Destroying cool and misty cloud forests makes as much sense as purposely poisoning an aquifer, since the high-altitude forests efficiently capture, absorb, and provide clear, pure water to lucky neighboring communities. But Chiapas, Mexico, the state with the second highest number of flora and fauna species, ranks number-one in poverty, which helps explain why people have felled more than half the state’s cloud forests. As a result, the principal source of drinking water for all of Chiapas is in danger of disappearing.
Recognizing the impending crisis, nine years ago the conservation group Pronatura Chiapas launched a project that aimed to provide Chiapas’ residents with economic options that would also conserve the remaining cloud forests. According to Romeo Domínguez, director of the group, the project began after the organization acquired a preserve high in the mountains above San Cristóbal de las Casas, and where research revealed an impressively high level of biodiversity, particularly of birds, bromeliads, and amphibians.
Pronatura biologists identified 13 cloud forest fragments north of Chiapas that held the northernmost population of the endangered resplendent quetzal, considered to be one of the most beautiful birds in the world. In addition to the brilliant green and red quetzal, the high-altitude patches of forests harbor other species that have adapted to the micro-climate, including the flying squirrel and flora like orchids, bromeliads, and tree ferns. Each year, hundreds of migratory birds stop to rest or spend the winter months in the cloud forest remnants, before returning to nesting grounds in the United States and Canada. The cloud forest archipelago was recognized for its rareness and species richness and added to the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, a swath of wildlands stretching from Mexico to Panama.
A biological survey of the state’s cloud forests followed, and Pronatura Chiapas then developed a strategy for managing and conserving the mountain ecosystem. Domínguez explains that the group knew it had to reconcile conservation interests with the needs of local residents, so they began to “focus on the people for whom the land is a priority.” Working with these local stakeholders, Pronatura completed a survey of the area’s natural resources and also drew up a plan outlining what local residents said they wanted to do. “Our approach was to work with the people and for the people, looking for ways they could manage natural resources so they would still be conserved,” he says.
In order to meet as many local needs as possible, the Pronatura team included agronomists, foresters, biologists, sociologists, and physicians. The ecologists all received training in how to work effectively with communities. What emerged was a list of diverse ways the campesinos could earn a living, including sustainable forest management and harvesting of other forest resources, such as medicinal plants, and increasing the potential income of both by establishing local businesses and craft and carpentry shops. Other alternatives included growing coffee under the shade of native trees and the legal conservation of privately owned lands through conservation easements, contracts delineating how the land could be used, endowments, and community conservation regulations.
Each activity was developed according to the communities’ particular interests and was complimented with exchanges with villagers from other parts of the country, who shared their own experiences. “It’s more difficult for a technical expert to go to a community and tell people what to do than if they see an example of what’s working somewhere else and hear how other rural farmers just like them are succeeding,” Domínguez notes. He adds: “When people are urged to reflect on the value of natural resources like water, forest, and soils, they understand immediately and begin to come up with their own conservation and natural resource management plans.”
To date, Pronatura has conserved a cloud forest totaling 333 acres (135 hectares), which has always been open to the public and where they organize research and environmental education programs with local residents. Through the cloud forest project, Pronatura has worked with five municipalities north of Chiapas, with about 2,500 people.
The Coapilla Ejido is one of the communities where campesinos have transformed the way they make a living after training with Pronatura Chiapas. The ejido comprises 15,560 acres (6,300 hectares), of which 5,680 are in forests. Villagers grow subsistence crops like fruits, corn, and beans. As a result of the Pronatura project, residents gradually stopped using pesticides and fertilizers and now farm organically, intercropping with native trees. “We’re aware that we are recuperating the soils that we had lost, and we are getting larger harvests because we are farming more efficiently,” says Concepción Culebro, a community leader in Coapilla Ejido.
Culebro adds that everyone in the ejido has come to appreciate the importance of caring for natural resources and farming sustainably. They are also producing higher quality crops and have begun to sell their lumber directly, without using middlemen. Ejido members have had the chance to learn the sustainable farming experiences of campesinos living in other Mexican states, he says, which “has really strengthened our group, since knowing about the experiences of others is so different from being closed inside our community.” He says he greatly values the training he and his neighbors have received. “Now we are securing our lands for future generations, for our children and grandchildren.”
Domínguez emphasizes the importance of working with “the people who manage and live directly from natural resources. If you don’t concern yourselves with them and try to understand their interests and needs, there’s no way you’ll succeed.”
One of the main achievements of working with the communities, he says, is that together they have shown that the cloud forests can be managed sustainably, without having a negative environmental impact. In some cases there has been such a profound impact, he says, that communities have embraced and maintained their natural resources and capital, including young people, who have opportunities to work within their own villages, instead of needing to emigrate to the United States.
A future challenge for Pronatura, according to Domínguez, is to demonstrate that the various environmental services that cloud forests provide, such as potable water, are such an important contribution to the national economy that this more than justifies their conservation. “Chiapas is the principal energy producer in Mexico through its hydroelectric plants,” he points out. “Conserving the state’s forests has a great deal to do with the provision of energy and many other services.”
Pronatura Chiapas also has conservation projects in three Biosphere Reserves in Chiapas and the neighboring state of Oaxaca, which also focus on cloud forest conservation. The project “Conserving the Cloud Forests in the Highlands of Chiapas” has received financial support from the US Agency for International Development, the Government of Mexico, the state of Chiapas, and the Ford, Inter-American, and Overbrook Foundations.
Contacts in México:
Director General Pronatura Chiapas
219, C.P. 29200
San Cristóbal de las Casas
tel/fax +(967) 6785717
Concepción Culebro, Comisario Ejidal de Coapilla, Chiapas, tel 52-019196735030
Read more about this project on the Eco-Index: