Connecting the Dots: Local to national forest carbon monitoring in Mexico

Local level carbon monitoring is truly foundational for the forest carbon sector. And EcoLogic believes that this monitoring can and should be conducted by the people living in and around high-carbon forests if the sector is to be successful in the long-run. Here’s why local people are critical: Mexico currently uses satellite images and some field-based data to quantify forest cover and thus estimate how much carbon is stored in its forests.  This data is called the national forest and soil inventory.  However, the satellite images themselves cannot determine the species, height or exact number of trees in a given area, nor can they measure the carbon stored in soil or dead wood.  Furthermore, the collection of field based data is challenging because of the difficult terrain, remote areas, and mistrust of outsiders within indigenous territories.  This is where local people fit in.

A small gathering of EcoLogic staff and partners in the Lacandón Jungle, Chiapas, Mexico

A small gathering of EcoLogic staff and partners in the Lacandón Jungle, Chiapas, Mexico (Photographed by Carlos Miguel Herrera Tapia)

EcoLogic has helped organize groups of community members, calling them “brigades,” in Chiapas and Campeche, and trained them on a carbon measurement methodology developed by EcoLogic in partnership with the Mexican universities, Univerdad de Ciencias y Artes de Chiapas (UNICACH) and El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR). The methodology first involves identifying and delimiting forest “conglomerates” (areas of about a quarter of an acre) where there is limited satellite data. Then, you conduct a survey which includes: counting all of the trees within the conglomerate, measuring the height and diameter of each tree in the area, identifying the species of each tree, evaluating the dead wood, and taking soil samples to calculate the amount of carbon stored in the soil. Sounds like a major undertaking (it is!). So how do local people learn how to do all of this?

Let’s walk you through a recent participatory workshop that EcoLogic conducted along with biology Professor Sergio Lopez from UNICACH in the community of Naha, Chiapas. Using a compass and a GPS, community members identified a conglomerate to be measured then used ropes to form and display the boundaries.  Then everyone broke up into smaller groups. Under the guidance of the professor, the trainees divided the conglomerate into multiple transects, and each section was designated for a different type of data to be collected: in one section, tree diameters and height; in another, the density of the dead wood; in another, soil samples; and in another, tree species. All of the data was meticulously collected on waterproof paper over the course of two days.  Ultimately the data is processed by one of our university partners and the amount of carbon stored within that area is estimated.  This data, which is far more accurate than satellite photos, will be fed into each state’s forest inventory database, which will contribute to the national level forest and soil inventory.

A carbon monitoring brigade poses for a photo in the Lacandón Jungle, Chiapas, Mexico.

A carbon monitoring brigade poses for a photo in the Lacandón Jungle, Chiapas, Mexico. (Photographed by Carlos Miguel Herrera Tapia)

With support from the Governor’s Forest and Climate Fund, EcoLogic is working in Mexico’s REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation PLUS Conservation) Early Action States (Chiapas, Campeche, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, and Jalisco) to train community forest brigades, and build the capacity of state-level monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) working groups.  These working groups are made up of state government officials, scientists, and community members who have been trained by EcoLogic and our partners in this data collection methodology.  The ultimate goal is to build the capacity of the MRV working groups so that each state can collect and provide accurate, valid data.

So what does it all mean and why would community members want to spend their time measuring trees? By getting a clear picture of how much carbon is currently stored in Mexico’s forest and soils, Mexico will be able to measure over time if greenhouse gas emissions are being reduced through initiatives such as Mexico’s National Climate Change Strategy.  Also, in order to receive payments for protecting and enhancing the “ecosystem service” of carbon sequestration which the forest provides (a major incentive that drives community participation in these efforts), participating communities have to verifiably know how much carbon they are storing/capturing through their protection of the forest and their uptake of emissions-reducing activities (e.g. sustainable agriculture, reforestation, silvo-pastoral grazing systems, and non-timber forest products). In the end, through forest carbon monitoring, communities will have a stronger understanding of the value of their forest and ecosystem assets, as well as the central role they play in mitigating climate change. This information and understanding lines them up to receive payment for sustainable forest stewardship and enabling them to better advocate for their rights as the purveyors of these natural carbon capturing services. And the reduction of greenhouse gasses will ultimately benefit all of us.

EcoLogic’s CarbonPlus work in Mexico is a perfect example of how EcoLogic can tap into, strengthen, and align the effort and knowledge of local people with landscape-level initiatives and beyond. This work involves national government agencies such as the National Forestry Commission (CONAFOR), government agencies in five states, three Mexican universities, and ten indigenous groups to align national and state level polices related to forest carbon. EcoLogic’s piece of the puzzle is to ensure that local people have the tools, resources, connections, and respect that they need in order to have a voice in the process and a claim to the benefits of conservation.

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