Stove By Stove, Tree By Tree in Chinantla, Mexico

The quiet, tiny community of San Bernabé in the Chinantla region of Oaxaca, Mexico, feels like a world away from the city of Tuxtepec. Yet the bustling municipality is barely an hour away. On the winding drive from the city to San Bernabé, urban development and industry give way to a forested landscape dotted with small, rural homes and subsistence farm plots so rapidly that the transition feels jarring—blink, and you’re in a profoundly different place. “There’s such an isolation to these communities,” Sam Schofield, EcoLogic’s Program Officer for Institutional Development, reflected after a visit to the area.

Women in Oaxaca cooking tortillas on an EcoLogic stove

Women in San Bernabé cook handmade tortillas on an EcoLogic fuel-efficient stove (Photo: Alstom Foundation)

Chinantla is home to the third-largest rainforest in Mexico—more than 600,000 forested acres—as well as one of the few remaining tracts of cloud forest in the country. However, the watershed is threatened by the agriculture and industry in Tuxtepec, which have made the Papaloapan River one of the most polluted waterways in Mexico.

Map of the Chinantla region in Oaxaca

Map of the Chinanta region in Oaxaca, Mexico

In the area around San Bernabé, livestock ranching and industrial monoculture farming of sugarcane, pineapples, and rubber continue to drive deforestation rates upward.

Of all the states in Mexico, Oaxaca has the largest indigenous population, but is also one of the poorest. In 2013, EcoLogic and our partner, the Regional Environmental Collaborative for the Chinantla Region of Oaxaca (FARCO), began working to alleviate pressure on Chinantla’s natural resources while improving living conditions for the rural people who rely heavily on those resources. Local people are adamant that they would rather conserve the forest than see it continue to be cut down—but they need viable options, which is what our initiative provides.

To survey our progress, Sam visited the area in March with representatives from the Alstom Foundation, a major funder of the project. They were joined by Regional Program Director Gabriela Gonzalez and Mexico Program Officer Marco Acevedo.

In the last year, EcoLogic and FARCO built a nursery to support reforestation, which will soon be home to 120,000 seedlings, and constructed 40 stoves.

Man in boat at Miguel Aleman Dam

The Chinantla community of San Luis Ojitlán lies on the shore of a lake created by the construction of the Miguel Alemán Dam, at the headwaters of the Papaloapan River

We also began working with a local school to help farmers learn agroforestry techniques, train “forest guardians” to protect standing forest, and teach children and youth about conservation and sustainable agriculture.

On the trip, Sam saw how fuel-efficient stoves are already making an impact in Chinantla. Doña Felipa, a mother of three and member of San Bernabé’s indigenous Chinanteca community, told Sam how her new stove has changed her family’s lives. “We traditionally cooked our food on open fires. I used to use 20 pieces of wood to cook, but now I only need four,” she said. “And my children no longer have to breathe so much smoke,” she added, beaming as she flipped hot tortillas on the stove.

EcoLogic and FARCO currently work in seven municipalities in Chinantla, each comprised of small communities like San Bernabé. We plan to scale up our conservation of the Papaloapan River watershed and bring resources to more communities in the area. For now, we are focused on building the project’s foundations, stove by stove, tree by tree.

Want more stories like this? Sign up for EcoLogic eNews today and get updates delivered right to your inbox.