A UK-funded conservation project in Mexico has involved local landowners, universities and a Grammy award-winning band to achieve a triple bottom line of sustainability, reports Jon Lovett.
Posted by Jon Lovett and arbalto Monday 20 August 2012
Biodiversity conservation has extended the forest, creating wildlife corridors for the puma. Photograph: Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images
Biodiversity conservation has changed in recent years. In the old days things were straightforward. Conservationists identified what they wanted to preserve: a species, a habitat, a grand scenic view, and then they lobbied government to get it protected. Lawmakers then created red-lists, nature reserves and national parks with strict conditions about access and use. But there are two key problems with this approach. Enforcing laws is expensive, and restricting access often denies the poorest and most marginalised. New approaches adopt sustainability principles in which environmental protection must go hand in hand with economic and social goals.
Integrating the interests of many different groups is challenging: the ejidos need financially viable land use, the conservation groups want as much nature protected as possible, and the management authority is caught in the middle. The project first brought all the groups together to express their views, then set about estimating the reserve's ecosystem service values and working out some way of paying the ejidos for conservation efforts on their land.
La Primavera is on an old volcano right next to the city of Guadalajara and is covered by oak pine forests. Guadalajara is growing rapidly and La Primavera is getting cut off from other forests, such as that on the nearby Tequila Volcano and Sierra de Quila, by roads and urban expansion. The forest was home to big cats like the puma, but the last one was shot in the 70s. Then, in 2009, about 30 years after the last direct evidence of pumas in the area, camera traps were set up throughout the forest by researchers from a local NGO, Aura Jaguar, and a few months later yielded pictures of a graceful puma.
To get more evidence of the puma I contacted an old friend, Sam Wasser, who has a team of 'conservation canines', dogs trained to search for dung of carnivores, which can then be identified by the DNA they contain. One of his PhD students, Jen White, was working in Mexico on jaguars and she came over to La Primavera with her dog Scooby. They spent a week scouring the forest but DNA analysis revealed only bobcats; recent rains had deteriorated DNA traces in many samples for which results were inconclusive. The puma was obviously still very rare and corridors were needed to connect La Primavera to the other nearby forests.
Land in Mexico can be commonly or privately owned. Most of the land for potential corridors is owned communally by ejidos and is used for livestock ranching but there are also pressures for farming, either for food crops or the agave plant, which is the basis of tequila production. If land use is switched to wildlife corridors, then forest owners will need to be compensated, and the money has to come from somewhere.
Concern over the economic impact of human interference with the Earth's climate means that the natural ability of trees to sequester and store the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide gives them a monetary value for the carbon they contain. So we explored ways of making a monetary link between the carbon dioxide emitted by people in Guadalajara and tree planting and forest conservation. Then we had a stroke of good fortune.
The La Primavera management office put us in in touch with Selva Negra, the environmental NGO of the rock band Maná who were just about to start a world tour promoting their new album Drama y Luz and were looking for a way to offset the tour's carbon emissions. This Grammy award winning band are famous throughout Latin America, but originate from Guadalajara and were keen on supporting a local project for the city. Moreover they were able to meet with the president of Mexico, helping to secure inclusion of the project within existing environmental programmes.
Negotiations were held with the ejido of Ahuisculco located in one of the biological corridors connecting La Primavera to Sierra de Quila to create a conservation and reforestation project. The project was designed for a 10-year period and will provide the resources to conserve more than 1000 hectares of forest and reforest more than 100 hectares. The third pillar of sustainability is that of social development: money on its own is not enough, the community needs to be supported as a whole.
Selva Negra is creating an integrated strategy to promote local development, not only focusing on the commodification of carbon offsets, but also working with local universities on a community project to manage domestic wastes and wastewater, and to monitor water quality in wells and streams. Furthermore Selva Negra and the universities are consulting on the opening a high school education centre in the community – at present students need to go to other cities or just quit school. The plan involves investing an estimated £500,000.
The project therefore has a triple win: biodiversity conservation by strategically extending the forest creating wildlife corridors for the puma and other animals; economic sustainability by linking the producer and consumer of an ecosystem service; and social sustainability by creating community health and education initiatives.
However, it is not easy. We did a great deal of research into the best ways of making the payments and there needed to be lots of negotiations with the Ahuisculco ejido. We were also fortunate to build up partnerships with Selva Negra and Maná. The next stage will be to work out a way for the citizens of Guadalajara, or any city, to pay for the ecosystem services they consume, putting conservation of the planet's life support systems on a firmer footing.
Jon Lovett is project coordinator and professor of Global Challenges at the University of Leeds. Arturo Balderas Torres is a lecturer at ITESO in Guadalajara and is completing a PhD at the University of Twente based on the project.