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Indigenous communities transform a Mexican desert landscape into forest

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  • In the Mexican state of Oaxaca, 22 communities have taken on the challenge of reviving soils depleted by centuries of overgrazing.
  • Over the last two decades, they’ve managed to restore at least 20,000 hectares (49,000 acres), turning many sites into burgeoning forests.
  • The task is especially challenging because the communities are starting from “less than zero” — having to find ways to restore their soil before they can even think about planting trees.
  • The success of the initiative means the communities can now look forward to more options for forest-based livelihood, such as agroforestry or even selling carbon credits.

In Tepejillo, on one of the many hills in the southern Mexican municipality of San Juan Bautista Coixtlahuaca, extreme erosion has transformed the earth into bare rock, making it difficult to imagine that the area used to be home to a forest or, even more incredibly, a civilization.

“These forests supported a city of more than 100,000 residents before the arrival of the Spanish,” says Horacio Miguel, mayor of the Mixteca Alta region, Oaxaca state, where Tepejillo is located.

Miguel, who studied irrigation engineering at the University of Chapingo, has worked all over this limestone landscape, which once held enough water, animals, fertile soil and trees to support the powerful Mixtec ruler of Coixtlahuaca. It was a very different place then than it is today. The current population of some 2,800 people is struggling just to get water. In the upper areas of the basin, the land is devoid of vegetation and unable to retain or filter rainwater.

Around 20 years ago, the communities here decided to start restoring water and soil fertility. Their tenacity has yielded some results: From out of the karst rocks appeared green shoots of vegetation, easily mistaken for glints of sunlight in the white desert. Only by coming closer are they recognizable as pines, oaks, breadnuts and junipers, all planted here in 2021.

“To plant them, first we had to dig ditches to hold the water. To do that, we had to break ground using machinery, because it was pure rock. Sometimes even the machines couldn’t do it,” Miguel says.

Work done in 2014 in Tepejillo allowed for the start of soil restoration. Image courtesy of the Coixtlahuaca Commissioner.

The idea that these fragile seedlings would recreate a forest out of such adverse conditions seemed preposterous. But then again, the Narreje and Loma Larga sites a few kilometers away, where communal work had started 20 years earlier, were showing good results. Dense masses of forest 5 meters (16 feet) high flank the highway connecting the cities of Puebla and Oaxaca.

At least 2,000 hectares (4,900 acres) of degraded land in the agrarian community of San Juan Bautista Coixtlahuaca have been reforested through communal efforts since 2000. That’s almost three times the size of Mexico City’s Chapultepec forest, one of the largest urban parks in the Americas.

Coixtlahuaca is just one of 25 communities that form part of this reforesting miracle stretching throughout what is known as the Chocho-Mixtecas Community Alliance. Within the alliance’s territory, more than 20,000 hectares (49,000 acres) have been restored, a feat equivalent to at least three Manhattans. It’s also proof of the potential for forest restoration when an entire population gets behind the idea of working with, not against, the land.

Restoration was so successful that on June 17, 2021, the Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) and the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) selected it to be the venue for the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought.

A photo taken in 2021 during the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought. Image courtesy of the Coixtlahuaca Commissioner.

Goats, everywhere

Coixtlahuaca’s reign came to an end in 1462, according to historical records, when the city fell to a Mexica invasion following a legendary defense by Atonaltzin, its final king. The commercial importance of the area would continue even after Spanish conquest, as is reflected in the imposing convent built by Dominican friars in honor of Saint John the Baptist in 1575.

In Coixtlahuaca, like the rest of Oaxaca’s Mixteca region and other parts of Mexico, Spanish colonization led to intensive ranching that degraded every piece of land it touched. But unlike cattle or sheep, which can’t survive on poor vegetation, goats were able to feed on the plants of the degraded landscape, which are often the last barrier protecting the soil. With their strong teeth, goats can pull up plants from their roots, preventing them from regrowing. Their sharp hooves also cut into the topsoil, exposing it to erosion from rain and wind.

“Since the Spanish, this area has been full of goats, and that devastated it,” Miguel says, recounting that Coixtlahuaca was a crossing point for ranchers headed from Tehuacán toward the coast.

Coixtlahuaca’s true environmental decline, then, started with the expansion of goat ranching and the resulting eradication of the area’s vegetation.

San Cristóbal Suchixtlahuaca. Intensive livestock ranching, especially for goats, has hurt the soil quality in Mixteca Alta. Image by Juan Mayorga.

Deprived of the few plants that could protect it, the fragile soil in this part of Oaxaca has begun to change, pressured by the wind and rain, as well as the large expanses of caliche and tepetate rocks that only the most persistent plants, such as cactuses, can grow in.

But after centuries of pastoral traditions, it would be a challenge to ask shepherds to stop entering restored areas. It would be one of many challenges to come. “Most people here are aware of the consequences of overgrazing and even participating in reforestation efforts,” Miguel says.

Nevertheless, in the neighboring community of San Cristóbal Suchixtlahuaca, clashes between restoration-minded community members and those who support grazing can sometimes get heated. A dispute involving one shepherd and his family, who insisted on setting their animals to graze in a recently reforested area, wound up in court in 2015 and rose to the Supreme Court in 2018. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of the community, establishing an important legal precedent.

One of the areas that has successfully restored soil quality. Image courtesy of the Coixtlahuaca Commissioner.

Starting at less than zero

Whether due to overgrazing, other extractive activities or simple ignorance and poverty, Coixtlahuaca and the rest of Mixteca entered the 20th century with an eroded territory, incapable even of providing its residents the most basic of environmental services, such as drinking water and fertile land.

Faced with an ever-worsening quality of life, much of the population migrated inside and out of Mexico, and communities started emptying out. Only children and the elderly stayed on the land. “The region was the first labor source in the country,” says Óscar Mejía from the National Forestry Commission (CONAFOR) in Oaxaca. “But now, thanks to this work, the communities once again have water, crops, business and opportunities to prosper and to stop migrating.”

The consistency of the new forests and the community organization that made them possible make it easy to take positive results for granted. But nothing in this long journey was obvious, easy or fast.

Women reforesting the Narreje site in 2020. Image courtesy of the Coixtlahuaca Commissioner.

The communities’ long road to success began in the 1970s, when the region was the target of a massive government reforestation campaign led by what was then called the Papaloapan Commission (CODELPA), now defunct. The group’s goal was to guarantee water collection in high parts of the Papaloapan River Basin, which covers parts of Oaxaca, Veracruz and Puebla states.

The effort failed despite huge amounts of public investment. One reason was species selection: prioritizing fast-growing plants instead of those capable of adapting and surviving. The program introduced Australian species like Eucalyptus and Casuarina, which failed to adapt and soon died.

Despite these failures, the communities kept alive their goal to restore the land throughout the 1990s, and made sure to learn from their mistakes. At the start of the century, they took advantage of the creation of CONAFOR, a new state agency specially dedicated to monitoring the forests.

A 2012 photo showing reforestation work being carried out in Loma Larga. Image courtesy of the Coixtlahuaca Commissioner.

The situation in Mixteca was far from what was being experienced in the Zapoteca communities of the Sierra Norte. Although those forested areas were battered from decades of private exploitation, the forests remained standing.

In contrast, Coixtlahuaca and other Mixteca communities didn’t have anything to take care of. There wasn’t any vegetation to restore. Instead, they had to start with the basics: crushing stones to retain moisture, and look for plants that would be strategic for regenerating the soil. The idea was to achieve something between water, soil and plants that had previously taken millions of years. “Here, we aren’t starting from zero but rather from less than zero,” Miguel says.

Idalia Lázaro, a forest technician who has worked in the region for more than a decade, says the focus should be on the soil more than the trees. “Normally, there is more attention given to areas with trees and where forests are exploited. Only now are the government and other entities understanding that we aren’t reforesting but rather restoring.

“Based on this work,” she adds, “I fervently believe that restoration, even in the worst of cases, is possible.”

Idalia Lázaro, a forest technician for the Chocho-Mixtecas communities, explains the differences between the leaves of a pine and those of an endemic tree species. Image by Juan Mayorga.

Pines first, native species next

In the decades of work bringing back life to Mixteca Alta, the communities have found an important ally in the Gregg’s pine (Pinus greggii), a species that has shown a capacity for growing relatively quickly in poor soil and hot climates.

Mixteca communities have gotten some criticism for reforesting with this kind of pine tree and not an endemic species. Despite its advantages, the Gregg’s pine originates in the temperate forests of northwest Mexico, in states like Coahuila, Nuevo León, San Luis Potosí and Hidalgo.

This would be a minor problem if Mexico weren’t a country rich in pine trees (the country is home to nearly half of the 100 species in the world), each one evolutionarily adapted to overcome the altitude, temperature, humidity and chemistry of a variety of soils in the country. In this context, it might seem risky to introduce a species to an area it hasn’t adapted to before.

Horacio Miguel and one of his colleagues showing off the pine trees that have managed to grow in San Juan Bautista Coixtlahuaca. Image by Juan Mayorga.

“It’s nice to dream, but the soils here are totally degraded, so species that were there once can’t be introduced now,” says Bernardo Aguilar, head of CONAFOR’s delegation for restoration and protection.

Aguilar, who has overseen work in many different Mixteca communities over the past two decades, recalls that the insistence on using endemic species frustrated the communities, which had invested time and money into reforesting the land only to see their efforts squandered. “The farmers planted and the plants died, and then came the discouragement,” he says. “The Gregg’s pine has worked even though it isn’t endemic.”

The Gregg’s pine trees that have been planted so far, all less than 20 years old, will be unable to reproduce due to a lack of adapting to local conditions. But for now, this pine tree has achieved the mission of restoring the soil, Lázaro says.

The restoration of the soil is visible in areas where the communities have been working. Image by Juan Mayorga.

“We know there’s a point in which they’re going to grow and die, but it’s a nurse or pine species,” Lázaro says. “These rapidly growing, pioneering species have a higher chance of sticking around, improving the soil and accompanying other species in their growth.” To prove her point, she shows off the white oaks (Quercus obtusata), ramones (Cercocarpus fothergilloides), junipers (Juniperus flaccida), flints (Comarostaphylis polifolia) and other local species that have already begun to grow around the young pines.

The communities have also planted significant amounts of other species that are endemic: the smooth-bark Mexican pine (Pinus pseudostrobus). In general, the pines are fundamental as pioneering species for rapid growth and adaption to difficult conditions. This is most evident, for example, after a forest fire, as the pines are the first to grow, becoming an outpost that allows other species to develop alongside them.

Pines have allowed the rapid growth of other native species that sprout around them. Image by Juan Mayorga.

Preparing for the next challenge

“Water is what brought the Chocholteca and Mixteca communities together to promote this work,” says Fortino Islas, former municipal and communal property president of San Cristóbal Suchixtlahuaca. He shows Mongabay how a pipe connects a wall where runoff is collected from the reforested hillside. “These pipes provide water, but you have to know how to work them.”

If at first the goals for reforestation in the area were 10 or 20 hectares (24 or 49 acres) a year, now they’re 200 or 300 hectares (490 or 740 acres). The restoration work lasts nearly all year and starts in the dry season with the preparation of ditches and trenches, and carefully calculating the runoff.

Between July and October, during the rainy season starts, reforestation work becomes a kind of popular festival in which everyone in the community is invited to help. Everyone gets two meals a day, and the adults dig while the children take turns racing to bring the plants for potting.

Fortino Islas, former municipal president of San Cristóbal Suchixtlahuaca, on the water catchment wall. Image by Juan Mayorga.

In Suchixtlahuaca, a small village next to Coixtlahuaca, residents have managed to reforest around 800 hectares (nearly 2,000 acres) in the past two decades, an area twice as large as New York City’s Central Park. And the goals keep growing every year.

“We’re ambitious because here the need is big and we have the hands of everyone in the community,” Lázaro says.

With the urgency for water fading, other benefits of the work are taking precedence — productive activities that give residents the opportunity not just to ensure their basic needs, but also to make use of resources that allow for the bolstering of sustainable industries and secure income for households.

A planting team of women. Image courtesy of the Coixtlahuaca Commissioner.

For Salvador Anta, a forestry expert with the Mexican Civil Council for Sustainable Forestry (CCMSS), in the restored areas of Mixteca there should be a program for promoting not just the introduction of the greatest possible number of native species, but also of fruit species that can be combined with milpa, an agroforestry system known as the Milpa Intercalated with Fruit Trees (MIAF). This would allow residents to grow food and other goods for sale, as well as financially support reforestation work, biodiversity and local watersheds.

Anta even suggests communities invite carbon markets to the area to learn about the project and pay for the carbon sequestration involved in the landscape restoration.

“In other words, look for a model of greater comprehensiveness than just the pine reforestation that is being done right now,” he says.

In Mixteca Alta, the communities have managed to grow pines on their land. Image by Juan Mayorga.

While the community members decide what they want to do next — hindered by restrictions imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which prevent them from holding meetings in person — the wildlife have caught on to the initiative. Squirrels, weasels, woodpeckers, snakes and bats are starting to return to the restored areas.

The increase in the coyote population has especially excited Idalia Lázaro because, she says, they eat juniper seeds that are later spread throughout the territory — a natural reforestation mechanism.

“We are restoring,” she says, “because we know that it would be difficult to restore left on its own. But that doesn’t mean this stops with our intervention. Nature itself will follow. We just have to give her a push.”

The work in Mixteca Alta has shown that it’s possible to restore degraded soils. Image courtesy of the Coixtlahuaca Commissioner.

Banner image of one of the restored areas where trees are just starting to grow, courtesy of the Coixtlahuaca Commissioner.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on Feb. 9, 2022.