A U.S.-Mexican partnership to save the parrots of the Cebadillas
By Scott Norris
Flying in a plane at 30,000 feet, it is easy to see how biological patterns and processes form a seamless web across international political boundaries. But down on the ground, efforts to protect biodiversity often stumble at border crossings, where languages, laws, and cultural values change. Yet, protecting many species and ecosystems requires international cooperation. Increasingly, many scientists and conservation planners in the U.S. are reaching out to colleagues in Mexico — both to devise strategies to help conserve the rich endemic biodiversity of that country and to maintain habitat connectivity between north and south.
One such species in need of international help is the thick-billed parrot (Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha), a bird that once flocked in the mountain forests of the southwestern United States. Today, the parrot survives in small breeding colonies in the mountains of Chihuahua, in northern Mexico. A recent conservation success story from that region illustrates how one U.S.-based conservation group, The Wildlands Project, learned to work effectively with Mexican allies to secure critical breeding habitat for this endangered species.
In this case, results were achieved through a combination of sound science, extensive collaboration with Mexican allies, and an informed, respectful approach to the historical, social, and economic realities of Mexico. With its broad approach to conservation on a continental scale, The Wildlands Project has had to develop strong ties with conservationists across North America. Having such a network in place in Mexico allowed the organization to step in and play a critical role when a conservation opportunity presented itself.
The lands involved in this case are a single tile in a much larger mosaic of protected areas that The Wildlands Project envisions stretching across the Sky Islands region of northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. But the story of how this organization helped to broker protection for the parrots of Cebadillas — a remote forested region in northern Sierra Madre Occidental — offers lessons for conservationists whose immediate goals are more modest than the design and implementation of an international reserve network.
The agreement reached by The Wildlands Project and several Mexican conservation groups with a rural land cooperative, or ejido, may be precedent-setting in its establishment of a lease contract as a useful tool for protecting lands in Mexico, where more familiar land purchase agreements or conservation easements may not be possible. But the agreement is important in other respects as well. The Wildlands Project executive director Leanne Klyza Linck notes that the deal was the final result of extensive negotiations that depended fundamentally on a carefully established network of cooperation and trust. As such, it may also be a model for transcending the cultural and economic barriers that impede U.S. conservation groups from doing business effectively south of the border.
Seizing an Opportunity
The Sky Islands region has long been recognized as a hot spot for biological diversity. In addition to hosting numerous endemic species, the plains and isolated mountains separating the southernmost fingers of the Rocky Mountains and the northern fringe of the Sierra Madre Occidental are a zone of overlap for species that reside primarily in the temperate or subtropical regions of North America. The mountains of northern Mexico continue to house stable populations of several broad-ranging and highly charismatic species — including jaguars and thick-billed parrots — that once populated lands north of the border. “It comes as a surprise to many people living in New Mexico and Arizona that a century ago, thick-billed parrots were fairly common in their state,” says Allan McDonell, The Wildlands Project’s lead negotiator in the Cebadillas project.
Wildlands Project planners long realized that the border region was significant to their continental conservation efforts. But by the mid-1990s, no thorough survey of biologically important areas that might form a regional reserve network had been conducted. So in 1997, The Wildlands Project hired Mexican ecologist Rurik List to begin work on a wildlands network design for northern Mexico. As the project’s new program coordinator for Mexico, List organized a workshop in the city of Chihuahua, that brought together some of the top U.S. and Mexican scientists and conservationists with expertise in the region. Based on information presented at the meeting and his own field studies, List identified 32 priority sites for conservation in the states of Sonora and Chihuahua.
“At the workshop, people said again and again that the forest at Cebadillas should be our number one priority,” says McDonell. At issue was a 10,000-acre tract of mature ponderosa pine forest about 150 miles south of the U.S.-Mexican border. Researchers recently had determined that the area contains the largest known breeding site for the endangered parrot. Studies in the area were ongoing under the direction of Ernesto Enkerlin, a biologist at Monterrey Tech University and regional head of Pronatura, one of Mexico’s largest conservation organizations. After several years of study, field researchers had not only amassed a great deal of information about parrots but also gained the trust and acceptance of the small logging community on whose land the studies took place.
As in many remote parts of Mexico, the lands at Cebadillas are owned and occupied by a rural land cooperative, or ejido. Traditionally, the main source of income for members of the Ejido Tutuaca has been harvesting timber. The biologists at Cebadillas learned that one reason the local forest remained intact was a long-standing dispute with a neighboring ejido over logging rights. This dispute, however, recently had been settled. A forester had drawn up plans, and a 15-year logging cycle would soon begin to eliminate the old ponderosa pines in which the parrots nested. This was the news that Enkerlin brought to the meeting in Chihuahua.
For The Wildlands Project, this seemed a perfect opportunity to move from mapping and planning to actual implementation. Here, potentially, was a valuable piece of the reserve network. But could the piece be set in place? The process of gathering information about important areas in the Sierra Madre had strengthened The Wildlands Project’s ties with the Mexican conservation groups Pronatura and Naturalia. Working in collaboration, the three organizations began putting together a plan to save the Cebadillas forest.
Enkerlin, List, and Oscar Moctezuma (Wildlands Project vice-president and director of Naturalia) began educational outreach and preliminary negotiations with ejido members. Their first goal was simply to convince the ejido that a conservation plan was even worth discussing. “Ernesto conducted a series of small meetings at the ejido,” says Wildlands Project Southwest representative Kim Vacariu. “They talked about the ecological services the forest provides and the boom-and-bust economics of logging.” Providing information about available options and building trust were essential components of this process. “We wanted the people protecting the forest because they wanted to protect the forest,” says List.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S., Wildlands Project staff began fundraising as well as exploring legal options for protecting the Cebadillas land. “Only about two percent of lands in Mexico are owned publicly, so clearly the ways we do conservation campaigns in the U.S. and Canada are dead in the water,” McDonell says. A recent study commissioned by The Wildlands Project and conducted by a Mexican attorney specializing in land protection issues confirmed this conclusion. “What the study told us is that conservation easements, and simply purchasing land for protection, might not be the way to go,” says Vacariu. While the purchase of lands from private owners may be an option in some cases, the vast areas owned by ejido are rarely for sale.
Eventually, the legal mechanism proposed — and ultimately approved by the ejido — was one uniquely suited both to Mexican land laws and to the economic necessities of the mountain community. No lands or resource rights changed hands. Under the terms of the lease contract, the ejido agreed to defer logging on a 6,000 acre tract of forest for at least 15 years. In return, the Wildlands Project and Pronatura agreed to compensate the ejido for half of their lost logging revenue of roughly $400,000.
In addition, the conservation groups agreed to provide funding and expertise to help the ejido establish more sustainable economic development alternatives than the proposed logging plan. For example, The Wildlands Project is funding a new timber plan for remaining ejido lands, which will be submitted for forest management certification by the International Forest Stewardship Council. If granted, the ejido will be able to market its timber at a higher price to retailers interested in promoting sustainable forestry. The conservation groups also are helping build a wildlife-friendly fence to secure the area from illegal timber harvest, as well as building cabins for adventurous birdwatchers and other tourists wishing to visit the remote region.
The final deal — which had to be approved by a vote of ejido members — depended entirely on a high level of communication and trust that the Mexican conservationists had painstakingly established with the community. “When I showed up in 1999,” says McDonell, “I was in the company of Ernesto and the two researchers who had been there for six years. And so I was accepted.” Linck, who signed the final agreement on behalf of The Wildlands Project last December, also emphasizes the collaborative nature of the project. “We couldn’t have done this alone,” she says.
Even with the foundation of trust and mutual respect, the project’s success hinged on the ability of conservationists to offer a viable economic alternative to, and ensure legal protection for, the Tutuaca community. In this regard, the fundraising and expertise provided by The Wildlands Project were indispensable. “In Mexico,” says List, “if we’re not able to provide a means of subsistence for the people living on the land, conservation cannot take place.”
List emphasizes that while the ejido was partly compensated for the value of the uncut timber, members had to agree to sacrifice individual wages and other collateral income associated with logging. That a poor community with pressing and immediate economic needs was willing to make this kind of sacrifice is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Cebadillas agreement. To everyone involved in the negotiations, being present at the community meeting in which ejido members finally voted their approval was a memorable and moving experience.
Over one hundred people were crowded into a small schoolhouse, McDonell recalls. The debate over conservation versus logging had gone back and forth for hours. “The really dramatic moment was when an old woman stood up and said that she wanted her grandchildren to be able to see some forests that were intact, and that she was prepared to give up something in the present for that,” McDonell says. “It was unusual for a woman to get up and make a statement like that, and you could actually feel a ripple of approval go through the audience.” In the end, the vote to approve the plan was nearly unanimous.
Momentum for the Future
Conservation groups now have 15 years to prove to the people of Cebadillas that sustainable alternatives to traditional logging do exist. McDonell notes that the community has demonstrated a commitment to conservation and a great deal of pride in outside interest in their forests and wildlife. Given a viable means of leaving the forests intact, they will likely do so. As efforts to develop new income sources for the ejido get underway, additional support for conservation at Cebadillas may be forthcoming. Linck says the agreement has attracted a great deal of attention from government officials at the state and federal levels in Mexico, and extra protection through the establishment of a wildlife sanctuary may be possible. In the long run, some form of ecotourism may be the best hope for both the parrots and the people of Cebadillas.
Many hope that the Cebadillas agreement will be a model that stimulates land protection negotiations with other ejido throughout Mexico. The Wildlands Project is currently in the preliminary stages of such negotiations and will soon open a joint office with Naturalia in the city of Chihuahua. “Our strategy is to continue partnering with existing Mexican organizations and trying to empower them to increase their work that supports Wildlands Project goals,” says Linck. “Cebadillas was a success, but working with other ejido probably will be different. We’re proceeding cautiously, building on what we have learned, with guidance from our Mexican allies.”
It is a strategy that seems to be working. “It’s pretty much impossible for a non-Mexican conservation organization to function unilaterally in Mexico,” McDonell says. “But one of the big lessons from this is that American and Mexican-based conservation groups can work very effectively together.” U.S. groups interested in getting involved in land protection in Mexico, he says, need to keep three things in mind. First, understand the historical and cultural context in which you are working. “If you don’t have a sense of how the revolutions of the early 20th century affected land use, you won’t even know where to begin,” he says.
Second, identify the existing players. “Be respectful and deal with them first in the context of what you can do to help their work. Approach them with the attitude of what you can accomplish together.” Finally, McDonell says, “Don’t forget the underlying science.” The story of the Cebadillas agreement all began with field biology — researchers in a remote region carrying out intensive studies of a magnificent and threatened species and, in the process, building ties with the human community.
The Wildlands Project
Sky Island Alliance
About the Author:
Scott Norris is a freelance science writer based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.