Chasing Carbon: Family Heads to Rainforest to See Trees (and Dad) ‘in Action’

Written by Guest Blogger on . Posted in Learn

IMG_3737 Dad tries to work Peter Eliss and kids web

The Ellis family is spending the summer “Chasing Carbon” in Southern Mexico while Dad and Forest Carbon Scientist, Peter Ellis, works for The Nature Conservancy to measure the carbon stored and emitted from forests.

Our family has “arrived.” Finally, we are able to see exactly what our “Carbon Scientist” Dad and husband is doing in Mexico.

It has been a remarkable journey through the state of Chiapas. Over the past week and a half we have visited waterfalls (Misol Há and Agua Azul) and ruins (Toniná), passed several happy days at “albercas” (swimming pools) around the small city of Villaflores, and wandered the streets of San Cristobal de las Casas in search of the best cup of coffee and most stunning specimen of amber. The lush mountains and valleys of the rainy season have not ceased to amaze us. Our children, Jasper and Josie, have navigated each bend in our combined work and vacation trip to Mexico with impressive flexibility and grace.

However, along the way it has been surprisingly challenging to actually get close to the work that my husband Peter is doing in “the field.” It turns out it is not so easy to see what carbon accounting looks like – especially if you are eight and five years old.

Each time we reach a new destination, Peter meets with the local coordinator of the Mexico REDD+ Alliance (the Mexican government’s program for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation). Often his colleague is someone who works for The Nature Conservancy, but sometimes this person works for a partner organization in that area. These meetings may occur over dinner, in a hotel room after the kids have been put to bed, or at a regional office at any time of the day. Regardless, there is nothing of interest to children in these technical exchanges. These are hours when Papa disappears and we are left to make the most of Mexico on our own.

In these conversations Peter must efficiently and accurately communicate the objectives for his site visit. In a nutshell, he must convey two goals: First, he wants to observe what these conservation projects are doing in practice, on the ground. What does REDD look like with cattle ranching and coffee cultivation in Mexico? Second, he must explain “additionality.”

IMG_1947 on the road in Mexico Ellis kids web

That is, if these projects are going to truly be considered REDD, they must demonstrate quantitatively that they are going to add carbon to the forest. It is not enough to merely sustain their current levels of carbon (for example, continue to grow shade coffee in existing forest, or simply refrain from clearing forest for more corn or cattle fields). These projects must demonstrate that they are going to increase their forest’s capacity to conserve carbon over the next several years. In short, how are you going to grow more, bigger trees in addition to your regular farming methods. And they must be able to show that the avoided deforestation – or added carbon stocks – would not have occurred anyway – in other words – without the “REDD” activity.

This concept of “additionality” is new and often problematic for farmers and community organizers, so these conversations take time. The Conservancy as an organization is working with many local partners and the farmers’ organizations to share practices that can help to increase their productivity and sustain their livelihoods.

My husband, however, is a Carbon Scientist. His role within the organization is to account for carbon. How much is there? How are we going to make sure we are sequestering more? And most importantly, how are we going to measure it?

After these conversations and negotiations, it is time for Peter to see the projects in action. He heads into “the field,” which often is a forest or a cattle pasture instead of an actual field. This is the part of the process that we wanted to see. So this morning, to the great protest of my five-year-old daughter, we prepared to venture into the rain forest with Papa.

We are staying at a coffee cooperative and training center called Comun Yap Nop Tic, which is situated in the Sierra Del Madre range of Chiapas, and adjacent to the Triumpho Biosphera Reserve. The training center has an experienced, energetic staff of coffee farmers and rural development specialists. There are spacious dormitories for visitors, a computer lab, classrooms, offices, a kitchen, a ball field, and a stunning view of the mountains. It is situated in a small town by the name of Nuevo Paraiso with one supermarket, two restaurants and a hardware store (or in other words, everything you need!). We arrived last night and plan to leave the day after tomorrow. Three days in Paradise.

IMG_2182_Ellis kids in pick up Mexico field work_web

The plan was for the team to meet at 8 am, have breakfast at 9, and then depart around 9:30. I had the kids fed and ready (dressed, sunscreened, bugsprayed, bathroomed) by 9 a.m. At 9:30 a.m. the meeting was still in full swing, and it was clear that we were going to be behind schedule. I released the kids to play while we waited. (Scientists must have flexible schedules!) At 10 a.m. the meeting finally adjourned for breakfast of Huevos Multilenos at the closest restaurant. It was determined that a four-wheel-drive truck would be needed for the outing, which was requested from another village. Finally at 1:30 the truck arrived and we boarded. Realizing that we were about to miss lunch, I bought two packs of cookies and four apples from the one store in town, and we were off.

This was my children’s first experience riding in the back of a pick up truck, and they were in heaven. Even before seeing the forest!

Stay tuned for the Ellis family’s adventure into the rain forest!

Jes Ellis is a teacher at Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, DC.

This post is part of a series of blogs authored by Jes & Peter Ellis, a Forest Carbon Scientist for The Nature Conservancy. Opinions expressed here are the personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

Photos courtesy of Jes & Peter Ellis (Featured photo: Peter Ellis, a forest carbon scientist for The Nature Conservancy, tries to get a little work done while his children enjoy their summer in Mexico.)

(Photo 2: The Ellis kids on the road in Mexico.)

(Photo 3: The Ellis kids relish their first ride in the back of a pick-up truck on the way to the rain forest.)

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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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