Selected by the Corporate Eco Forum, Brandy Wilson, CH2M HILL Sustainability Director, recently participated in the Leadership Development Challenge trip to Chiapas, Mexico, with a group of sustainability leaders. She reflects on her experience.

By: Brandy Wilson, CH2M HILL Sustainability Director

High in the cloud forest of the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve in Chiapas, Mexico, miles from the nearest village, we were blindfolded. Our group of 13 was led carefully along a trail at the base of a steep cliff—everything is steep, here. I could hear a rushing creek and the song of the brown-backed solitaire, the musician of the forest.

To reach this point, our group had already come far. Selected by the Corporate Eco Forum for the Leadership Development Challenge, sustainability professionals from a variety of companies all over the United States, Mexico, and the UK flew to Chiapas. We traveled hours by van to the Comon Yaj Noptic organic coffee cooperative on the slopes of the Sierra Madre, then piled into the back of pickup trucks with tall sideboards—normally used for hauling bags of coffee and the workers who pick it—for the final push up rutted dirt roads to reach the trailhead for a hike into the El Triunfo camp.

All the way, we followed water. Broad rivers at the bottom, narrowing to smaller tributaries as we traveled upslope. We were heading for the source, according to one of our hosts, José Luis Aranda from the Water Seed Fund, we were seeking “the birthplace of the waters.”

With a hand on the shoulder of the person in front of me, and feeling a hand on my shoulder from the person behind, we wound up the last bit of trail like an uncoordinated snake. We stopped, and José Luis asked us to imagine a beautiful place. What image do we hold in our minds? How do the sounds around us influence what we think we will see? We removed our blindfolds at the same time. Nestled into a wedge in the cliff, the spring burbled out of the ferns. It flowed into an artistic concrete basin adorned with a rock-like pattern. Small pipes siphoned water from the basin for cooking and drinking at camp, and the rest of the water flowed down the creek, splashing across moss-covered granite and gneiss.

Today, the basin was adorned with rose petals, candles, and a small altar with cacao beans, tobacco, and cedar. Each of us had the opportunity to light a candle and thank the water, ask the water for something, or simply spend a moment in contemplation. Later, back at camp, each of us was asked to make a personal commitment in our work or our lives.

My commitment became clearer as I talked about the experience with my new friends on this journey. One on my fellow voyagers said he was surprised: before removing the blindfold, he had pictured a pristine spring with a small waterfall, and was taken aback by the structure and piping. I was not. From sacred wells in Ireland to potsherds and Anasazi structures around springs in the Grand Canyon, I’ve found utilitarian infrastructure combined with reverence more than once. What I loved here was the care taken to make the concrete basin beautiful. Thanking the water was common among the grandparents of the rangers and cooks at the camp. Now, the tradition is returning as people appreciate the fragility of water supply and quality.

Chiapas produces 30% of Mexico’s water and 8% of its electricity (the Grijalva river, one of the largest rivers in Chiapas, has the potential to supply 40% of the country’s hydrological power). The cloud forest acts like a giant sponge, holding and absorbing water for release through these springs to nurture Mexico. During the past few years, cities, corporations, and other entities have recognized how critical preserving the forest is to serve people and enhance natural capital resources, and have banded together to create water conservation funds to protect watersheds. According to Mark Tercek in his book, Nature’s Fortune, water conservation fund models, like that in Chiapas, are taking off across Latin America. We learned first-hand from meeting the people engaged in the conservation fund at El Triunfo, such as The Nature Conservancy and the FEMSA Foundation, how the partnerships enrich all parties in multiple ways. I could feel the excitement in the people we met; people who take the old friction between domestic, business, and agricultural users and forge new partnerships to benefit all.

Such is my calling and my commitment for water: promoting green infrastructure and the preservation of natural capital. Our need for water must be balanced with a reverence for the source. Our industry is transforming to look at old problems of water supply, flood threat reduction, and water quality in new ways, using nature as a partner instead of as something to build around, over, or through. Even if the well is not adorned with offerings, it’s high time to blend science and engineering, art and beauty, and respect for nature into our daily work. And the best part? The momentum is already underway.

Brandy Wilson, LEED® AP O+M, serves as CH2M HILL’s Director of Sustainability, responsible for helping CH2M HILL and its clients to improve sustainability performance. Brandy manages the complex production of the company’s Sustainability and Corporate Citizenship Report, which won two national communications awards. She also provides sustainability framework consulting, sustainability reporting, public outreach, and environmental communication services for clients in government and private industry. Working with all disciplines at CH2M HILL, she brings a technical perspective to operationalizing sustainable business practices, integrating financial, environmental, and societal drivers to discover creative solutions.