From Colombia to Cambridge to Chiapas, Lessons from CarbonPlus

By EcoLogic intern Camilo Esquivia-Zapata

Camilo Esquivia-Zapata is an EcoLogic intern working on EcoLogic’s CarbonPlus program in the Lacandón Jungle of Chiapas, Mexico. Originally from Colombia, Camilo is currently pursuing a dual master’s degree in Sustainable International Development and Coexistence and Conflict at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University.

Camilo in La Cojolita

Camilo at Mayan ruins near the CarbonPlus project site in La Cojolita, Chiapas, Mexico

I grew up in Colombia, and I have spent my whole life experiencing the effects of an ongoing 50-year war over the natural wealth of my country. Colombia is extremely biodiverse, and it is home to many species of animals and plants that are endemic to the country—meaning that they exist only in Colombia. Conflicts over natural resources, distribution of wealth, and political ideologies have led the country into a 50-plus-year war. The long conflict between various political groups in Colombia is driven largely by a desire to control our natural resources. I grew up seeing the links between Colombia’s rich biodiversity and the war, and how much damage the conflict has done to both the people of Colombia and its environment.

What I saw and experienced from the terrible conflict at home made me interested in the deep connection between conservation and conflict from a young age. Driven to search for a place where I could find tools and answers to address the connections I saw, I came to the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University to pursue a dual master’s degree in Sustainable International Development and Coexistence and Conflict.

As part of my program at the Heller School, students must complete an internship or research project. For my internship, I was fortunate to be invited to work with EcoLogic, supporting Andrea Savage, manager of the EcoLogic’s CarbonPlus program in the rainforest of the Sierra Cojolita in Chiapas, Mexico. Alongside the CarbonPlus program’s Senior Manager Bryan Foster, Andrea is working with three indigenous Mayan communities to explore the possibilities of implementing a REDD+ project in the area, which will use the sale of carbon credits as a source of revenue for the communities. One of the main goals of the project is to create an incentive to keep the approximately 88,000-acre area of beautiful rainforest standing and healthy.

I recently was able to travel to the CarbonPlus project site in Chiapas, Mexico. In the Sierra Cojolita, three indigenous groups are exploring options for the protection of their communally-owned land. The cultural and natural beauty of the Cojolita region is unique and invaluable. The rainforest is home to several endangered species, and several ancient Mayan ruins still stand in the forest. The challenges faced by the Mayan communities in Chiapas are common throughout the world—for example, population growth, unequal distribution of wealth, and corruption have all forced community members into difficult economic circumstances. Some people feel forced to cut down the forest for agriculture and cattle, because they need to provide for their families.

In Chiapas, I thought again of a question that I first asked growing up in conflict-ridden Colombia: How do we find a balance where humans can live a life with dignity and meet their basic needs without destroying their environment?

Camilo at the Heller School with friends

Camilo at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, where he attends graduate school

At the Heller School, we talk, read, and dream about finding solutions. EcoLogic is working with local communities to actually implement solutions that make sense for ecoystems and people throughout Central America and Mexico.

In Chiapas, I saw that the communities want to protect the land they have inherited from the generations before them. They want to find solutions that allow them to protect the forest, while still meeting their basic needs. Now, EcoLogic is working in partnership with them to make that happen. The CarbonPlus project is also important because it’s not only about one rainforest and the communities who live there, but because it’s tapping into a tool to mitigate climate change—and that’s about the survival of the world as we know it!

Interning with EcoLogic has been a great match for me, and I’ve put a lot of what I have learned at the Heller School into practice. I already deeply believed that the people who live in an area are the ones who best know how to take care of that ecosystem—and I have seen the CarbonPlus project putting those values into action. However, there is still a lot of work to be done in the Sierra Cojolita before the CarbonPlus project can achieve all of its goals. This work is not easy and questions remain about, for example, how rights-based approaches can be successfully incorporated into a global REDD+ framework—but I hope that the fact that there are still so many questions left to be answered will translate into good job opportunities after I graduate!

It’s exciting to be working with such a great group of people. And best of all, I feel like I can make a career from my “idealistic” views about making the world a better place!

Spider Branch

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