In Mexico, Putting Carbon in Local Hands

By giving local indigenous people a seat at the table, we’re helping make an international climate change mitigation program more effective in Mexico.

By Felicia Line, CarbonPlus Field Coordinator

Community brigades were trained to monitor carbon stored in forests in the Lacandón Jungle, in Chiapas.

Community brigades were trained to monitor carbon stored in forests in the Lacandón Jungle, in Chiapas.

If you ask about what REDD+ is in the Lacandón Jungle in Chiapas, Mexico, you might get a range of answers. Some people will think you’re talking about the Red Cross, while others say that it refers to a giant net (“red” means “net” in Spanish) that will descend over the jungle to protect it. In other words, there is a lot of confusion and misinformation about what REDD+ entails and how it could work—not just in the Lacandón Jungle, but in other areas of Mexico and the world.


REDD+ is a United Nations program developed to address climate change through forest conservation, and REDD stands for “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.” As part of our CarbonPlus Program, EcoLogic has been working with three indigenous Maya groups in the Lacandón Jungle of Chiapas since 2012: the Choles, Tzeltales and Lacandónes. The Lacandón Jungle is one of the most biodiverse tropical rainforests in Mexico and Mesoamerica. The jungle covers approximately 1,818,054 hectares, and over 500,000 hectares are communally managed by these three indigenous communities.

Mexico has committed to implementing REDD+ at the national level.
In 2010, a “Vision” document was published that will serve as groundwork for a national REDD+ strategy. The Vision states that in REDD+, communities and individual landowners should receive “fair and direct benefits, which should not threaten rights to land or the potential to use land sustainably.” How this will play out in reality, however, remains an unanswered question. There is a lively ongoing international conversation about how some implementations of REDD+ have ignored the interests and needs of rural and indigenous peoples.

This is why, in our CarbonPlus work, EcoLogic has been working with local communities to inform them about REDD+, and to ensure they understand the impacts conservation programs like REDD+ could have for them and the communal reserve that they jointly own and manage. We collaborate both with local communities and with stakeholders at the state level in Chiapas to ensure that indigenous people are included and actively engaged in the development of state- and national-level REDD+ policy in Mexico.

In 2014, with support from the Governors’ Climate Forest (GCF) Fund, EcoLogic began work on a project to strengthen local capacities to measure the carbon stored in trees in the Lacandón and Calakmul Jungles. We are coordinating the project with the state governments of Chiapas and Campeche, and are also collaborating with two local universities and several local NGOs.*

As part of a learning exchange, community technicians from the state of Campeche traveled to train local people in Chiapas in monitoring carbon stored in forests, including how to use GPS

As part of a learning exchange, community technicians from the state of Campeche traveled to train local people in Chiapas in monitoring carbon stored in forests, including how to use GPS

The focus of this work is on strengthening the capacity of local people to monitor the carbon stored in the forests where they live.
This locally-collected data will feed into Mexico’s emerging national REDD+ Monitoring, Reporting and Verification (MRV) system for carbon. By enabling local communities, scientists, and governments to be active participants alongside state- and national-level planners, we can work together to make informed decisions about land-use policy at the local level, and make sure that local communities receive more of the benefits of REDD+.

When there is active local participation in carbon monitoring, local people and landowners are able to prove their contributions to forest conservation, and therefore receive financial benefits under the REDD+ system—which, as you might be able to guess from the kinds of answers we get when asking local people about REDD+, is otherwise often misunderstood.

As part of the project, local and national experts have trained “community brigades” made up of university students, landowners and young community members to estimate the volume of carbon that the forests contain. To do this, the brigades were trained in a range of methods and technologies, including how to measure tree height and diameter, how to use GPS to locate plots, and how to count, identify and label tree species.

In September, we also organized a learning exchange between Campeche’s more experienced community brigades and Chiapas’s newer teams using a “learn-by-doing” model. Trained brigade members from Campeche were able to share their knowledge by demonstrating the work on the ground and communicating it in accessible, everyday language. The exchange was a great success. The connection between the two groups was strengthened by the fact that several indigenous groups from Chiapas had emigrated to Calakmul, in Campeche, during Mexico’s Zapatista revolution in the 90’s. As such, there are still many Tzeltales and Choles in Calakmul who speak their native language, and have direct family connections to Chiapas. This helped to break the ice and forge a common bond between technicians from the two states.

Community brigades using Cybertracker technology to monitor carbon for REDD+

Community brigades use technology to help them monitor forest carbon. Here, young people in Chiapas are trained in a program called CyberTracker, which works on tablets and smartphones and helps collect GPS data in the field.

Why is it so important to involve communities in forest carbon and biomass measurement?
First, the people who live in and depend on a forest should be part of any initiatives that affect it. Additionally, external contractors, sometimes from outside of Mexico, are currently often hired to monitor forest and soil carbon for state-level REDD+ programs—but these contractors often aren’t familiar with the regions they visit, and sometimes incorrectly identify plant and animal species. Local brigades, armed with an intimate knowledge of the places they live, are less likely to make these mistakes.

Want to see the project in action?

Watch this video to see carbon monitoring in action

Click the image above to watch a video of community brigades taking on carbon monitoring and measurement in the field!

Participating in the carbon monitoring brigades also gives community members a source of additional income, and brigade members gain new skills that help increase their chances of long-term employment. Dr. Ligia Esparza, a professor at the ECOSUR University in Campeche, who worked with us on the project, said, “Involving young people from the communities in the monitoring of the forests is crucial. They have lived through conflicts in their communities, they can clear up misunderstandings, and they can present information about these complex processes in a common language that their fellow community members understand”—instead of an outside ‘expert’ showing a confusing graph.

Because of our collaboration with universities in the area, the future of this carbon monitoring project will be driven mainly by local institutions, rooted in the local communities. “One of the most important aspects of this project is the strengthening of our local research centers, with students with related degrees putting their knowledge into practice,” said Ricardo Hernandez, the Undersecretary for Forestry Development with Chiapas’s Ministry of Environment and Natural History.

Most importantly, communities are empowered by their involvement in generating and analyzing information about the forest they live in—and by understanding the implications of that information on their own livelihoods.

The lessons learned in Chiapas and Campeche will form a valuable part of Mexico’s national REDD+ efforts. This project has “strengthened the position of local institutions and communities for negotiating their participation in the national REDD+ strategy,” said Hernandez.

Making sure that local people are active participants in preparing and implementing REDD+ programs at all levels is simply one of the best ways to avoid the negative social and environmental impacts that have raised controversy around REDD+.
We are excited to continue working to make sure that REDD+ works as effectively as it can, producing local benefits for the rural and indigenous peoples of Mexico as well as supporting global efforts to fight climate change.

* University collaborators: Universidad de Ciencias y Artes de Chiapas and El Colegio de la Frontera Sur. NGO collaborators: Cooperativa AMBIO, Investigaciones y Soluciones Socioambientales, HC Paisajismo, Pronatura Peninsula Yucatán.

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