Collaborating to improve the health of shared ecosystems

Yamilett Carrillo Guerrero, Senior Program Manager for the Binational Resilience Initiative at the San Diego Foundation, San Diego, California

Feature | 27 June 2023
Yamilett Carrillo Guerrero spent most of her life crossing the border between the US and Mexico. This provided her with invaluable knowledge, cultural compatibility, and understanding of the communities on both sides to be able to carry out her work on binational issues effectively. ILO Photo/ Yamilett Carrillo
"I believe deeply in the goodness of people. Connecting and communicating with people is the best way to find solutions to build a better future,” says Yamilett Carrillo Guerrero, Senior Program Manager for the Binational Resilience Initiative at the San Diego Foundation based in San Diego California.

“My work entails connecting non-profit organizations between Mexico and the US, especially along the Cali-Baja region, and getting them to work on environmental issues, climate preparedness, coastal resilience, and help our communities work together and find common solutions for issues that affect us all in this region,” Carrillo describes of her work.

“We share an ecosystem, we share a coastal watershed, and very important land ecosystems too. Our work entails improving our communities’ conditions and health by improving the health of the ecosystems we share,” she adds.

Carrillo was born in Mexico and through her studies and scholarship Carrillo became a permanent U.S. resident and was able to work on both sides of the US-Mexico border. Her background, experience, and strong cross-cultural sensitivity have been key to her success in addressing climate vulnerabilities and promoting binational collaborations between civil society organizations, scientists, farmers, and other stakeholders.

“I needed to cross the borders and understand the communities along the border,” Carrillo explains. Growing up Carrillo thought that she would end up becoming either a biologist or a farmer because of her affinity for gardening and plants, but once in high school, her interests swung towards the field of economics.

While she says she found economics fun and she had a good understanding of the subject she did not find it “fulfilling or satisfying,” which prompted her to pause and take a step back and decide whether to finish her master’s in finance or pursue something else. A chance volunteer opportunity resulted in a job working with the wetland conservation projects along the Gulf of California, and soon after she received a scholarship to go to the University of Arizona.

By connecting non-profit organizations in the US and Mexico in the Cali-Baja region, Yamilett promotes collaboration on environmental issues, climate preparedness, coastal resilience, and helps forge common solutions for regional issues. ILO Photo/ Yamilett Carrillo
“From there I began working on the Tijuana River. That’s when I realized that there was this big opportunity and very big need with Mexican non-profits to understand how international donations work, how they can apply for international grants, and how they can work with US non-profits, because of these shared ecosystems,” Carrillo emphasizes.

Over the course of years, Carrillo points out the positive impacts of her work. “There has been much recognition of binational work and collaboration on environmental issues. There has been a real understanding that science cannot stop at the border, and scientists have a lot to share and learn from each other. We are finding new ways to work together and create something better for our communities,” she proudly says.

In addition, she points out the increase in integration across cities, and the interconnections between family members living on different sides of the border. “There is a sense of economic boost, there are a lot of better-paying jobs than in other areas of Mexico, and the migrant communities have brought a lot of skilled labor,” Carrillo highlights.

According to Carrillo, this integration between society, the economy, and the environment creates a unique situation in the region that provides opportunities for everybody.

Carrillo also points out that many challenges remain, and she sees this within the context of her work, in the form of cultural disconnection, and understanding the differences and nuances between US and Mexican cultures. Given her background and experience along both sides of the border, she has been able to bridge the divide. She tells us of one such experience she had during her time working on the Colorado River.

“While studying for my PhD in Arizona one of my areas of research was identifying how farmers were using their water and what can be done to get their cooperation for restoring wetlands on the Mexican side,” says Carrillo. “By interviewing the farmers on both sides of the border, I came to realize that there was a lot of common ground, but there was also a misunderstanding between the environmentalists and farmers. Through some of the interviews, I learned that there was a need for a bridge to be established and many connections to make and nurture.”

Once the connection between farmers on both sides of the border improved, the river restoration was made possible through water markets.
As a child, Guerrero thought that she would become a biologist or a farmer. She went on to pursue economics and finance, before working on wetlands conservation projects. Yamilett believes in the power of civil society organizations to strengthen communities for solutions to cross-border issues. ILO Photo/ Yamilett Carrillo

“Getting to know what people care about, through those interviews, showed that they do care about the river and water conservation. Conserving water meant conserving the livelihoods of everybody in the Colorado River watershed, which includes seven U.S. states and two Mexican States,” explains Carrillo.

She continues to say that people really understand what is at stake because everybody says, “Water is life”. If there is no water on the reservoirs of the US side, then there is no water flowing downstream towards Mexico either.

In hearing Carrillo speak about her work and her motivation to help others and the environment, she highlights the satisfaction she feels by seeing people’s growth, and non-profits become stronger. “I believe that strengthening civil society means having better and more resilient communities that can provide safety nets to assist vulnerable communities.”

In addressing her commitment to these issues, Carrillo spoke about an important moment of “waiting for the Colorado River flows to begin trickling down the dry riverbed. There were community members from the US side and the Mexican side including reporters,” she proudly recalls.

“As the water trickled down into the dry sand, it became a little more like a creek, and then like a river. There was a party on the river! You could not distinguish anyone by their nationality or language, but all you could hear was the common language of laughter, joy, and happiness because the river came back and was flowing through our communities.” She points to this moment as a powerful example of how binational collaboration really works.

Carrillo hopes that her work at the San Diego Foundation, particularly under the Binational Resilience Initiative, projects on climate-related impacts will increase as well as expand through the whole US-Mexico border and inspire others to follow the same model. “I am really thrilled to be able to learn about the possibility of new projects that can help advance climate initiatives so we can have better lives together,” she highlights.

Beaming with pride in her work, Carrillo stated that “international collaboration is the best way to solve any issue across borders, and it is also the best pathway to be able to advance our work on climate change. Civil society organizations are the backbone of our communities and cooperation is always the way to go.”