A Deep dive into the Cerro de Oro Dam that Changed the Landscape of La Chinantla



In this map produced by EcoLogic intern Christine Gregory, you can see the state of Oaxaca highlighted in the inset map and the small green area showing the precise location of La Chinantla in Oaxaca’s northeast corner.

La Chinantla, a region located in the Northern part of the State of Oaxaca—which itself is nestled in the Southwestern corner of Mexico, is a highly biodiverse, mountainous landscape—considered one of the most ecologically complex regions of Oaxaca, and even the entire country. It is one of the few regions in Mexico where so many distinct ecosystems coexist in such proximity—vast, sprawling expanses of oak forest, lowland tropical humid forests, scrub and dry forests, cloud forests, and high evergreen forests cover this lush, humid land. La Chinantla is also the place the Chinantec and Mazatec people (whose total population numbers over 100,000) call home.

This region of Oaxaca and the livelihoods of its population were dramatically impacted and reshaped by the Cerro de Oro Dam, which began construction in 1973 by presidential decree. Construction of the dam required the expropriation of 36,000 hectares—and the consequent destruction of one of the richest forests in America—to give way to the construction of one of the largest artificial lakes in Mexico. The dam was finally completed in 1989, and caused the resettlement of 20,000 members of the Chinantec ethnic group and affected more than 5,000 families. Their new circumstances substantially modified the economic, social, and cultural life of the Chinantecos. Many resettled in the state of Veracruz, where they struggled with the challenge of restarting life in a place so far removed from their origin. For those who stayed in the state of Oaxaca, economics and politics changed dramatically, and consequently dynamics for the use of natural resources evolved. Many went from being occasional fishermen—as a complement to their rich, varied livelihoods—to formal fishermen, economically dependent on fishing for their survival. The bulldozing and burning of the forest and the displacement of these communities severely affected biodiversity, caused loss of property, and changed traditional livelihoods.*

Current Context


Presently, EcoLogic helps communities build tree nurseries, latrines, fuel-efficient stoves, and more for community-led ecosystem restoration and protection.

Presently, La Chinantla is being deforested at an alarming rate. Non-traditional livelihood practices, like cattle farming and grazing, products of this changed landscape, are responsible for one third of deforestation in the area. This type of unsustainable land use results in erosion and soil loss, and thus hinders the ability of the forest to regenerate. Extensive monoculture (sugarcane, pineapple, rubber) also threatens the diversity of flora and fauna. Loss of habitat could severely impact the populations of many species, including neotropical migratory birds, and plants that depend on pine-oak forests. In Oaxaca, these forests are surrounded either by fragments of perturbed (secondary) vegetation or, in the lowest elevations, by different vegetation associations. 

Deforestation and the activities that cause it continue to have negative impacts on the rural and indigenous populations of La Chinantla and further endanger their livelihoods. This, coupled with population growth, continued lack of land use planning, lack of government assistance, and climate change continue to alienate and marginalize rural and indigenous populations who largely desire to maintain traditional practices and ways of life. In this degraded landscape, traditional livelihoods become increasingly impractical, which further disrupts the existing harmony between local communities and nature. Erosion from deforestation and unsustainable agricultural practices (like cattle farming and grazing or slash and burn agriculture) cause the contamination of rivers and water sources critical for human consumption. Deforestation and habitat loss causes forest fires, low yields, low soil uptake, and low food production.

EcoLogic’s Local Partner

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A group of indigenous women posing for a photo during a site visit to La Chinantla, where EcoLogic introduced Alstom Foundation, a previous funder, to the communities they helped support.

EcoLogic works collectively with local communities and partner organizations. In La Chinantla, EcoLogic plans, implements, and evaluates its work in partnership with the Fondo Ambiental Regional de La Chinantla, Oaxaca (FARCO). FARCO is a community-based organization which facilitates cooperation among local communities, educational institutions, and local and national government agencies to advance the social and environmental development of the region. Our close working relationship with FARCO allows us to design, adapt, and refine our project with a keen awareness of the local context.

Our Solutions


Community members of La Chinantla demonstrating how they use fuel-efficient stoves to EcoLogic and Alstom staff.

At the end of 2014, we formally began implementing projects that aim to restore and protect the tropical ecosystems of this area. We work directly with local rural and indigenous people who depend on this ecosystem to restore and protect their livelihoods as well. We began with the identification and definition of priority areas for forest restoration in 6 communities of 2 municipalities in Chinantla, Oaxaca. We established a community nursery to restore the forest connectivity of 3 communities in San José Chiltepec. We began the installation of fuel-efficient stoves to reduce the extraction of firewood in the forest areas and to encourage the protection of the forested areas. We began the installation of composting latrines to mitigate pollution from raw sewage to rivers and tributaries that converge in the Papaloapan River and improve the health of families. We began to help rural and indigenous families construct basic home gardens (vermicompost and vegetable) to supplement their diet and discourage unsustainable agricultural practices and the decline of the agricultural frontier. Through local involvement, we began strengthening and integrating local groups’ capacity to sustainable manage their watersheds.

Our Impact


Local women of the communities in La Chinantla having an informal talk with former Regional Director Gabriela Gonzalez, and Alstom staff.

Since the end of 2014, we have installed 140 fuel efficient stoves, established one community tree nursery that has produced 139,400 seedlings, trained 225 farmers in agroforestry and sustainable agriculture, helped 30 families install chicken coops and home gardens, and gained legal constitution of a water committee that aims to create an empowered local management scheme to accept payment for ecosystem service (PES) cash transfers.

Another aspect that speaks to EcoLogic’s unique value, which we recently highlighted in our annual report , is bringing our local partners together to exchange learning and create transformative changes in how communities interact with their ecosystems.

In the fall of 2015, the leaders of two grassroots organizations that are local partners of EcoLogic—AJAASSPIB (Association of Water Committees of the Southern Sector of Pico Bonito National Park in Honduras) and FARCO—met in Mexico for a bilateral learning exchange. Given AJAASSPIB’s years of effective conservation in Honduras, EcoLogic brought the two groups together so that AJAASSPIB could share their learnings and advice directly with FARCO. Twelve participants came together for this two-day workshop in Mexico to discuss community water committees and the legal and on-the-ground steps necessary to organize effective, lasting water stewardship. The two groups discussed important community concerns and considerations such as improving sanitation, creating equitable payment systems, and the importance of engaging community members in complementary conservation activities, such as reforestation—which are critical to maintaining water quality and watershed health.

With the encouragement and new learning from AJAASSPIB, FARCO has conducted 18 workshops with 527 community members on sustainable watershed management and agriculture practices and has legally established a regional community-based water committee.

With the continued support of our readers, supporters, allies, and friends we can continue to slow the loss of biodiversty and empower marginalized rural and indigenous people in La Chinantla.

To see the ways in which you can continue to be involved—as donors, ambassadors, volunteers, and Stewards of Nature—please see our “Get Involved” page.

*Information gathered from FARCO founding documents:



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