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Conservation and Capacity Building in Action: Tropical Forest Transects in Oaxaca, Mexico

This guest post was written by Dartmouth College fellow Alisa White, who is currently in the field observing and supporting EcoLogic’s work in Oaxaca, Mexico. See Alisa’s bio at the end of the article.

There was a palpable excitement in the air as our group reached the field site. Our group included almost twenty Rancho Faisán community members, EcoLogic staff members Severiana Dominguez and Marco Acevedo, researcher Marc Mayes of the University of California Santa Barbara, and myself. We gathered around an enormous ojoche tree, fondly called “Pochota” by community members. Our chatter, a mix of Spanish and Chinanteco, the local language, rang out through the primary forest surrounding us. One community member, Valentín, explained that the Pochota tree must be at least two hundred years old. His grandfather first told him about this tree, this particular spot on the cerro. We marveled at how its enormous roots stretched up from the ground over our heads, its thick trunk extended higher and higher, its broad canopy vaulted over the other trees and out of sight.

Alisa White and community members reviewing diameter at breast height tree measurements

That morning, we met twenty community members of the Rancho Faisán ejido at the edge of the highway running from Oaxaca City to Tuxtepec. From there, we clambered into two trucks before driving the steep, rocky road to the small community of Cerro Caballo. After a refresher training on how to use a compass, GPS, and diameter tape, we started off on our hour-long hike to the conservation area of Rancho Faisán. This voluntary, community-owned conservation area was officially recognized by the Mexican government in 2006, but the community’s knowledge of the forest stretches back for generations. The forest path was unmarked, but the community members moved swiftly and surely up the mountain, ducking under low branches, stepping over fallen trees, pointing out medicinal and edible plants as we went along. To get to the conservation site, we passed through several areas of acahuales, secondary growth forest, where crops such as corn and beans were previously planted. After hiking in almost 100% humidity, we reached the conservation area. While many of the acahuales were composed of smaller trees and nearly impassable masses of dense vines and brush, the primary forest floor was remarkably open. The lush montane forest spread out before us as rays of sunlight leaked through tiny gaps in the forest canopy. We were eager to get started with our work. Adelante.

Three men work together to measure trees in the Rancho Faisán conservation area

In the tranquility of this old-growth forest, we leapt into action. A flurry of papers, pencils, compasses, clipboards, diameter tapes. Rapid group discussion. Motion in all directions. One man marked the start of the transect with a branch stuck into the ground, another used the GPS to mark the first waypoint. One younger man with impeccable handwriting took down the coordinates. Our first forest transect was already under way. After plotting out a 100 by 20 meter transect using a compass, measuring tape, and GPS, the second community group started in on tree sampling. In the 10 by 20-meter subplot, they measured the diameter at breast height of every tree greater than 5 centimeters in diameter. Valentín embraced the role of tree measurer with great enthusiasm, grandly announcing the diameter of each tree as one of the women recorded the measurements diligently. Tree identification was a group effort as several community members examined the bark, leaves, branches, and, if present, the fruit of the tree. I was amazed by the wealth of knowledge in the group, how readily they were able to identify the trees in their forest. In a single transect, they identified fifteen different tree species, a small microcosm of the biodiversity of this forest.

Marco Acevedo and community members at the base of the Pochota tree in Rancho Faisán

As the sun grew low in the sky, we rode back down the mountain in our trucks. We had completed a full forest transect that day as community members became more comfortable with the techniques. The atmosphere of the group was tired but jubilant. As we shared a meal at the base of the mountain, our conversations turned to the future. With support from EcoLogic staff and the National Geographic Last Wild Places grant, community members will conduct further transects in conservation areas, secondary growth forest (acahuales), and in an agricultural area where trees are cultivated or planted. By the end of the project, the community will have a database of scientifically rigorous data on their forests and the capacity to continue adding to it. This wealth of written information and data on their forests will complement their extensive local knowledge. It will further enable them to tell the story of their forests over time and set goals for the future of conservation and of their community.

As evening fell and the conversations wound down, I thought about the Pochota tree up on the hills above Rancho Faisán. I envisioned Pochota on its journey upward, reaching further above the forest canopy as it grows. Capacity building is all about this progress, adding layers of information and training to strengthen community-based conservation efforts. The roots of conservation run deep in the Rancho Faisán community, but the National Geographic Last Wild Places grant supports its development. I see the potential for new branches – sustainable agroforestry or reforestation projects around the edges of the conservation area. This project is a chance for growth, connection, and collaboration in this lush, biodiverse forest.

Alisa White is a recent graduate of Dartmouth College with a passion for environmental justice and sustainable natural resource management. At Dartmouth, she studied Environmental Studies and Economics and conducted field research on natural resource management in Ecuador, South Africa, Namibia, and the state of Vermont. With a fellowship from Dartmouth, she is working for EcoLogic, researching sustainable income generation from tropical forests. As part of her work, she is supporting the activities of EcoLogic’s National Geographic Last Wild Places Grant in Oaxaca, Mexico.


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