American Ambassadors


(This 1157th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on May 26, 2013.)


Bob Andrle with Jajean Rose-Burney and Ana Hernandez Balzac


Shortly after graduating from the University at Buffalo Jajean Rose-Burney and his wife Ana Hernandez Balzac joined the Peace Corps. They were assigned to Puebla, Mexico, a city whose metropolitan population is 2.6 million. During their thirty month stay there, Jajean and Ana helped change the direction of urban sprawl, reinterpreted the highly polluted 90 square mile Valsequillo Reservoir from a "dead" lake to an important wildlife region, nominated the area as an international Important Bird Area, established it as a Ramsar Convention wetland of global importance, and gained state park status for part of the region, in the process gaining recognition for the work from Felipe Calderon, then president of Mexico, and winning the American Planning Association's Pierre L'Enfant International Planning Award.


And that's not all. During that same period they also established a regional society of bird watchers, led trips to birding sites throughout central Mexico and wrote, edited and published two bird books.


Anyone who has reservations about our young men and women today has only to look at these accomplishments to be encouraged. We can only hope that Jajean can continue them in his new role as development coordinator for the Western New York Land Conservancy.


How did all this come about?


When the Peace Corps assigned the couple to a government planning office in Puebla, Jajean was not at all enthusiastic. A birdwatcher by avocation, mentored by local senior ornithologists Dave Junkin and Bob Andrle, he had hoped to be assigned to a tropical forest rich in bird species. Instead the couple was sent to work in urban Puebla leading environmental education projects, preparing a temporary employment program for rural communities and designing a training center for low-tech sustainable technologies.


Checking a map of the region around Puebla looking for birding opportunities, Jajean noticed the 11 square mile Valsequillo Reservoir. When he asked about it, however, he was told it was "too polluted to drink from, swim in, or even boat on. No fish and no birds. The reservoir is nothing more than a smelly, toxic mud hole."


But Jajean visited the reservoir himself. What he found surprised him: "Yes, the water is used as a dump for nearby industry. Yes, the fifth largest city in Mexico pumps its untreated sewage into the reservoir. Yes, half of the reservoir is covered with invasive water hyacinth. But still, the water was clear and blue. Huge rafts of ducks were floating on its surface. Flocks of herons were wading in its shallows. Fishermen were pulling in the day's catch. Farmers were collecting the last of the season's harvest along its shores. No, the reservoir wasn't dead; it was teeming with life."


Excited by this discovery, the couple convinced their boss that they could submit the reservoir area as a Ramsar conservation site and Jajean went to work collecting data about the plants and animals of the area. His own year-long survey listed 169 birds, eight of them protected or threatened and 20 particular to that region. He gained support from Benemerita Universidad Autonoma de Puebla biologists and their students to inventory reptiles and amphibians and colleagues to do the same for plants. His final 20-page Ramsar Wetland proposal in Spanish was for a 96 square mile area - twice the size of Buffalo.


In doing this he helped head off plans to develop urban Puebla to the shore of the reservoir. Working with the federal environmental agency and Valsequillo area zoo director Amy Camacho, who fortunately had been appointed state environmental director, they gained support for the designation of part of the Valsequillo borderlands as a state park, thus changing the vision for the area from urban development to an ecologically sustainable region.


Building upon the interests of university students who had helped with the bird inventory, Jajean and Ana then organized a club that sponsored monthly field trips throughout the state of Puebla and promoted Puebla birding. And with local colleagues they prepared an identification guidebook, Las Aves del Municipio de Puebla, which includes information in Spanish about 80 of the most common birds of the state.


Jajean, Ana and others also prepared the guide, The Birdwatching Hotspots of the State of Puebla, Mexico. Remarkably, both books are available for free download from the web.-- Gerry Rising