Mexico organization partners with EDF to address deforestation, climate change and rural development

Take a trip through southern Mexico, and you’re bound to see immense forests with majestic trees like ceibas or ahuehuetes, hear the sounds of howler monkeys or scarlet macaws, make out some amazing archaeological sites, and meet the area’s generous peoples.

EDF is working in Mexico with local groups like AMBIO to protect the country's forests, which are under threat of deforestation. Above: a tropical forest in Chiapas, the country's most southern state. (Photo thanks and credit to Flickr user Archivo de Proyectos)

This region has some of the richest  variety of life in Mexico, which is ranked the fifth most “biodiverse” country in the world.

But the country’s forests are under threat, and that’s not only bad for the forests and the people who live there, it’s bad for global efforts to reduce deforestation – a major contributor to global warming.

Although deforestation rates in Mexico have decreased in recent years, Mexico’s forests are still falling.

A large contribution to this deforestation is agricultural expansion that results from the unsustainable management and low productivity of land that has already been cleared. As in many other tropical forest countries, rich forests are being converted to farmland and pasture for cattle ranching.

Keeping forests alive is crucial to preventing climate change, because cutting and burning trees adds as much as all the world’s cars, trucks, ships and airplanes combined — about 15% of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Forests also capture and store carbon from the atmosphere. Any realistic plan to reduce global warming pollution sufficiently — and in time — to avoid dangerous consequences for the globe must include preserving tropical forests, like those in Mexico.

EDF has been partnering with the Mexican government and non-governmental organizations since 2009 to contribute EDF’s scientific and technical expertise to Mexico’s goal of reducing carbon emissions from forests, while supporting local communities who depend on them and act as stewards of forested lands.

Local group AMBIO works with local communities to reduce emissions from deforestation

I’ve recently moved to Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico. As EDF’s Mexico Program Coordinator, I’m here to work with local organizations on reducing deforestation and benefiting local communities that own forests.

Part of a hillside in Chiapas has been converted from dense forest to fields to grow crops. This practice, common in tropical forest countries, is a major contributor to climate change.

One of the groups we’ve partnered with is AMBIO, whose name is a combination of the Spanish word for environment and the Greek root for life. AMBIO has been working for 15 years with a growing number of rural communities on diverse projects to aid in rural development and curb climate change emissions. Its mission is

to drive and promote sustainable rural development through building livelihoods, gender equality, cultural preservation and the restoration and conservation of local environments.

Over the years in their work with forest communities, AMBIO staff have observed many challenges that communities face that aren’t directly addressed by AMBIO’s projects, which are largely focused on carbon sequestration and forest management. In addition, available staff resources could not always address these issues – to balance forest conservation and taking on specific technical challenges for more efficient, sustainable community production of livestock and agriculture.

An experiment becomes reality in AMBIO's internship program

AMBIO’s expert in carbon sequestration and community planning, Sotero Quechulpa, had an idea for an experiment, which AMBIO turned into reality: recruit university students who have almost completed their degrees in fields like forestry and agronomy (the science of soil management and crop production) and need hands-on experience to complete their studies, and place them as interns in rural communities to address specific local problems and capacity needs for forest management and sustainable economic alternatives.

The interns worked in Chiapas communities on projects, like helping manage forests, fruit trees, and cattle populations, that were either directly or indirectly connected to "drivers," or causes, of deforestation in the region.

Now in the program’s second year, EDF has joined AMBIO to structure and pilot an expanded program that now reaches additional communities and has expanded from four to as many as ten interns for this year.

For three to four months, the interns in AMBIO's program:

  • live in the communities;
  • evaluate diverse problems, including development and environmental, within the communities; and
  • work with interested people in the communities to transfer and build knowledge and search for solutions to improve resource management that will help the communities avoid additional deforestation while not sacrificing their economic stability.

We know from our other partnerships around the world that technical skills and on-the-ground knowledge are complementary in addressing environmental issues — like our work with low-carbon farming in India’s rural agricultural communities and with curbing deforestation in the Amazon. EDF is now working with AMBIO to leverage this abundance of additional technical expertise from its university partners to complement their long-standing work with these communities.

Women playing important role in AMBIO’s work

Work in the forests and the fields is traditionally a male role in most communities in Mexico, but this year, more women than men have applied for the AMBIO internship positions. AMBIO’s Sotero told me they have shown a lot of commitment and enjoy the work.

AMBIO intern Maria shows members of the Corona community how to take soil samples from their pasture.

In fact, two of the three current interns working on pasture and cattle management are women, and Sotero told me he thinks we need more women like them in rural villages:

When I see my female colleagues in the field and all their knowledge I think they are a great example for people at the communities, especially for young people; they get to see women in a different role to what they are used to.

Young people and females must think, “If she can do it, so can I.”

As an example, he points to one intern Aurora, who has surprised the people in her community with the energy she has to walk for hours without tiring and by always being willing to work hard and collaborate with others.

Through my conversations with young people in Mexico and Chiapas, I can see many of them are passionate about the environment and development and looking out for opportunities to put their energy and knowledge to use to improve the situation in Mexico’s rural areas. AMBIO’s internship program provides that opportunity to connect different types of expertise and needs toward common interests.

Last week I met with one of AMBIO’s first interns, Maria, to discuss her experience working to address low productivity in cattle and high deforestation for cattle pastures. I will post my interview tomorrow to commemorate International Women’s Day.

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