Los Funcionarios: Mexico-Based Alums Drive Ambitious Conservation Initiative
Across Mexico, a young cohort of F&ES alumni are driving one of the most important experiments in forest conservation happening anywhere.
By Aaron Reuben
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.
At the wet border of Mexico and Guatemala grows a florid jungle called the Lacandon. In its dark interiors, somehow, jaguars still hunt tapir and red macaws and pouty-lipped howler monkeys still pass through canopies thick with vines and flowering bromeliads. Where the trees halt and waterways converge, swamp crocodiles still grin and yawn in its rich, silty mud.
“The Lacandon is the last real rainforest in Mexico,” says Lucía Ruiz Bustos ’13 M.E.M., a biologist with Mexico’s National Commission on Natural Protected Areas who once lived in the forest. “It’s as similar to the Amazon as you can get.”
Like the Amazon, the Lacandon is disappearing — at a rate of about five percent of its area each year, largely to slash and burn agriculture. By 2011 the Lacandon covered just 10 percent of its original expanse. In the pieces that remain live indigenous communities descended from the Maya, fully one third of all Mexican bird species, a quarter of all Mexican animal species, and one tenth of all Mexican fish species. The Lacandon now also hosts a small part in one of the planet’s largest experiment in conservation, an experiment being led in Mexico, at each step, by a young cohort of F&ES alumni.
Mexico is currently one of the world’s most advanced countries in preparing for REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), a global payment for ecosystem service scheme aimed at stabilizing our climate through the protection of tropical forests. You’ve likely heard the idea before: destroying forests releases carbon into the atmosphere, contributing significantly to climate change (15 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions, to be precise). Compared to taking cars off the road or closing coal plants, it is relatively cheap to not cut down a forest. So, the thinking goes, why don’t the rich, developed countries in the global north — which contributed the most to the problem — pay developing countries in the south to protect their forests and erase one significant contribution to the problem?
It’s a sound idea. But no country in the world has yet fully implemented REDD+, with real money flowing to protect or restore real forests. Mexico may one of the places be where it happens first, thanks, in part, to F&ES alumni. “In the region, at least, we are many steps ahead,” says Gabriela Alonso ’09 M.E.M., a former REDD+ technical consultant to Mexico’s National Forest Commission. With national strategies established, grants secured, and monitoring systems developed, she says, “everything is moving into place now.”
Alonso was one of the first Mexican environmentalists to matriculate at Yale and, in turn, she became one of the first F&ES alumni to work on REDD+ in Mexico. But she was not the last. Ana Karla Perea Blázquez ’11 M.E.M. is Mexico’s current national focal point for REDD+ in the international climate negotiations process. Jaime Severino ’11 M.E.M. oversaw the preparation of Mexico’s REDD+ strategy at the national level. And Yves Paiz ’07 M.E.Sc. works to design and implement REDD+ projects in the Yucatán, one of Mexico’s key early action regions. (The Lacandon rainforest stretches from Chiapas into the Yucatán region.)
“I think we were super lucky about our timing,” says Alonso. When she and her classmates were graduating from Yale, REDD+ discussions were maturing in the global arena and each was able to return to Mexico after graduation to work on a different aspect of this conservation issue. “The National Forest Commission was open and ambitious and really wanted to implement a landscape approach,” says Alonso. “We had to come back to Mexico.”
Though the government has a strong desire to participate in REDD+, the nitty-gritty of implementation can be tricky. For example: “In Mexico deforestation is already illegal,” says Yves Paiz. “The government can’t make a payment to someone to not do something that is illegal — so instead we are trying to incentivize management practices that can promote rural development and limit deforestation.” In an interesting twist on the goal, Paiz works with cattle ranchers to intensify their ranching practices so that they receive more income from less land. “That,” says Paiz, “will reduce the pressure on intact forests.”
This is an example of the “landscape approach” that Mexico is at the forefront of piloting. “We are trying to address deforestation not just by looking at direct causes,” says Severino, “but also indirect, secondary causes. We are trying to promote sustainable rural development through this landscape approach.”
There are currently five early REDD+ action areas in Mexico — in Jalisco, Chiapas and the three states of the Yucatán Penninsula. “Each have different drivers of deforestation and each have different deforestation reduction and restoration plans,” says Blázquez. The goal now is to prove that Mexico is not just “one of the most ambitious countries on the climate change agenda,” says Blázquez, but that the agenda itself can work.
That makes this an exciting time to be working on forests and land conservation in Mexico. “We have the opportunity to test REDD+ before it enters into force,” says Yves, noting that the full program is not expected to begin around the world in earnest until 2020, when negotiations on its funding should be complete. There are several elements, like strong monitoring plans, that countries need to have in place by then if they are to receive REDD+ payments. In Mexico, says Severino, “we are advanced in all of them.”
The idea is sound and the structures are in place. But, “will it work?” wonders Alonso. She hopes it will, and she shares optimism with her fellow alumni working on REDD+ in Mexico. “If we don’t do it right now, here — where else could this work?”
About the Author
Aaron Reuben is a 2012 graduate of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, where he served as managing editor of Sage Magazine. His writing has appeared in Grist, Sierra Magazine, and the Atlantic.