaries were using. I believe that influencing others by setting examples and letting them draw their own conclusions is the best way for development to scale up.

The impact of projects that do not consider people’s culture and preferences during implementation rarely transcend the project’s lifetime.

Alex Arrivillaga

I was involved with a project that interacted with fishing cooperatives a number of years ago. We worked with a co-op for several years to promote compliance with a standard stipulating the minimum size of fish in their catch. It was very rewarding when the co-op not only adopted the new standard but also voluntarily adopted a standard for maximum fish size. This practice promotes the protection of fish that produce proportionally more eggs and fry. That was another example of how development works.

4. What has been the highlight of your development journey so far?

One highlight of my development journey has been returning to communities several years after project closeout and learning that our impact has transcended the project’s lifespan. For example, I visited rural communities where children had previously had access only to elementary education and learned that families there are now able to send their children to higher education institutions. A person who comes to mind is my friend, René, who started as a local fisherman and was later hired as a community warden for a newly created reserve. Almost twenty years later, I met him again and learned that not only was he able to send all five of his children to higher education institutions but also that he was able to obtain a high school diploma himself. Even though these are anecdotal changes and not increases in development indicators, it is these kinds of stories that help me continue when the going gets tough.

Another highlight has been learning that, although no two communities are identical, there are commonalities among rural human groups that matter more than their individual differences. Learning the language of community work and development — something that universities rarely teach us — is another highlight of my development journey.

Alex (right) teams with colleagues at the Laguna del Tigre National Park in Petén, Guatemala.


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About Alejandro Arrivillaga

Alejandro Arrivillaga is a biologist with more than 25 years of experience with complex, multi-country biodiversity conservation and sustainable resource management projects, in government and non-governmental settings. Alejandro has a proven scientific record and experience with strategic planning and all aspects of resource assessment and monitoring. His work has required teamwork development, leadership and networking,…