People power

14 March 2014 | Article

In Mexico protected areas are booming thanks to strong support from politicians and the people.

Seventeen years ago, Patricia Ruiz Corzo as head of IUCN Member organisation Grupo Ecológico de Sierra Gorda realized that that the way to make conservation efforts more enduring was to secure clear political support.

Located in the heart of Mexico, the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve covers a third of Querétaro State. It has a rich diversity of ecosystems that are home to various threatened species such as the Jaguar and Green Macaw. According to the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP), Mexico ranks second in the world in ecosystem diversity and fourth in species richness.


Photo by CONANP

The Sierra Gorda grassroots movement has grown steadily over the years, building trust and widespread community participation that culminated in a Presidential decree in 1997 and the creation of the Biosphere Reserve.

Participation is key

“Civil society was the driving force behind this project,” says Patricia Ruiz who was the reserve’s director for 14 years. “We organized 120 workshops in which we asked for their consent to request a protection decree from the government. We had been working for 10 years with the Grupo Ecológico on reforestation, environmental education and sanitation projects with the participation of local people.”

According to Pati as the environmental leader is known, Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve has developed an environmental education programme that reaches 160 of the region’s schools. Mothers of school children have formed a recycling collection network; 130 small farmers are adopting soil regeneration practices; and 400 forest concessions receive payment for water services and carbon compensation.

Mexico’s 176 protected areas are grouped in different categories: federal, state, municipal, community, communal and private and are all managed by CONANP. Between 2001 and 2010, Mexico went from having 42 million acres under protection to 61.5 million acres – a 50% increase. Studies show that these areas show a high rate of return on investment in terms of the benefits they provide.

A sound investment

The Nature Conservancy estimates that every peso invested in the country’s protected areas brings at least 52 pesos in return, mainly through carbon storage and watershed protection services, as well as tourism, with a total value of US$ 3.4 billion to the Mexican economy.

Mariana Bellot Rojas, Director of Institutional Development at CONANP says that a major factor driving the creation of protected areas in Mexico during the last 30 years has been the interest of the scientific and academic community.

"A group of researchers and scholars drew attention to the importance of protected areas,” she says. “Protected areas were created during different administrations but the leap came with the ‘institutionalization’ of conservation with the creation of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources in 1994.”

“At the beginning, the drive to create protected areas was mostly due to an ethical and legal imperative, but increasingly and particularly in the last 15 years, studies have been conducted that show the value of protected areas as providers of goods and services for society,” explains Dr Ernesto Enkerlin, Chair of IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas.

According to Enkerlin, the growth in Mexico’s protected areas is due to an ‘ecopolitical’ process rather than an ecological or biological one.

“If you look at the list of strict protected areas, the past years haven’t been good at all; but if you look at the model in which protected areas are seen as a driving force of the local economy, as a generator for the well-being of people living on their outskirts or in cities, the framework changes and they become politically appealing,” he says.

There has also been a change in vision and politics which have allowed the conservation process and management of protected areas to be carried out more successfully. Mexico’s federal government has been anxious to create mechanisms that strengthen the rights and access of the communities to their own resources.

Working together

“Before, protected areas were a mechanism used to exclude people, but not now. There has been a fundamental change that has re-educated conservationists and landowners so that we now work together,” says Enkerlin.

Bellot Rojas identifies four factors in Mexico’s success: the joint work CONANP has carried out with other institutions such as the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO) to determine scientifically which priority areas to redirect resources to; increased resources in subsidy programmes funded by CONANP to support local communities in sustainable economic activities; international cooperation which has enabled the development of innovative conservation; and the involvement of communities and civil society in many restoration and sustainable production projects.

“In Sierra Gorda, local communities own 97% of the land. They have never been the enemy. By decree, conservation cannot be carried out without the consent of the local communities. With their support, Queretaro is the first Mexican state to have mechanisms for compensatory carbon emission payments, with associated laws and taxation systems that help generate more funds,” says Corzo.

Among the existing challenges, Enkerlin cites the need to provide more funding and personnel to strengthen protected areas, as well as change the way in which they are financed so that more money reaches land owners.

“Instead of farming subsidies, subsidizing conservation is important for competition and productivity. It is as important to have healthy ecosystems as it is to have a good corn harvest.”

Enkerlin also points to the need to strengthen the legal framework to avoid natural protected areas being damaged by mistakes or resource deficiencies well as to promote state and federal conservation models.

Enkerlin, who was head of CONANP from 2001 to 2010, believes the opportunity to create new protected areas must never be wasted.

“The best are the ones we have and the worst are the ones which remained on paper,” he says.