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Communities in Mexico step up to protect a disappearing forest

  • Comprising around 1.9 million hectares in Mexico and Guatemala, the Lacandon is regarded as one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world. But Mexico’s Lacandon rainforest is experiencing significant deforestation activity, and the Guatemalan side of the ecosystem is even more affected.
  • In Mexico, communities in and around the Lacandon are developing initiatives to help protect the forest through ecotourism.
  • Movement leaders say they have seen success from their work in parts of the ecosystem, but they urge the need for institutionalization of their model and more collaboration with Guatemala to protect the Lacandon as a whole.

GALACIA, Mexico – On a Saturday afternoon in January, Julia Carabias, one of Mexico’s most respected biologists, was making herself useful – putting a fresh coat of blue paint on the walls of a still-unnamed new restaurant she hopes will open on time and on budget. She and the community of Adolfo López Mateos, in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas, are counting on it drawing patrons from miles beyond. The chefs are plucked from the local community, and the location is a winner, tucked into the side of a mountain, with sweeping views of the Lacandon jungle below and, if you time it right, a striking sunset of reds and oranges.

This might seem an odd pursuit for Carabias, a soft-spoken yet formidable 62-year-old biologist and former environment minister. However, to those around her, it is not. A student who works with her said that she is to Mexico’s rainforest what Jane Goodall is to Africa’s chimpanzees. Her quest to open this restaurant and make it profitable is inextricably linked to her overarching goal: to save and reverse the rapid loss of flora and fauna in one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world.

“This restaurant represents 2,000 hectares that are being protected,” says Carabias. “All of the ejido [communal village] decided to preserve the forest.”

The Mexican portion of the Lacandon ecosystem comprises around 1.3 million hectares, mostly made up of rainforest. But human activity such as slash-and-burn farming and logging has greatly changed large portions of the landscape, with data from the University of Maryland indicating the Lacandon lost more than 11 percent of its tree cover between 2001 and 2014. The Guatemalan portion of the ecosystem (not included above) lost significantly more tree cover over this time, including its last remaining intact forest landscape (IFL) – an area of native vegetation cover large and undisturbed enough to retain its original biodiversity levels. Mexico’s Lacandon IFL remains, located mostly within the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve.

In 1992, 154 countries signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In the quarter-century since, one certainty appears to have emerged, according to conservationists like Carabias: The international effort to curb climate change requires an army of biologists, conservationists, and local community leaders who not only are fiercely committed to preventing deforestation but also must be prepared to be social workers, economists, even painters and restaurateurs if the massive societal shifts needed to effect sustainable development are to stand a chance.

Establishing viable business alternatives that preserve forests is critical to sustainable development. According to Carabias, convincing and then helping local communities to make fundamental changes in their lives requires an immense on-the ground effort over the course of years. Neither goal has been realized in any significant way.

“I am completely convinced that what we need now is action,” Carabias told Mongabay. “We need to come to the basics, the grassroots, to try to implement all that we have thought about. And it’s not being implemented in the local regions.”


For the communities in this small portion of the 1.9 million-hectare Lacandon — where Carabias’ organization, Natura Mexicana, works— going to the grassroots has meant navigating a complex and often fractious maze of land-rights issues among the three primary indigenous groups in the area. These groups, embroiled in conflict, have also found themselves at odds with families from all over Mexico who moved to the area in the 1960s and ’70s when the government was offering land in the area to anyone who wanted to relocate. The initiative was designed to allay poverty.

Early morning mist covers the Lacandon Jungle on January 28, 2017, in the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, Mexico. Photo: Jonathan Levinson for Mongabay

The Lacandon communities are primarily ejidos, communal land on which residents have permanent rights to their individual parcels of land but don’t own it outright. The people who live on the ejidos support themselves almost exclusively through sustainment agriculture.

Shifting from an agrarian economy to service based eco-tourism has proven challenging.

“They were working for themselves. If they want to get up that day they do. If they want to stop at 12 they do. They are the owners of their time,” says Carabias of typical ejido life.

Carabias added that running a hospitality business where tourists go hungry if you’re not up and cooking by 6 a.m. means adjusting to a far more disciplined, structured life.

“It’s a completely different way of thinking and acting and living,” she said. “That’s a difficult thing.”

Scarlet macaws sit in a tree in the center of Natura Mexicana’s Chajul tation on January 27, 2017, in the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, Mexico. Photo: Jonathan Levinson for Mongabay

The model being employed by Natura Mexicana in the Lacandon region is based on the REDD+ system that has been embraced by the international community. REDD, which stands for Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, is a controversial mechanism meant to transfer payments from developed countries to less-developed tropical countries with intact forests, the idea being that preserving those forests helps offset and prevent carbon emissions.

The “+” in REDD+ indicates the inclusion of payments for social services and sustainable development programs. It was added after REDD implementers discovered that offering payments to preserve forests without providing an alternative to local communities left many residents without livelihoods.

Proponents of REDD+ policies say the programs incentivize conservation in developing countries while promoting development and rapidly reducing carbon emissions.

But REDD programs have been criticized for a number of reasons.

An example is an international carbon-offset program that former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger hoped to negotiate in 2010 between California, the Brazilian state of Acre and Chiapas, where the Lacandon is located.

The program, now shelved, was cynically dubbed, “pollute locally, restore globally” by critics, aimed to offset California’s carbon emissions by paying Chiapas and Acre to preserve their forests. Fundamentally, these programs require both parties to accurately measure the amount of carbon they are emitting and preserving – a tall order, according to conservation groups.

Gary Hughes, a manager of Friends of the Earth, an environmental advocacy group, says it is virtually impossible to know how much carbon is being held in the forests.

“It’s totally BS accounting because even the best folks working on forest carbon will say that the margin of error is something like plus or minus 30 percent.”

Which is why Carabias is quick to point out that what they are doing in Lacandon is based on, but distinct from, REDD. The money to fund the program comes from the government and donors, not a carbon-offset agreement with another country or state. And they measure their success both in terms of hectares of conserved forest and also the stability of the eco-tourism businesses they help start.

A community initiative

On the same Saturday afternoon that Carabias was out painting a new restaurant, other biologists who work for her spent the day teaching computer skills at an elementary school in Galacia, a community in the area. It may not be the biology and conservation they studied in school, but for conservationists like Carabias, technology forms the frontline in curbing deforestation and loss of biodiversity.

To Carabias, her local approach reflects her larger worldview.

“What is absolutely necessary is to change the way development is occurring in the world,” she says. “That also implies organization of society, governance, democracy.”

That, says Carabias, is one reason conservation efforts conceived by international bodies require such an enormous effort at the very lowest levels, where societal organization and governance take place.

Julia Carabias, founder of Natura Mexicana, has a late night meeting with other biologists at the organization’s Chapel Station on January 27, 2017, in the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, Mexico. Photo: Jonathan Levinson for Mongabay

Preserving jungle on one ejido requires the cooperation of the entire community. Scaling that up requires cooperation of multiple communities. In Chiapas that means managing long-standing land feuds among many indigenous groups and recent transplants from elsewhere in Mexico.

A strange aspect of Mexican law is that the original landowners still own the land the government sets aside as protected; they just aren’t allowed to use it.

In 1978 when the government set aside 331,200 hectares of the Lacandon jungle for the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, indigenous groups effectively lost control of their land. The Chol and Tzeltal, two local indigenous groups, subsequently aligned themselves with the Zapatistas, a leftist guerrilla group based in Chiapas fighting for indigenous land rights, and have resisted conservation efforts.

But the communities that have embraced conservation report being largely pleased with their efforts.

In El Piru, an ejido of about 150 people and 31 households, a nascent eco-tourism business is coming into its own. The town is two kilometers down an easy-to-miss dirt road branching off Route 307, a two-lane road tracing the Mexico-Guatemala border.

The first house you come to in El Piru belongs to Ascención Hernández Carbajal, better known as Choncho. He lives there with his wife and four children. His mom lives next door.

Every morning at sunrise, Choncho gets on his four-wheeler and rides 10 minutes up a narrow dirt road encroached upon by jungle constantly trying to reclaim the land. He crosses a stream and arrives at his fields, where he grows beans and corn.

The fields butt up against virgin tropical rainforest, its silhouette visible through the early-morning haze. In the tree line the growls of howler monkeys rise above the ceaseless cacophony of insect chirps.

It is an immersive demonstration of the Lacandon’s vaunted biodiversity.

Ascención Hernández Carbajal works in his fields with his son Ernesto on January 28, 2017, in El Piru, Mexico. Choncho, as he’s known, has contributed 30 hectares of pristine rainforest to the community’s conservation and eco-tourism projects. Photo: Jonathan Levinson for Mongabay

Later in the day, Choncho is standing on a platform, high above the jungle floor, guiding visitors through a jungle canopy tour that the community runs. He says that on occasion, curious spider monkeys perch on the zip lines observing the visitors.

In addition to his farmland, Choncho has set aside 30 hectares of forest for conservation and ecotourism; in total, El Piru has committed 3,000 hectares of contiguous rainforest.

“We are fighting to conserve the jungle and at the same time, with this project, earn enough to support our families,” says Choncho, wearing a harness and helmet as he watches a young woman slide down a zip line through the jungle canopy.

Choncho wasn’t always a conservationist. He moved in 1994 to the Lacandon from Guerrero, a state on Mexico’s west coast, looking for a plot of land for himself and his family. When he arrived it was normal practice to clear-cut the forest and grow crops.

But a few years ago that changed, when Natura Mexicana offered its support to develop eco-tourism businesses instead. Now the community runs canopy tours and kayaking trips on the Lacantun River.

A skiff carrying biologists and students makes its way down the Lacantun river towards Natrua Mexicana’s Chajul station in the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve on January 27, 2017, in Boca de Chajul, Mexico. The river marks the southern border of the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, 330,000 hectares of preserved tropical rainforest. Photo: Jonathan Levinson for Mongabay

Juan Carlos, Choncho’s neighbor and colleague in the eco-tourism business, says the support they’ve received has been crucial.

“A few years ago this form of conservation was unknown to us. And Natura came to give talks, to raise awareness, and teach the importance of conservation to the community.”

Scaling up from one community to many is challenging. And efforts to work across borders are still a long way off.

Different approaches over the border

If instead of turning north from Route 307 towards El Piru you turned south and cross about two kilometers of farmland, you’ll arrive at the border with Guatemala and enter the Maya Biosphere Reserve, Guatemala’s attempt to conserve its portion of the jungle.

There, Guatemalan conservationists have taken a different approach.

The reserve is divided into three sections: a core zone where settlements, logging, and agriculture are forbidden; a multiple-use zone where settlements, agriculture, and some logging are permitted with permission; and a buffer zone where forest conversion for cattle ranching and agriculture is permitted.

The mixed results are symptomatic of the lack of meaningful buy-in from the communities and government, say conservationists.

The Maya Biosphere Reserve continues to see significant illegal activity, including armed groups vying for control of the land and a steady flow of families moving into the forest in search of their own plot of land. Adding to the pressure to deforest, lucrative and destructive oil palm plantations are also a growing presence in the reserve’s buffer zone.

Carabias says there are a few examples of specific initiatives between Mexican and Guatemalan NGOs but meaningful cross-border cooperation between the two jurisdictions is mostly non-existent.

“As far as governmental co-operation, we have nothing at all,” says Carabias of attempts to work with Guatemala. “The authorities of Guatemala have been very reluctant to work with this area. There is no collaboration.”

And while Natura Mexicana has had its victories, Carabias tempers her optimism.

“The pressure is still on. We are stabilizing it on the ejidos where we are working but we are impacting only 5 percent of the whole region.”

There is an urgent need, she says, to institutionalize their model.

“If not then we need a lot of Natura Mexicanas that don’t exist.”

Local kids swim in the Lacantun river on January 28, 2017 in Boca de Chajul, Mexico. The river marks the southern edge of the 360,000-hectare Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, seen here just across the river. Photo: Jonathan Levinson for Mongabay




CartoCrítica. “Mexico protected areas.” Accessed through Global Forest Watch on 03/15/2017.

Greenpeace, University of Maryland, World Resources Institute and Transparent World. “Intact Forest Landscapes. 2000/2013” Accessed through Global Forest Watch on 03/15/2017.

Hansen, M. C., P. V. Potapov, R. Moore, M. Hancher, S. A. Turubanova, A. Tyukavina, D. Thau, S. V. Stehman, S. J. Goetz, T. R. Loveland, A. Kommareddy, A. Egorov, L. Chini, C. O. Justice, and J. R. G. Townshend. 2013. “High-Resolution Global Maps of 21st-Century Forest Cover Change.” Science 342 (15 November): 850–53. Data available on-line from: Accessed through Global Forest Watch on 03/15/2017.

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