Tree hugging replaces logging in Mexican forest

Posted: 28 March 2006

The 64 members of the community forest, or ejido, in El Palmito, a village in the State of Sinaloa, Mexico, used to make a living from the harvest and sale of timber. Now they have discovered a new source of income for their families, one that involves saving trees instead of cutting them down. Katiana Murillo reports.

Thanks to income from ecotourism and payments from the government for environmental services, El Palmito is the first forestry community in Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental to make a concerted effort to protect endemic migratory birds.

Their enterprise benefits a number of rare birds and animals including the tufted jay (Cyanocarax dickeyi), endemic to the region and one of the 10 most sought-after species by birdwatchers in Mexico.

The residents' achievement was possible thanks to financial, technical, and legal support from Pronatura Noroeste, Mexico's Commission for the Use and Knowledge of Biodiversity and National Forestry Commission, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service's Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act.

Pronatura Noroeste's director of conservation in Sinaloa, Xicoténcatl Vega, explains that the ejido members have made a 30-year commitment to protect the pine-oak forest of Rancho La Liebre, which is vital habitat for the tufted jay and other rare species such as the American black bear (Ursus americanus). Residents will sustainably manage the 12,355 acres (5,000 hectares) of land outside the protected forest.

Avid birdwatchers

Rancho La Liebre is protected by a conservation easement, a conservation tool promoted by Pronatura Noroeste's National Program for the Conservation of Private Lands, which allows ejidos to retain ownership as long as they commit to protecting natural resources.

Meanwhile, residents are collecting payments from the State in exchange for their promise to protect Rancho La Liebre's forests. Over five years, the ejido will collect more than $45,000 annually in environmental services payments.

Another source of income comes from the Chara Pinta Reserve ecotourism project, inaugurated in April 2005 and already receiving rave reviews from avid birdwatchers in Mexico, the United States, and Europe. Two cabins and five tents provide lodging for up to 40 people on the edge of the Rancho La Liebre forest. To date, some 300 tourists have visited the site, generating enough income to cover operational costs, employ cooks and a night guard, pay for supplies, and still provide a small sum that will be reinvested in the project and distributed as profits.

"This project has helped us a great deal because it allows us to live from the forest without having to cut it," affirms Consolación Finch, president of the Cabins Committee. She hopes more tourists will come to birdwatch as well as to savour typical local dishes such as stewed beans and nopal -- a type of cactus -- with egg.

Own website

El Palmito is located 75 miles from Mazatlán and is 7217 feet above sea level. The community hopes soon to launch its own website and promote their eco-destination to national and international tour agencies. Trails are being opened up and local guides trained to lead visitors to the best bird-watching sites.

Vega notes that in addition to ecotourism, Pronatura Noroeste plans to work with El Palmito villagers to find ways to diversify their income by creating new businesses that are compatible with conservation. Options include growing and marketing flowers and woodworking. "The goal is for the ejido members to understand that the protection of natural resources will provide them with more income than the non-sustainable activities carried out in the past," he says.

Donations from organisations and the ongoing support from Pronatura Noroeste have made it possible to fund environmental education for the ejido population as well as bird monitoring.

At least in El Palmito, the main threats to forests in the Sierra Madre, such as logging and cattle ranching, have been effectively reduced, says Vega. He points out, however, that preserving the El Palmito forests is not enough to guarantee the survival of species such as the striking black-and-white tufted jay and the highly endangered Sierra Madre sparrow (Xenospiza baileyi). Pronatura hopes to duplicate the El Palmito model in additional ejidos in Sierra Madre.

Source: Eco Index, published by The Rainforest Alliance. Link to Eco-Indexhere