Painting the town REDD

It was happening.

After paying my dues for over a year as an intern for EcoLogic, reading stacks of reports and articles about the Lacandón Rainforest and the three Mayan communities that own it, and being just days away from finishing my grad program on sustainable international development, it was actually happening. I was finally getting the opportunity to meet the communities and the forest I had read so much about first hand. This past April, EcoLogic’s very own forest carbon ninja, Dr. Bryan Foster (aka our CarbonPlus Director), and I traveled to Chiapas, Mexico to collect data for EcoLogic’s Sierra Cojolita REDD+ project.


A landscape view of the Selva Lacandona.

Because you’re all dedicated EcoBlogic readers, I’m sure you remember Dave’s excellent description of REDD+ — a type of project that reduces the amount of carbon dioxide that’s produced when trees are chopped and/or burned down by working with communities to prevents deforestation. Over the next week, I quickly discover that reading dozens of academic articles and reports does not compare to experiencing the Lacandón Rainforest first hand.

That’s me on the left taking notes during our meeting.

We arrived in the city of Tuxtla Gutierrez on a Wednesday, and spent two days meeting with other REDD+ folks, who, like Bryan and I, are crazy enough to dive head first into the complex and at times overwhelming world of carbon.  It was exciting to meet our Chiapas brethren who were a fountain of information about all things REDD+ and Lacandón. But I was itching to get to our final destination, the actual rainforest, which still involved a nine-hour drive along the Guatemalan border.


Enrique Chankin showing off some taro root from his garden.

We met Ricardo Hernández, Lacandón expert and Director of our partner organization — Na’Bolom, in San Cristobal de las Casas, and began our drive with chilly morning temps and plenty of chatter.  But as the hours went by and the jeep cruised down to lower altitudes, the heat and humidity climbed. We drove through town after town for about 5 or 6 hours until we reached what was supposed to be the edge of the Lacandón Rainforest. Instead, I slowly opened my eyes to scorched trees and oil palm plantations. We were in Marqués de Comillas, a section of the rainforest, which has been settled by farmers who migrated from the center of the country. Oil palm plantations aren’t just bad because rainforests are cleared to plant them and reduce natural biodiversity and critical habitat; the oil palm also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions because of its immense need for petroleum-based pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.

A couple hours later, we crossed the Lacantún River, and the landscape completely changed. The midday heat had subsided, and we were closer to the Cojolita communities. In this area the forest actually reaches the edge of the road instead of being lost to slash and burn. But this doesn’t mean this section of the rainforest isn’t threatened. Two of the three Mayan communities that own this land are struggling to meet their farming needs with the land they already have, and would like to clear more of the forest.

Enrique Chankin giving us a tour of the rainforest near his eco-lodge, Top Che.

All three communities reside and carry out their farming around the base of the Cojolita mountain range, and the forest on the Cojolita is part of a 35,000 hectare communally owned reserve.  However, the reserve is a source of conflict for the communities. The Lacandones were given authority over the territory by the government over thirty years ago, and they will not grant the Tzetlales and Choles access to the land in the reserve. The Lacandones fear that the other communities will clear too much of the forest in the reserve for farming. The communities show no signs of settling their differences, which, could be detrimental for the rainforest in the Cojolita Reserve. The REDD+ project seeks to help the communities recognize and achieve the economic reward from leaving the rainforest intact as opposed to the current income generating practices such as cattle ranching that require the forest be cut down.

Tzetlal land that was cleared for cattle pasture. Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve in the background.

Driving through Marqués de Comillas provided a frightening peek into what could be the future of the Sierra Cojolita that I would never have seen from my desk in Cambridge. The experience helped me thoroughly understand the critical importance of Na’Bolom and EcoLogic’s role in working with these communities to identify and pursue livelihood alternatives, like REDD+, to help minimize their need to deforest, and allow them to achieve the development goals they are so determined to attain.


A waterfall we came across while touring the area.

We spent the following days meeting with leaders from the Chol and Lacandón communities, two of the three communities that will be managing and financially benefitting from the REDD+ project.  During these meetings we interviewed community members about their land use practices. My prior REDD+ experience took place in Papua New Guinea, possibly the least developed country in the world with the most isolated communities. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that one of our Mayan interviewees was a social anthropologist and another spoke perfect English.  Unlike their Papua New Guinean counterparts, these rainforest communities are on a well-paved road headed straight for development. This reality check reinforced one of the many lessons I learned in graduate school – there is no such thing as “one size fits all” conservation. Despite the many top-down guidelines that exist for implementing REDD+, EcoLogic and Na’Bolom will have to design a project that is carefully tailored to fit the needs of these unique Mayan communities.

On Monday, as we drove back to the city along Chol territory at the edge of the Cojolita mountain range, Bryan and I saw a plume of smoke drifting over the trees in the reserve – a sign that slash and burn may already be underway. It is clear that Na’Bolom and EcoLogic have an important and challenging road ahead.

-Andrea Savage, CarbonPlus Associate
Andrea works for EcoLogic’s CarbonPlus program by writing grant proposals and project reports, and following trends land tenure right throughout Mexico. She recently completed her Master’s in sustainable international development at Brandeis University. 

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