Calakmul in Mexico: Combining Financial Empowerment and Conservation


BOISE, Idaho — In Mexico’s southern jungle, an environmental crisis is looming. The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, a protected region forming a part of one of the most important jungle habitats in the northern hemisphere, is experiencing record-breaking droughts resulting from global warming. The droughts are the latest in a slew of human factors contributing to the destruction of protected jungle habitat, such as deforestation and poaching, which work to the detriment of threatened and endangered species living there. Saving these species is rapidly becoming dependent on cooperation with local communities, whose needs often contradict traditional conservation efforts.

Species in Danger

Spanning over 723,185 hectares of tropical rainforest, the Calakmul Reserve is home to threatened species such as jaguars and tapirs. It plays an integral role in southern Mexico’s jungle ecosystem. Surprisingly, although Calakmul is a part of Central America’s biggest tropical rainforest, the region lacks rivers and lakes, making consistent rainfall a critical component of the forest ecosystem. Over the last 20 years, the region has experienced an increase in precipitation variability, with periods of severe flooding followed by long droughts.

The increasingly unpredictable nature of Calakmul’s weather patterns means that wildlife is migrating away from the reserve toward rural communities’ outskirts all around it, where water is found more easily. As a result, conservationists have been quick to impose restrictions on land use in the forests immediately outside of those communities to protect wildlife. For locals, known as Campesinos, who exploit forest resources to make a living and view the forest as a place of work, these restrictions often impose on their livelihoods and cause them to resent conservation as a whole.

Different Interests in the Calakmul

At the heart of the conflict between conservationists and locals are etymological differences in the understanding of the value of a forest and power systems that often pit environmental knowledge against the interests of working-class people. In an article for Human Ecology, Nora Haenn uses anthropological analysis to categorize local relationships with the forest, citing the common belief among Campesinos that an uncultivated forest is an unproductive forest because its unaltered existence means that it isn’t being used to produce wealth. Haenn states, “Farmers view forests in direct opposition to cultivation and wealth. For them, the existence of forests means the absence of productive activities.”

Conservationists, by contrast, often measure the health of an ecosystem based on the amount of human activity and subsequently tend to define healthy ecosystems as ecosystems lacking human presence. For Campesinos, who don’t receive regular paychecks and are extremely vulnerable to outside impacts on their livelihoods, restrictions imposed by conservation groups threaten their ability to live.

Anti-conservationist sentiment runs deep in Calakmul and has ties to the agrarian reform demands of the Zapatista movement, where militant farmers inspired by Emiliano Zapata, a progressive leader of the Mexican Revolution, demanded from the government to return the land to the people farming it. In light of the moderate land grants given to many of Calakmul’s farmers, Campesinos commonly view ecological restrictions as negating the promise of agrarian reform. Campesinos are violently sensitive to any threat to their hard-earned land ownership rights. At one point, farmers in the area stated that they were ready to kill anyone proclaiming to be an ecologist.

Finding a Solution

Deocundo Acopa, Calakmul’s first reserve director, understood the need to synthesize local economic independence and conservation. Acopa, a vocal critic of traditional conservationism, understood a correlation between scientific knowledge and privilege, as conservationists typically came from comparably more affluent backgrounds than farmers and were thus disconnected from the realities of a subsistence lifestyle.

In his efforts to protect Calakmul, Acopa focused on incentivizing Campesino communities to protect their own resources by teaching them to diversify their exploitation of forest resources. In his words, “biodiversity is diversity in use.” Once locals understood the financial benefit of the array of resources present in forest ecosystems, they shifted from an economy based on “boom and bust cycles” dependent on a single resource’s availability to a more consistent and diversified economy. They were motivated to protect the entirety of their local forests.

The success of Acopa’s departure from the traditional, top-down model of conservation to a locally-led model serves as an example to follow for today’s need for conservation efforts aimed at protecting Calakmul’s wildlife. As jaguars and tapirs move toward rural communities for water, incentivizing locals to protect them for financial gain is a crucial step in effective conservation. Efforts expanding on Acopa’s model are already in place: one ecologist plants radio collars on jaguars to track population numbers and shares the animals’ locations with local tourist guides.

As climate change and human expansion increase environmental degradation, future conservation efforts must focus on empowering impoverished communities to take control of managing their own resources to ensure equitable and sustainable development.

– Kieran Hadley
Photo: Flickr


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