Research Leads to Documentary Film on "Environmental Regret" in Veracruz, Mexico

Why did the manatees disappear from Laguna Manati, a lagoon once abundant with the marine mammals, white turtles, birds, and other wildlife in in Veracruz, Mexico?

What links––cultural or environmental—existed between the manatees and the campesinos, the farmers who hunted them for food and medicinal purposes? And what part did these links play in the local extinction of the manatee?

Eileen Smith-Cavros, M.F.A., Ph.D. (pictured above, right), and the late Edward O. Keith, Ph.D., both associate professors at the Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences, combined their expertise in different disciplines to study how and why the manatee became locally extinct in the region and the impact it has had on the native community. 

The five-year research project took Smith-Cavros and Keith, along with undergraduate students at the college, to the rural area of El Manati, where they sought answers from the elderly residents.  

After three trips to Mexico, their research was complete. Soon after, in September 2012, Keith died of cancer in Miami, Florida. Determined to finish the last leg of their project and leave a lasting story for the villagers, Smith-Cavros and sociology major Guadalupe Almanza (pictured above, left) wrote and co-directed a 30-minute documentary film that tells the story of El Manati in the villagers’ own words.

Campesinos, Manatee Hunting, and Environmental Regret in Veracruz, Mexico” traces the environmental, habitat, and cultural changes that led to a legacy of loss in the village––with the demise of wildlife, natural resources, and a way of life that no longer exists. 

“The original goal was to find out if there were any manatees left in the area, and if not, why?  And to try to find out what this meant to the villagers,” Smith-Cavros said. “It’s very difficult to pinpoint why a species disappeared. A lot of factors collided: habitat change, such as the drying out of the lagoon; the land became more agricultural; and the water patterns changed.

“Things that happen in the natural ecosystem have a great impact on what happens in people’s day-to-day lives. It has an impact on the economy and cultural traditions…You start out with questions and you get some answers, but sometimes answers lead to more questions.”

The film is dedicated to Keith, who interviewed the elderly campesinos during the trips to Veracruz with Smith-Cavros, who filmed the interviews and took photographs. Told entirely in Spanish with English subtitles, the film is narrated by Jessica Garcia-Brown, J.D., LL.M., associate professor at the college.

“It was important to us that the story was told in their voices,” Smith-Cavros said of the villagers. “It is the story of their lives. One of our goals was to send this back to the villagers. We wanted it to be in their language.”

Two undergraduate alumni of the college, Sylvia Duluc-Silva and Christie Ledon, traveled to Mexico with the faculty members to assist with interviews, translations, and field notes. Current student Almanza helped Smith-Cavros select video clips from more than 40 hours of taped interviews. She also co-wrote and co-directed the film which was funded by an award from NSU’s President’s Faculty Research and Development Grant.

“Through this project, Professor Smith-Cavros exposed me to distinct perspectives of the environment, which provided a broader understanding of the sociological field,” Almanza said. “I worked with a diverse mix of people on this project, which reinforced my desire to [pursue a profession] of supporting others.

“This documentary also gave me the opportunity to learn new research skills as I conducted, gathered, and logged data on El Manati.

As early as the 1920s, generations of families began settling in El Manati, an Olmec archaeological region where artifacts have been uncovered in the fresh water and natural springs.

In the film, the village elders express regret that their children and grandchildren will not enjoy the playful manatees that once filled the lagoon, now described as a degraded ecosystem where environmental and habitat changes led to the disappearance of wildlife by the 1970s.

“The lagoon still has wet and dry seasons and still has water, but not enough to support a species such as the manatee. There’s still a beautiful array of wildlife—spoonbills, wood storks, monkeys, herons,” Smith-Cavros said.

“There was regret over what happened to the manatees and to the environment,” said Duluc-Silva, who traveled twice to Mexico in 2009. “They wished they could have done something to prevent this. They were sad that their grandchildren never got to see the manatees.”

Smith-Cavros believes the film will serve as an anthropological tool that will be used in the classroom and submitted at anthropological and environmental film festivals. She will lead a discussion at a screening of the film at the college’s Faculty Lecture Series on September 19, 2013, at NSU’s Alvin Sherman Library.

“In the beginning, I was very interested in the process of how they hunted the manatee and the medicinal uses. The villagers would grind the dry bones into powder and combine with wine or oil to use as an antidote for bronchitis.

“The villagers talk about how life used to be easier, even though they didn’t have refrigeration or electricity. They talk about how it used to be a good place to raise children, who could go out and fish and come home with dinner. Now, they need fishing permits, and resources are scarce. It has changed to a cash society with few jobs, and that makes life more difficult.

“What sets the campesinos a world apart is how happy they are. They see the changes, but they are still happy with their lives and their families,” Smith-Cavros said.

“We accomplished more than what we wanted to do. We have a record of how and why the village changed and what those changes meant to the culture. Now, we can pass this along to the younger people in the village and they can get an idea of what life used to be like—and maybe save what’s left.”