Leaving a Legacy for Future Generations
Watch a video about our work in Mexico.
The highland pine-oak forests of Chiapas are a global epicenter of biological and cultural diversity. The region’s rich canopies and tree cover provide important wintering habitat for more than 200 species of migratory birds and a number of other endemic species. The pine-oak forest also provides innumerable benefits to humans—clean water, fuel wood, timber, protection from natural disasters and, increasingly, economic opportunities through ecotourism. Three reserves form an enormous watershed system that captures ten percent of Mexico’s total rainfall and nourishes critical coastal wetlands and marine fisheries.
The area has also been identified as a “Pleistocene Refuge,” where numerous species survived the climate changes and extinctions of the last ice age. As a result, the forests and wetlands here serve as a last refuge for dozens of endemic, rare and endangered plants and animals, including jaguar, tapir, puma, crocodile, azure-rumped tanager, horned guan and the resplendent quetzal. In addition, the rare and endangered golden-cheeked warbler migrates from Texas to call the pine-oak forests of Chiapas home during the winter
In the Sierra Madre de Chiapas—a mountain range spanning 174 miles—federal and state reserves protect nearly 1.2 million combined acres of forestland. Through a network of 38 major rivers, water flows from the cloud forests of the El Triunfo and La Sepultura Biosphere Reserves, dropping 3000 feet into the wetlands of La Encrucijada on the Pacific coast, as well as west into the Central Depression, feeding Mexico’s largest basin/freshwater system. The livelihoods of 260,000 people living in the coastal watersheds between El Triunfo and La Encrucijada are intricately tied to the environment.
The mountain plateaus in the Chiapas Northern Highlands rise 8,000 feet above the Grijalva River and stretch nearly 140 miles southeast into Guatemala, with underground rivers feeding numerous limestone springs. They have been home to communities of Tzotzil and Tzeltal-speaking Maya for 1,000 years, and harbor the only remaining habitat for several critically endangered species, among them the golden-cheeked warbler.
Changing land use is the principal threat here. Numerous agriculturally-oriented communities subsist on Chiapas’ natural bounty. Extensive cattle ranches and subsistence crops are primarily responsible for clearing away the natural forest cover, leaving little protection against soil erosion, hurricanes or torrential rainstorms common during the rainy season. Soil erosion in the uplands, together with the alteration of the river channels, leads to the increased sedimentation of coastal lagoons and estuaries, affecting the water quality for residents downstream and jeopardizing the livelihoods of fishing communities.
Deforestation is exacerbated by poorly managed and illegal logging and extraction of other natural resources. Fires commonly used during the dry season to clear vegetation prior to planting crops are rarely controlled and often burn into the native pine-oak forest.
The urgency to protect the forests and life-giving watersheds of Chiapas has become clear in recent years as fires and floods have threatened the livelihoods of poor rural populations, damaged infrastructure and imperiled water resources. Considering the juxtaposition of tremendous biological wealth and severe rural poverty, however, local communities must both participate in and benefit from conservation efforts.
We have been working to create a network of parks and wildlife corridors along major waterways that connect land actively worked by local people in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Chiapas.We have encouraged private landowners to adopt conservation easements on their properties and have encouraged the creation of local government and private reserves to link the highly protected core zones of federal parks. We are helping the federal government develop a management plan for the La Frailescana national park and establish long-term financing mechanisms that will improve the entire park system.
We are working with local communities to restore degraded forests in pilot sites along waterways in the Cuxtepec region, an activity that the Chiapas state government will be able to replicate in other watersheds. And we are helping local communities make income-generating activities like cattle ranching and the harvest of timber, coffee and other forest products more eco-friendly. In addition, we are studying ways they can adapt to climate change and reduce their vulnerability to hurricanes, flooding, forest fires and other natural disasters.February 05, 2011