Community in Quintana Roo, Mexico Prepares Forest for Climate Change

Written by Paul Mackie on . Posted in Learn

This article originally appeared at

Just after breakfast, two men in hard hats — members of the Betania ejido, a communally owned territory, in Quintana Roo, Mexico — carry a portable sawmill past their neighbors’ palapas to the forest where the day’s work awaits.

Here, in the Mayan Forest, local people are helping prove to the world that sustainable forestry can provide economic benefits to local people and help address climate change.

One worker uses a chain saw to trim bark from a trunk on the ground. Then another takes over with the sawmill, slicing the blade along the log until a clean slab of wood, with dark brown grain, is cut free. Processing lumber at the harvest site avoids damage to surrounding forest — and carbon emissions — from dragging out large logs.

The men carry planks of this freshly planed lumber to the drying grounds, where a portion will be sold directly to users and another portion will go to the carpentry shop the community recently built in traditional Mayan style — oval shaped with straw roof and walls of small-diameter tree poles standing side by side.

In the Betania ejido, many families cook their food over an open fire in traditional thatched-roof homes that do not have toilets or running water. Here, The Nature Conservancy has worked with partner Organizacion de Ejidos Productores Forestales de la Zona Maya S.C., to support sustainable forest management and income-producing activities.

The sawmill was purchased with a two-year Conservancy grant that is also providing training for residents. In the past, Betania sold standing timber from their forests to logging companies to harvest. But now, by learning forestry and carpentry skills, ejido members can create about 20 seasonal jobs, eliminate the middle man and sell processed wood and finished wooden products for a higher price.

Mexico’s Forests Hold Lessons for Fighting Climate Change

Hosting the United Nation’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), known as COP 16in Cancun Nov. 29 — Dec. 10, Mexico is taking the opportunity to show how its government and people are preparing for climate change.

With 70 percent of forested lands in communally owned ejidos, Mexico can play an important role in REDD+, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (the “plus” includes reforestation, sustainable forest management and conservation).

In a December 7 event during the talks, the governors of three Mexican states, Yucatan, Quintana Roo and Campeche, are scheduled to announce the launch of a REDD initiative in the Yucatan Peninsula — a region where The Nature Conservancy works to conserve large remaining corridors ofthe biodiverse Maya Forest.

Betania does not have an active REDD program — few exist yet — but is an example of a forest community where REDD could work to benefit local people by providing payment for activities that preserve forests — and their stored carbon — for the world.

Land in the Maya Forest is overwhelmingly owned by ejidos, ranging from 4,000 to 40,000 hectares, with 90 percent or more forest cover, so ejidos are taking the lead on developing forestry management, conservation, as well as reducing deforestation and fires.

With its history of the 1910 Revolution establishing ejido communal land rights for rural people, Mexico offers an example for the world of how climate change policies can be designed with local decision-making.

“We have the possibility to develop REDD with total rights for the community,” said Ivan Zúñiga Pérez-Tejada, of the Mexican Civil Council for Sustainable Silviculture, a Conservancy partner. “The whole world can begin an important reflection on why forest communities don’t have these rights.”

Forests and surrounding landscape management provide an immediate solution to reducing the carbon emissions that cause climate change. If the global community can develop financial incentives for nations and communities to protect their forests and pursue sustainable development — the goal of REDD — the 15 percent of annual global carbon emissions from forest destruction could be reduced.

Forests, Food and the Future

Each ejido is managed by an assembly of members, who decide what economic activities to pursue on community land. Of 12,300 hectares in Betania, 5,000 are designated as a permanent sustainable forestry area, 4,000 for agriculture and 3,000 set aside for forest conservation.

Betania is in the third year of a five-year grant for managing their forest preserve from Conafor, (Comisión Nacional Forestal) the Mexican government’s forestry agency. The community built an observation tower, and ejido member Timoteo Tee Tik is one of seven paid to watch for forest fires.

“This kind of work is good because you earn a salary,” said Timoteo through an interpreter. He depends  on day jobs, such as logging, and fire duty brings in more income during a season of few opportunities.

“Even when we do agriculture, we do it in places that have already been planted before,” (instead of clearing forest), said Timoteo, who speaks the Mayan language Yucatec.

Other Betania income-producing activities that help them to protect their forests include bee hives and Maya milpas — an ancient and recently improved crop-growing system that is less vulnerable to climate change. Maize, beans and squash are grown on small plots, avoiding carbon emissions from burning fields, and providing nutritious staples for ejido families.

This year, though, was a poor one for maize, with periods of drought and too much rain. And the bee colony did not produce honey because forest flowers that attract pollinators did not bloom.

Timoteo and his fellow ejido members are seeing changes in growing seasons and natural cycles — and they understand forests, perhaps more keenly than those who walk the policy halls.

“It’s important to take care of the forest,” Timoteo said. “We live here and we live from the forest.”

Post by: Lisa Hayden, climate change writer, The Nature Conservancy.

Photo by: Erika Nortemann/The Nature Conservancy (A portable saw mill used to prevent damage to surrounding forests during sustainable forestry techniques.)

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Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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