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Aiming for conservation and development in a corner of Mexico’s Mayan jungle

  • A rural community in southeastern Mexico agreed last year to certify 35,000 hectares (86,500 acres) of their communally managed land as a voluntary conservation area.
  • Learning from the example of another commune, or ejido, in neighboring Campeche state, the Laguna OM ejido hopes to both conserve their forest and secure an income through activities such as sustainable logging and ecotourism.
  • The process has been marred by bureaucratic hurdles, but the community remains diligent about meeting all requirements and achieving its goals.
  • Ejido leaders say they hope the conservation program works for both the environment and for the community, by creating jobs and opportunities that will stem the exodus of young people to other areas in search of a livelihood.

José Ramírez Talango is a retired teacher and beekeeper. When he was a child he used to walk through the jungle to reach Laguna Chakanbakán in the southeastern Mexican state of Quintana Roo. There he would put his swimming skills to the test: he would float in the water while howler monkeys gave deafening concerts. Now, as he stands by the lagoon, the 57-year-old reflects on what his next challenge will be: managing the community’s newly declared conservation area.

Near Quintana Roo’s border with the state of Campeche lies the town of Nicolás Bravo and the community land of the Laguna OM ejido, where Ramírez was born and raised. Much of the 75,000 hectares (185,000 acres) that belong to the ejido — a piece of land managed communally in a system supported by the state — still have forest cover and are part of the Mayan jungle.

Ramírez and Leopoldo Santos Fajardo, president of Laguna OM, recall that for nearly four years, the 486 members of the ejido discussed the possibility that a good deal of community land would be designated as protected area, which would no longer permit the expansion of farmland and livestock pasture. Some, they admit, were opposed for fear that the government would expropriate their lands. They voted on the issue in an assembly and the majority accepted that part of their land would be declared a conservation area. This then led to the start of proceedings with the National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (CONANP).

Laguna Om, en Quintana Roo
José Ramírez at Laguna Chakanbakán of the Laguna OM ejido. Image by Thelma Gómez Durán for Mongabay.

At the start of November 2019, the ejido members received a document certifying that 35,000 hectares (86,500 acres) of their land as a voluntary conservation area (ADVC), the second-largest in Mexico. (The largest, at 50,000 hectares, or 123,500 acres, is in Nuevo Bécal Ejido, in Campeche.)

An ADVC certificate allows communities to access public resources to develop various projects, including biological monitoring with camera traps. It also lets them access international financing for projects to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

This category of protection also means that these areas, because they are considered protected natural areas, are shielded from development projects like mining concessions and public works, as stated on CONANP’s website.

When communities obtain their certificate, they must appoint a director of their ADVC; so at an assembly in February, the ejido members decided that this position should be held by Ramírez.

In Laguna Chakanbakán, Santos and Ramírez stop in front of a sapodilla tree to talk about the ejido’s plans now that it has its certification. They want to carry out projects that guarantee care for natural resources, creation of jobs, and prevention of migration of their children and grandchildren.

See related: Community forestry boosts conservation, jobs, and social benefits

Selva Maya en Latuna OM
Members of the Laguna OM ejido look at conservation as a way of having jobs in their community. Image by Thelma Gómez Durán for Mongabay.

From exploitation to conservation

The first 15 families who settled in the lands that are now part of the ejido arrived in the 1940s. The place was a chiclero camp; the men looked for sapodilla trees to tap for resin that they sold to chewing gum companies. The population grew as families from Veracruz, Tabasco and other southeastern regions of the country came looking for land to farm.

After the chewing gum fever, logging was the predominant activity. Such was the boom in sales of mahogany and cedar, especially in the 1960s and 1980s, that the ejido had two sawmills. One of the mills was destroyed in a fire and the other remained in operation until the mid-1980s, when ejido members had already felled a significant proportion of the trees of commercial value.

“The fact is that the logging was not carried out well. The forest was overexploited,” Santos says.

“There was no orderly logging. The felling took place and the forest was not well cared for,” Ramírez says.

When the logging activity declined, some of the neighboring ejidos joined the Quintana Roo Forest Pilot Plan, promoted in 1983 through cooperation between Mexico and Germany. Among its objectives was the provision of technical support to the communities to carry out sustainable forest management.

“We did not participate in that plan,” Ramirez says. “The truth is that some ejidos that did participate are doing well today: they conserved their forest, but they have also been able to secure an income by managing it properly.”

For almost 20 years now, the Laguna OM ejido has had a ban on logging that has allowed the forest to recover. Now that they have obtained the ADVC certificate, one of their plans is to carry out community forest management. They do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past. “We can no longer do logging in the way we did,” Santos says. “We have to do it with a plan to avoid deforestation and to conserve the forest for our grandchildren. And because the planet is crying out for it.”

See related: Mexico’s ejidos are finding greater sustainability by involving youth and women

Jaguar en Laguna Om
The Laguna OM voluntary conservation area is home to an estimated 10 to 15 resident jaguars. Image courtesy of the National Alliance for the Protection of the Jaguar.

Strategy based on communities

ADVCs have been recognized under Mexican law since 2008. To date, 365 areas have been certified throughout the country, and 79 more applications are awaiting a ruling, says César Sánchez Ibarra, the general director of conservation for development at CONANP.

Ninety percent of ADVCs are on community land; the rest are private or public properties. To apply for a certificate, Sánchez Ibarra says, it is necessary to present, among other things, a management strategy that guarantees that the biological wealth of the area will be conserved.

He adds it is the communities themselves that define their management strategies and their conservation aims. Unlike with state parks, sanctuaries or national monuments, the law allows forest management for both timber and non-timber products inside ADVCs.

Studies carried out in communities in Mexico and Guatemala have shown that in areas under community forest management, there is no advance in deforestation, and biodiversity is maintained.

Members of the Laguna OM ejido, for example, have seen how their neighbors in Nuevo Bécal, in Campeche, carry out community forestry and have one of the best conserved areas. They don’t cut more trees than their management program allows, and they have some areas undergoing regeneration, and others where there is no felling. Laguna OM wants to follow that example.

Selva-laguna OM
Laguna OM has at least 120 different types of trees. Image by Thelma Gómez Durán for Mongabay.

Dealing with paperwork

A little over two years ago, ejido members here decided to commit to community forest management. On the way to reaching this goal, they encountered several obstacles, most of them bureaucratic.

“For agriculture and livestock there is complete freedom. For forest management there are many unnecessary obstacles,” says Hugo Galletti, an experienced forest engineer who arrived in the Yucatán Peninsula when the forest pilot plan began in Quintana Roo; he now advises the Laguna OM ejido in drawing up its forest management program. “It took us two years to get all the documents for the ejido to carry out forest management.”

One of the obstacles placed on communities seeking to exploit rainforests is that they must pay for, and file, an environmental impact statement (MIA). “That’s an unnecessary expense,” Galletti says, “because a good management program is much clearer and more useful than an MIA.”

Galleti says that when the forest pilot plan was promoted in Quintana Roo, one of the requirements was that the forest must represent an income for the communities; without this, the forest is destroyed. So far, he says, this has not been understood.

Laguna OM, en Quintana Roo, México
The headquarters of the Laguna OM ejido in the town of Nicolás Bravo in Mexico’s Quintana Roo state. Image by Thelma Gómez Durán for Mongabay.

The Laguna OM ejido has not given up, and has complied with all the procedures required of it. To carry out its forest management plan, Galletti says, an inventory of timber species was made at almost 1,500 sites. More than 120 tree species were documented, several of commercial importance, including mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), cedar (Cedrela odorata), black cabbage-bark (Lonchocarpus castilloi), wild tamarind (Lysiloma latisiliquum) and copperwood (Bursera simaruba).

Its forest management program specifies that of the 35,000 hectares that have been earmarked for conservation, only 7,200 hectares (17,800 acres) will be exploited. The rest will remain as a “permanent forest area” that will not be touched.

The 7,200 hectares, Galletti says, represent the “largest incorporation of forest areas into management in recent years in Quintana Roo.” Ejido members’ plan is to sell raw logs, but in the future they hope to set up a new sawmill to add value to the wood.

Ejido commissioner Santos says that foresters have already marked the trees that have “completed their life cycle.” Those will be cut down, and in their place, ejido members will plant new trees and carry out work to help regenerate the forest.

Tapir en el territorio de Laguna OM
Various species of wildlife have been recorded in the forest areas of the Laguna OM ejido, including the tapir. Image courtesy of the National Alliance for the Protection of the Jaguar.

Diverse activities

The commitment of ejido members goes beyond timber. Their conservation strategy includes, among other things, ecotourism. To do this, they are already working on preparing hiking trails through the jungle.

Anyone who walks along one of these paths can hear the clamor of the howler monkeys, encounter ceiba, sapodilla and ramon trees, and reach a place known as El Mirador (“The Lookout”), the apex of a small pyramid that remains hidden beneath earth and trees. From there, it is possible to appreciate part of the majesty of the Mayan jungle and have a complete view of the Laguna OM lands, home to several wildlife species that are under some category of protection, such as jaguars, tapirs, armadillos, pheasants and wild boars.

Both Santos and Ramírez are excited when they explain how the ADVC prompted them to continue with their plans to build lodges in the Laguna Chakanbakán area and seek training to offer guided walks to tourists through the jungle or one of the four lagoons within the territory. “This way we will be able to have other sources of employment,” they say.

“I was one of the people who had to leave here, because there was no work,” Santos says. He returned after working in cities like Chetumal and Cancun. Now 50 years old, he tends his own plot of land in addition to performing his duties as ejido commissioner. “Today what we want is for our children and grandchildren to have jobs here, to stay and take care of the forest that remains.”

For now, the ejido has managed to access resources from federal and state programs, which employ ejido members and people from the community to carry out work to monitor forest areas and clean up fire breaks.

See related: Interview with community forestry expert Lucía Madrid

Laguna de Chakanbakán, Ejido Laguna OM
In August 2018, Laguna Chakanbakán dried up; weeks later, it regained its water. Image by Thelma Gómez Durán for Mongabay.

The ejido also has an agreement with scientists from the National Alliance for the Conservation of the Jaguar, who are developing a research project on the big cat population in the vicinity of Laguna Las Palmas. Part of the funding they receive as a payment for environmental services (PES) goes toward forest maintenance work and the installation of water supplies for wildlife.

“The drought has been severe, very tough. And that forces the animals to go out on the roads to look for water,” Ramírez says. Like several of his fellow ejido members, he is a beekeeper and is very familiar with the time when wild plants start to flower.

“We are seeing changes. This year, for example, the flowering of some plants was brought forward. Before, our parents planted in mid-May, because they knew that the rains were coming, but now we no longer know when it will rain.”

Santos and Ramírez agree that these changes are increasingly noticeable, and to prevent them accelerating further, they say that care must be taken of the land and forest.

The Laguna OM ejido members also hope their commitment will succeed in making conservation of the jungle a driver of development for their community.

Banner image: View of the Selva Maya from the area known as El Mirador (“The Lookout”) in the Laguna OM ejido territory. Image by Thelma Gómez Durán for Mongabay.

This article was first published by Mongabay Latam on March 12, 2020.

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