Chasing Carbon: Seeing the Forests for the Carbon They Keep

Written by Guest Blogger on . Posted in Learn

IMG_1894_Joseie and Jasper Ellis in local garb web

Today Planet Change features the last post tracking the stories of the Ellis family as they followed their scientist Dad, Peter Ellis, to work “Chasing Carbon” in Mexico. To catch up on the full six-part series, visit Planet Change.

Looking back on our family’s summer adventure, the opportunities to watch Peter, a forest carbon scientist for The Nature Conservancy, actually at work in the forests of Mexico were actually few. (There were many practical and logistical barriers to taking two kids into the field with a bunch of farmers and scientists.)

But one highlight of our summer Chasing Carbon was the day when we shadowed Peter on a site visit to a coffee plantation in the mountains of Chiapas. We were staying at a coffee collective and training center in the Sierra Madre called Comon Yaj Noptic. Jasper and Josie piled into the back of the pick-up truck with us, thrilled to be bouncing along the dirt roads in the open air, giddy with the anticipation of being able to “touch the clouds” when we got up into the cloud forest.

DSCN0659_peter Ellis in Mexico forest web

We climbed up into the mountains over deteriorating roads for over an hour. We then stopped for about 45 minutes at a river crossing to await a four-wheel drive vehicle to take us up to the furthest community and coffee plantation at nearly 1,800 meters elevation. I was proud of my kids for not balking at this delay; they got right to work throwing sticks into the rapids and dangling their feet in the water.

When the other truck arrived we continued on our way, creeping another hour up winding dirt roads that seemed impassable by anything but a Toyota 4X4 (that is, until we saw a Volkswagen Beetle parked outside a small cinderblock house off the road).

We were headed for the farm of one of the Comon Yaj Noptic’s coffee growers, one of several coffee organizations working in the area of the Biosphere Reserve of “El Triunfo.” The coffee collective, which receives funding as a member of the IDESMAC’s Alliance, works with over 150 coffee growers in the region to encourage and support sustainable farming practices as part of the Alianza México REDD+. Peter was visiting to see several plantations, as well as take a look at the carbon stocks in the surrounding forest in order to get an idea of the carbon potential in the area.

Finally we reached our destination: a small coffee grower’s plantation called Buena Vista. And the vista was more than buena. It was maravillosa. The entire valley from which we had come was stretched out below us, mountains all around shrouded in the afternoon rain clouds, the Triunfo Reserve to the south. Peter wanted to meet Don Ciro, age 84, and his son (also named Ciro), who is managing the plantation.

IMG_2396_Peter Ellis Buena Vista view web

After a lunch of ingredients grown on the farm, Peter pulled out his computer to show the family his map of the carbon density of the forest near the plantation. I was skeptical that the Don Ciros would be able to make sense of the Rorschach-like fluorescent images Peter was trying to describe, but they were riveted. With his limited but improving Spanish, Peter explained the potential to increase carbon stocks on their own land, emphasizing what an important resource they have at their fingertips – in other words, value beyond the fruits that they sow. Don Ciro and son did not seem to need convincing.

As the team gathered their things and prepared to head up the mountain, I told Jasper and Josie to put on their backpacks. Then one of the members of Comon Yaj Noptic told Peter it would be best if his children did not come along. The sun had already set behind the mountain and they would need to move fast. They would be cutting their own trail. The way was steep. To the satisfaction of my kids and my disappointment, it was agreed we would sit this one out.

IMG_1878 Jes Ellis getting her handmade top web

While we were exploring the terraced hillsides of the coffee plantation with the farmer’s granddaughter, Peter climbed to about 2,000 meters behind the main house with his team, cutting a path through the underbrush with a machete. When they reached the peak they were in an old oak forest of towering trees which had likely never been harvested by humans. The craggy, broad trunks supported high limbs covered with dangling bryophytes. Peter estimated the forest to be easily over 150 years old, and the carbon stocks at an impressive 200 tons per hectare.

When Peter returned we headed back down the mountain, exhausted and satisfied. We had climbed the mountain with Papa and spent a day in the field. Whether or not Jasper and Josie remember our time at Buena Vista in 20 years, this summer they saw what carbon looks like up close, and developed a greater appreciation for the challenges of accounting for it.

Or at least I did. Jasper and Josie developed an appreciation for limes and chile, and iguanas and hummingbirds. But even that felt like enough. For now.

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

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

Photos courtesy of Jes & Peter Ellis  (Featured photo: Jasper and Josie model new tops after watching them be made by hand.)

(Photo 2: Forest Carbon Scientist Peter Ellis in his element.)  

(Photo 3: The view from Buena Vista, a sustainable coffee plantation in Chiapas, was indeed “Buena.”)

(Photo 4: Blog author Jes Ellis tries on a shawl with the woman who made it.)

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About Planet Change

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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