Juan José Oña

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Uruguay
Fellow Since 1994
This description of Juan José Oña's work was prepared when Juan José Oña was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1994 .

Introduction

Juan José Oña creatively engages community and youth groups in a comprehensive multi-media documentation of native Uruguayan fauna and flora. In so doing, he is laying the social and technical foundations for Uruguayan environmental conservation.

The New Idea

Juan José Oña is spearheading the emergence of environmental protection in Uruguay. His multimedia BioBank project engages a diverse range of previously apathetic citizens, young and old, in the task of documenting native flora and fauna. The BioBank itself becomes an important tool for many public and private efforts to protect the environment. His training for community groups to use modern audio-visual technology also stimulates them to initiate projects for the more harmonious use of natural resources. Thus, Juan José is meeting the needs of the budding Uruguayan ecology movement and the general public and is encouraging and helping students, teachers, government officials and community groups and leaders to take an active part in documenting and preserving Uruguay's environment.

The Problem

Uruguayans are little concerned with environmental issues. As Juan José puts it, "Our Uruguayan society has a problem: it tends to identify with images produced in other parts of the world_ This means that our people have a limited awareness of local environmental problems, take little part in producing knowledge, and feel minimal commitment towards change." What little attention the press gives to the environment has been directed toward major "global" issues that put the problem "out there, somewhere else."

As a result of indifference and ignorance, Uruguay spends only $1.4 million a year on environmental protection, one of the lowest environmental budgets in the world in both absolute and relative terms. Government agencies are dismally under-equipped to deal with environmental problems, and the school system has still not incorporated the environment into its teaching curriculum. Natural scientists, an important potential environmental ally, are almost obsessively involved in commercial, consumer-oriented projects and have little time or inclination to investigate the national patrimony.

Not surprisingly, nongovernmental organizations and others working on environmental issues are seen as more trendy than substantive and have made little progress in getting communities involved. The field of environmental protection is still waiting to be born in Uruguay.

The Strategy

Juan José's strategy is to engage citizens in fun, recreational and personally satisfying activities that capture the beauty and meaning of the local ecology. As the numbers and quality of citizen participation in environmental protection grow, it will be possible to create a range of institutions and mechanisms to carry the field forward. He has created an original "BioBank" project for this purpose, whose success has already spawned one environmental organization to house it, and drawn hundreds of Uruguayans into the process of growing the bank.

The BioBank has its roots in Juan José's formal education in biology and his efforts to acquaint Uruguayan Boy Scouts with environmental information. These informal efforts slowly crystallized into the BioBank project to collect, organize and disseminate information on Uruguay's fauna and flora. The first stage resulted in a modest but dynamic resource database with short videos, ecology-cards and creative audiovisual materials to help build relationships with government, private agencies and the school system.

The project grew and BioBank is now a large and specialized database containing photographs, videotapes, movies, sound tracks and data on Uruguayan flora, fauna and ecosystems. Enthusiastic public acceptance led Juan José in 1994 to create Profauna, a nonprofit organization that now incorporates the BioBank and has become his vehicle for disseminating his work, such as "...preserving (audiovisual) media, creating a broader library of images to assist in research, teaching and improving our ecosystems."

Financed in part by sales of BioBank materials, Profauna/BioBank undertakes activities to broaden the environment's appeal and strengthen the commitment and support from the private and public sectors, in addition to its community educational work with young people. Profauna/BioBank has implemented projects involving more than 100 children in the production of environmental materials, which have reached thousands of others through television and publications. The BioBank mounted a traveling video show on native fauna in collaboration with the Montevideo city government. Supported by municipal governments, BioBank produced a series of short videos used in schools and by nongovernmental organizations and shown on television stations in rural areas.

Now, Juan José's larger objectives for Profauna/BioBank are to document environmental images and sounds and to train community groups, especially youth, to film, record, produce and edit them and to store materials and facilitate their use by the community, other nongovernmental organizations, schools and universities. He also is seeking to recruit and coordinate groups of professionals, artists and teachers to help improve and develop materials and explore new ways to reach mainstream society by strengthening the network of professionals, technicians, groups and government and private agencies.

In the short run, Juan José wants to improve his technology and to facilitate contacts with national and international organizations. He also wants to produce digital images to help conserve the videos and facilitate exchange with institutions doing similar work, and to enable publication of BioBank on the Internet. Over the long term, he plans to turn the BioBank into a community-based service enterprise, with the potential for self-financing and sustainability.

The Person

Juan José was originally attracted to democratic and community participation-based work as an alternative to the repressive political atmosphere prevailing when he began his professional career. Even his university major in biology was secondary to his social interests and concerns. "I studied biology to gain a better understanding of the scientific and technical aspects that would consolidate my work in the social sphere." Now in his mid-thirties, Juan José defines himself as a social worker specializing in communications, nature, and the environment.

His work in the environment grew directly from his experience with the Uruguayan Boy Scouts. A Scout leader since 1975, Juan Josè collaborated with the public school system to produce learning materials for recreational activities. At the same time, he noted the total absence of any learning materials related to environmental issues. In 1990, he led Scouts and other youth groups in documenting the behavior of local fauna, building on his interest and training in audiovisual techniques. His videos documented the rhea, white goose, black-necked swan, and other Uruguayan fauna in their natural habitat and grew, over time, into the substantial database on Uruguayan flora and fauna that it is today.

As Juan José says, "The combination of these three areas–social work, biology, and audiovisual communication–has marked my life's pathway. I'm now at a mature stage to develop the full potential of the BioBank. But what really motivates me is the desire to make a small contribution to changing the way people view life and interact with it."