Everyone I know in Jalpan de Serra – a small town in the Mexican state of Querétaro where I live – has a loved one working in the US. Located more than 400 steep curves up mountain roads from the nearest city, Jalpan de Serra is located in the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve, a place where there is not much to keep people employed. It’s difficult making a living from traditional agriculture, and consequently many people leave: As much as one third of the Sierra Gorda population has departed for the North, a reality repeated through Mexico. Remittances are the country’s second largest source of income.
While dependent on income from abroad, the residents of the Sierra Gorda have an important advantage that many Mexican communities lack – a wealth of forest resources that, if stewarded wisely, could provide a sustainable, long-term livelihood for the people who live there.
Twenty years ago, a small group of local citizens founded the Sierra Gorda Ecological Group to improve the local environment. The organization first concentrated its efforts on preventing trash dumping along roads, stopping the unrestricted hunting of deer and turkey, halting the trafficking of rare birds, and monitoring public works that were harming watersheds.
Those campaigns soon grew into a movement to create the first Biosphere Reserve in Mexico, and in 1997, the northern third of Querétaro was converted into a federally protected area under community management.
Unlike many protected areas, the Sierra Gorda is inhabited. Nearly 100,000 people, scattered in 685 mountain villages, live within the Reserve. The conservation of these rare forests relies on the people who make it their home. NGOs such as Sierra Gorda Ecological Group and Bosque Sustentable (Sustainable Forest) co-manage the Reserve with the Mexican government. These groups encourage sustainable livelihoods such as beekeeping, forestry management, embroidery and ceramics, and community-owned and operated small-scale ecotourism. The NGOs are also working to make the region’s cattle ranching and seasonal agriculture more environmentally sensitive.
By fostering economic benefits through conservation, the Biosphere Reserve is developing long-term strategies for protecting this unique area. The Sierra Gorda is a wealth of ecosystems, containing 14 types of vegetation in altitudes ranging from 984 feet to more than 10,000 feet high. The mountain range includes desert, cloud forests, and tropical forests, and is home to black bears, jaguars, and a host of migratory birds.
The strategy works. More than 45,000 Reserve residents have participated in some kind of environmental effort, from creating recycling centers and education campaigns, to forming volunteer brigades that fight forest fires, plant native pines on degraded slopes, restore watersheds, and report crimes against nature.
Yet despite the region’s protected status, it remains a battle to guarantee the integrity of the Sierra Gorda. Environmental controversies have occurred over the planned creation of roads to reach individual ranches, expensive ecotourism involving helicopters flying into sinkholes that provide nesting sites for sensitive green macaws, and dam projects. Recently, the government proposed building a high voltage power line across the Reserve to deliver more electricity to Mexico City. In October, after receiving petitions from around the world opposing the power line, President Felipe Calderon announced a suspension of the project.
The threats to the Reserve are multiplying as the economic downturn pushes migrant workers back to their family ranches. The sustainability initiatives of the last 20 years have mostly involved women, children, and grandparents. Women have become civic leaders, entrepreneurs, and heads of households, and in the process developed new capabilities. In contrast, many of the men returning from the North have little interest in working for the prevailing local wages and are struggling to re-adapt.
In these changing times, it’s unclear how families will respond. The best approach will be to ensure that everyone is involved in the effort to protect the region. That is the only way of maintaining the abundance the mountains are named for – Sierra Gorda, or “fat mountains.”
Viva Sierra Gorda supports social development in the Biosphere Reserve by providing technical training and marketing support to small-scale cottage industries. Viva Sierra Gorda also promotes ecotourism to the area. To make a donation, visit www.vivasierragorda.org.
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