Viva Sierra Gorda

CO2, poverty, and biodiversity

Earth Island News

After nearly 10 years of struggle, Bosque Sustentable – a civil society organization that specializes in the promotion of sustainable forestry – and the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve made their first carbon sale in March 2006, generating income for local families. This sale signals a powerful step towards sustainable growth for the inhabitants of the Reserve, who from 1998 to 2004 sought opportunities to enter the carbon market created by the Kyoto Protocol. Finding this path fraught with difficulties, they attempted the private carbon market instead, eventually making a sale to the United Nations Foundation.

The Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve is in the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range in the northern extreme of the State of Queretaro, Mexico. At almost a million acres, the Reserve covers 32 percent of the state’s territory. It is an integrated-use park, with areas designated for core protection, buffer zones, rehabilitation, and sustainable development. About 15 percent of its total surface area is in designated core zones, with the rest under various degrees of human impact.

Located in a transition zone between the Nearctic and Neotropical bio-geographical regions, the Reserve is the most ecologically diverse natural protected area in Mexico. The Reserve’s vegetation types include semi-desert scrub, temperate forests of pines and oaks, cloud forests, dry tropical forests, and tropical rainforests. Ranking second among Mexico’s protected areas in terms of biodiversity, the Sierra Gorda is home to all six species of Mexican felines: jaguar, puma, bobcat, margay, ocelot, and jaguarundi.

photo of young women in a green land unloading a pickup truckGrupo Ecologico Sierra GordaDistiribution of seedlings from national nurseries

Unlike national parks in the US, protected areas throughout Latin America often include human settlements and agricultural land. More than half of the Sierra Gorda Reserve is grazed, while an additional 13 percent is in agricultural production. Slash-and-burn agriculture is common in the Reserve’s history. Most of the approximately 100,000 inhabitants live in severe poverty. In some areas, more than 70 percent of the economically active population receives an income equivalent to less than US $8 per day. Illegal migration to the US is widespread.

The Kyoto carbon market

The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol allows developed nations to offset their carbon emissions by investing in carbon mitigation projects in developing countries. The carbon sequestered or preempted by such a project is then credited to the investing nation. Developed countries can thus reduce total emissions without actually reducing their own emissions, while supporting sustainable development in other countries.

Bosque Sustentable, founded in 2002, worked closely with Grupo Ecologico Sierra Gorda and the management of the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve towards entering the CDM market. In their plan to promote sustainable forestry in the Reserve, marginal and exhausted agricultural land would be reforested, and the proceeds from the sales of carbon emission credits would support the project until the timber reached a harvestable size.

Bosque Sustentable encountered several barriers to entering the CDM market, many of which are common to areas of poverty in Mexico and throughout Latin America. They included the lack of capital for developing projects, the lack of forest management skills among local landholders, and the high cost of emission reductions certification, which resulted in money going into the hands of foreign consultants rather than to local people.

The pattern of land ownership in the Sierra Gorda also presented problems for Bosque Sustentable, as landholders have an average plantation size of only one hectare. This means that for a project of about 1,250 acres, small by international standards, Bosque Sustentable must work with 500 different landholders scattered throughout the mountains. These properties lack telephone service and are accessible only by rough unpaved roads, dramatically increasing the per-unit costs of carbon sequestration. In addition, most landholders don’t hold title to the property in their own name. The title to the property is often in the name of a deceased relative, and while possession is not in dispute, legal costs and exorbitant notary fees prevent the landholders from updating the titles.

Voluntary carbon

For these and other reasons, Bosque Sustentable and its partner organizations abandoned efforts to enter the CDM market. “For years we heard that the Clean Development Mechanism was a tool for sustainable development,” said Martha Isabel Ruiz Corzo, director of the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve. “The reality is that the CDM is light-years away from the needs of areas of poverty.”

Instead, Bosque Sustentable is focusing on the voluntary carbon market. Its program of Carbon Sequestration for Sustainable Forestry in the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve is aimed at organizations, businesses, and individuals that not only want to contribute to the fight against global warming, but also want to fight poverty and conserve biodiversity.

This Sierra Gorda carbon sequestration project was developed with the assistance of Woodrising Consulting, Inc. and the Biodiversity Conservation in the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve project, supported by the Global Environment Facility. The project sequesters carbon by reforesting agricultural lands in and around the Reserve. The project sequesters carbon by reforesting agricultural lands in and around the reserveIt preserves old-growth forests by making regulated plantations the primary source of wood for the region. The project also fights poverty through the creation of numerous small-scale landholder-managed plantations. Participants include private and communal landowners, as well as landholders with a record of possession from the local government. All participants sign contracts committing to manage their plantations for carbon sequestration for 30 years, and transfer the legal right to emission reductions to Bosque Sustentable.

Making the sale

The sale of emission reductions provides the financial incentives needed for landowner participation until the plantations reach sufficient maturity to provide an income from sustainable harvesting. A team of community organizers and forestry experts organize the landowners into associations and provide them with professional training on silvicultural techniques, sustainable forestry management, wood transformation technologies, product development and marketing, and business management.

The project requires up-front payments from buyers for the sequestration of carbon during a project life of 30 years.

The sale to the UN Foundation of 5,230 emission reduction credits is the first for the project. As part of its commitment to carbon neutral operations, the UN Foundation used the methodology of the Greenhouse Gas Protocol Initiative and tools provided by the World Resources Institute to calculate its total carbon emissions from electricity consumption, heating and cooling, and air travel at its Washington, DC and New York offices. With pro bono legal services generously proved by Baker & McKenzie, the UN Foundation then purchased an equivalent amount of carbon offsets from Bosque Sustentable, which received the assistance of the Mexican Center for Environmental Law.

The original version of this article first appeared in Voluntary Carbon Markets: An International Business Guide to What They Are and How They Work, published by Earthscan.

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