Mudslides, Forest Clearing Links Examined by Nature Conservancy Scientists in Mexico

Written by Lisa Hayden on . Posted in Learn

The mudslides that sent torrents of soil and water flowing through remote hill towns north of Rio de Janeiro in January left about 700 dead. And more recently, a huge mudslide triggered by earthquake activity left hundreds homeless in Bolivia’s capital.

Landslide disasters tend to be much worse when the surrounding hillsides are tree-less. Deforestation and over-grazing can combine with natural conditions to worsen soil erosion. Solutions that can alleviate the damage are protecting high-elevation forests, and avoiding building homes in erosion-prone areas.

Work by The Nature Conservancy in Mexico may also provide tools to help people avoid and reduce damage from mudslides.

Last fall, a series of mudslides caused the death of 32 people in Southern Mexico, including a slide in Chiapas that killed 16 people and injured another 13. Heavy rains from a hurricane and tropical storm contributed to the tragedies.

Working in partnership with the Mexican government, our scientists are analyzing the effects of climate change under various rate-of-carbon-pollution scenarios for both the ecology of several protected areas in Southern Mexico and the local people.

The climate-adaptation pilot project includes several biosphere reserves in the Sierra Madre and along the coast of the state of Chiapas – from the cloud forests of El Triunfo and La Sepultura and pine-oak forests of Selva El Ocote, down-slope to the canals, mangroves and estuaries of La Encrucijada on the Pacific coast. Landslides are among the threats to these areas that could be made worse by climate change, according to preliminary study results.

The Conservancy’s adaptation pilot program will develop strategies for the protected areas, including consideration of the effects of climate change on coffee production, fisheries, forestry and agriculture. The 260,000 people living in coastal watersheds between El Triunfo and La Encrucijada who depend on these lands and waters may benefit from improved land management and forestry practices.

Strategies will also aim to diminish the effects of existing threats – like clearing of forests for farming or ranching – that could be made worse by climate change. The clearing of trees in these mountainous areas not only releases carbon into the atmosphere, but also diminishes local benefits, such as the ability of tree roots to hold soil in place during heavy rains.

From the forested peaks in the clouds above Chiapas, down the rivers to the coast, efforts to keep lands and waters healthy and resilient to climate change are expected to pay off for the people of the region by maintaining natural resources critical to human safety and welfare.

Lisa Hayden is climate change writer for The Nature Conservancy

Photo by: Flickr user fox2mike (Landslide damage in Bangalore, India, 2005). Used under a Creative Commons license. 

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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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