International Women's Day: in Mexico, a woman helps a rural community build better livelihoods and reduce deforestation

In the tropical forests of southern Mexico, demand for and growth of farmland and pasture for cattle ranching is driving deforestation.

Mexico's southernmost state of Chiapas, outlined above, is home to large tropical forests that are being lost to expansion of farmland and pasture for cattle ranching. (Google Maps)

Keeping forests alive is crucial to preventing climate change, because cutting and burning trees is a huge contributor to global warming pollution; as EDF's Mexico program coordinator, I've recently moved to the southernmost state of Chiapas to work with local organizations on reducing deforestation and benefiting local communities that own forests.

As I mentioned in my post yesterday, a lot can be done to improve the area's sustainable management of forests and develop better productive practices.

EDF has partnered with a local group in Mexico called AMBIO to support forest protection that can help reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation sufficiently — and in time — to avoid dangerous consequences of climate change.

EDF partners with AMBIO to help curb deforestation drivers

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.

Last year, we began partnering with the organization to support its pilot internship program, which placed students from the University of Chapingo, a top agriculture university near Mexico City, in a rural community for a few months to conduct projects to address the local drivers of deforestation.

I first met one of AMBIO’s interns, Maria Albina, when she gave an impressive presentation on the results of her internship project last spring, just when EDF had began its partnership with AMBIO.

AMBIO intern helps rural livestock producers

Maria is a young woman who grew up in a rural indigenous community in Chiapas, where she enjoyed helping her dad raise cows and sheep. She later attended the University of Chapingo, and secured her spot in AMBIO's pilot internship program last year when she was completing her engineering degree in agronomy (the science of soil management and crop production) with a specialty in animal husbandry.

AMBIO assigned her to work with the rural community of La Corona, which has been converting its forests to pasture lands to raise a small number of cattle. The environmental impact of cattle grazing can be significant, but improvements in the efficiency and production on smaller parcels of land that has already been deforested can help dramatically.

As an AMBIO intern last year, Maria Albina lived in the small rural community of La Corona for nearly four months, working to improve health and productivity of cattle to reduce deforestation from pasture expansion. Above, Maria administers a vaccination to one of the community's cattle.

For the nearly four months, Maria lived in La Corona, she worked with ranchers to improve their cattle management techniques to allow for healthier and more productive cattle to graze in the existing pasture and reduce the need to further deforest to expand the pasture areas.

The AMBIO internship, Maria says, provided the opportunity she was looking for to determine she could transfer some of the knowledge and skills she had gained in college to rural, small-scale livestock producers in Chiapas.

Maria had been the only woman in the AMBIO pilot program, but this year already promises to be different, with more female than male students applying to the program and being placed in communities.

Last week I caught up with Maria in San Cristobal de las Casas, a beautiful colonial city in Chiapas where she now lives and is working with AMBIO on a climate adaptation project that is focused in improving pasture and forest management in a region with a harsh dry season.

Below is a translated selection of our conversation about Maria’s work with rural, indigenous Chiapas communities, her experience at La Corona and her new AMBIO project.

Read more about out work with AMBIO in our post Mexico organization partners with EDF to address deforestation, climate change and rural development.

Interview with former AMBIO intern and University of Chapingo graduate Maria Albina:

EDF's Danae Azuara Santiago, Mexico program coordinator: What led you to choose AMBIO’s internship and working with communities instead of the more traditional option of going to a commercial ranch?

Maria (left) grew up in a rural, indigenous Chiapas village and earned her agronomy engineering degree from one of Mexico's top agriculture universities. She met with me last week to discuss her internship with AMBIO.

Maria Albina, former AMBIO intern: There were different options to consider.

I knew in a ranch I would get more experience in mastering different techniques, since they have a lot of animals.

But since I grew up in a small Zoque community with lots of needs, I wanted to go back to work with rural and indigenous communities.

I wanted to test myself to see if I have what it takes to connect with people.

In rural areas you need to talk to cattle producers in a different way; I wanted to measure my abilities to transfer my knowledge.

 

EDF: What was your experience in college – is livestock husbandry a field with mostly male students?

Maria: Within animal husbandry, it is quite even now in relation to numbers of men and women when we start; a few years ago it was almost only men. In my cohort of 80, about 30 graduates were women. It is still seen as a profession for men, but in school there are no differences. We are treated the same, though in the work environment there are mostly men.

 

EDF: Tell us about the project you were working on. What were the challenges in the community were before you arrived?

The goal of Maria's internship was, in her words, to "attack the causes of deforestation." The map above shows the deforestation in the region, and how much forest is still left to preserve around La Corona (red dot, bottom right). The community is also near an important Protected Natural Area (yellow dot, upper left). (Google Maps)

Maria: People from AMBIO noticed that some cattle were underweight and eating too much tree bark, and that shows that there might be some deficiencies in their nutrition.

People in that region have a lot of areas for pasture, few cattle, and they keep taking down forest to have more areas for pasture.

So the idea was for me to help them with their pasture management.

I thought I would be able to teach them how to rotate pasture areas, but there is a lot of work to do — first, to raise awareness and provide a lot of information, so they can then learn how to have more animals in less space.

This was a first effort to generate interest with them.

 

EDF: Is cattle raising a good source of income in the region?

Maria: That’s how they see it; the rancher that has most cattle has 25 to 30 cows, so he produces at most 30 calves per year. For a family, that can be a lot. Even with the poor management they give their animals, it still provides them income.

 

EDF: What goals were you, AMBIO and the community hoping you would accomplish?

Maria: Basically to strengthen capacity for cattle management, and since AMBIO has an environmental focus, the goal is to attack causes of deforestation in the region. We need to improve [from an environmental perspective] what is the major source of income for some of these families. I wanted them to be better capable of managing their grasslands, and for them to provide better nutrition to their cattle.

 

EDF: What did you do? 

Maria: I carried out workshops and field practices; I would accompany people in their daily activities in their production systems, and helped them out in their needs. I vaccinated chickens and cows, helped them herd their livestock, bathed them to take ticks off, all sorts of things. I offered to support people in what they needed.

 

EDF: You worked specifically with livestock – how did that fit into reducing drivers of deforestation, and what made that work “environmental”?  

"There is no need to cut down more forest to increase their production of cattle, meat and milk" if ranchers improve their cattle's nutrition and the management of grasslands that cattle graze on, Maria said. (Photo credit and thanks to Flickr user anthrotect)

Maria: The type of livestock management that is practiced in Marques de Comillas, and generally in Chiapas, is extensive. The animals roam around in large areas; there are few animals in very large enclosures.

So, if we improve the management of grasslands and the cattle's nutrition through simple techniques, there will be less need to cut down more forest to keep raising cattle, and I think we could even reduce the area of pastures, increase production of livestock and let some pastures recover as forests.

If people are economically stable and have no pressing needs, it will be easier for them to also work on conserving forests.

In their community territorial-use plans, they already have planned to increase their areas of pasture, but there is no need to cut down more forest to increase their production of cattle, meat and milk.

 

EDF: How good of a learning experience was it? What did you get out of it? What kind of impact do you think you had in the community?

Maria: It was the experience I wanted, being in a rural community, to see if I could communicate with local producers. It’s not how I imagined things – I thought people would have more interest in what I could teach them. They do want to learn more, but they want to see things in practice, not just theory, and that takes time and more resources. This experience did meet my personal goal, and I hope future internships in the area keep building this capacity.

 

EDF: What challenges did you face being a woman working in rural communities?

"People knew an intern was coming, and they thought it a bit strange when they found out it was me, a small woman," Maria, who's under 5 feet tall, told me. "When they take you to the field, they treat you as though you are delicate, they question if you will be able to keep up with them walking, the sun, carrying out your stuff, and they assume there is a lot you don’t know."

Maria: There were diverse challenges. With some people I had a great connection, maybe because I was a woman; with others, not. I offered to help anyone who wanted it, but many times they would not call me. I think women are seen as weaker, more fragile for hard work. …

There was this man who had problems with one of his cows during delivery, and he did not call me. He cut the cow open and saved the calf, but the cow died.

I could have helped him with both. I think maybe there is lack of knowledge of what an agronomist specialized in husbandry can do; maybe if I had been a vet he would have called me. Maybe it was because I’m a woman; I felt some people doubted my capacities so “why take the risk.”

It takes longer to build trust when you are a woman.

Also, people don’t see men staying home to help out in other things, but they expect that from a woman. If I had been out all the time talking to ranchers and offering to help them, I might be perceived as a “pata de perro” (dog’s leg) — always out of the home instead of helping the other women. ….

I got to meet almost everyone at the community. Some would call me the “little engineer.”   People knew an intern was coming, and they thought it a bit strange when they found out it was me, a small woman (under 5 feet tall). When they take you to the field, they treat you as though you are delicate, they question if you will be able to keep up with them walking, the sun, carrying out your stuff, and they assume there is a lot you don’t know.

 

EDF: Beside the capacities you helped build with cattle management, do you think you left more to the community by being there, being a woman?

Maria: Sometimes I felt like a psychologist, providing counsel to young people, many who had dropped their studies. Youngsters trusted me to talk with them, and I made a lot of friendships. I’m still in touch with people there after almost a year. …

I would tell some that there are a lot of things they could do with their lives, to go out of the community, about so many options, find happiness in further development. I told some of the women there’s no need to depend on their parents, that they could do it on their own.

 

EDF: Were there women in representation or leadership roles?

Maria: Yes. Not as authorities for the community, but for other things, for the school and the health center.

 

EDF: What are you doing now with AMBIO?

Maria: After I finished my internship, I went back to Chapingo, graduated, finished my thesis and I did my dissertation exam last October.

After AMBIO's pilot internship program ended, representatives from communities that hosted an intern (like La Corona) met with communities interested in hosting an intern in the future and EDF to discuss successes of the pilot program and how it could be improved in the next round.

AMBIO got funding for three small projects from Proac (Climate Change Adaptation Program) and they needed someone to help them with grassland management under a “forest grazing scheme”, and they thought of me. And now, here I am again working in this project for a few months.

We are promoting the use of grasses that are cut, kept in silos and conserved to feed the cattle during the dry season. We are also planting trees with high protein content for livestock. This will allow communities to improve sustainable cattle management practices and to maintain a better level of production during dry seasons. Right now it can get really bad some times, months when it’s even hard for the cattle to survive, let alone produce milk. We are also promoting better management to reduce the extension of grazing areas.

People in the communities we are working with already had a lot of knowledge, they just need some help to putting it into practice, and some support with initial investment for equipment. They are very willing to work hard with us to make this happen because it’s in their best interest.

Now I know I like working with communities and I’m getting better at doing it. I’m thinking about getting registered as a service provider and work on my own projects to benefit communities in Chiapas.  I’m also  still considering getting a masters degree in rural development, maybe in one or two years.

 

EDF: Thank you Maria for sharing your life and experience working with communities in Chiapas with us.  I’m personally very grateful. You brought me back to ten years ago, when I first came to do my thesis field work and fell in love with the people and the Lacandona region, and why I’ve returned here to join others in their efforts to conserve forest and bring social benefits.

Read more about EDF's work in Mexico and with AMBIO.

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