Inside Oaxaca: A Community-based Carbon Market


Oaxaca, Mexico’s fifth largest state, encompasses the dense forests of the vast Sierra Sur and Sierra Norte mountains. More than a dozen indigenous communities reside within these biodiverse ecosystems of plants, mammals, amphibians and reptiles. Currently, these areas face grave threats from illegal logging; in addition to increased pests, diseases and forest fire threats exacerbated by climate change.

The small nonprofit organization ICICO — Integrator of Indigenous and Campesino Communities of Oaxaca — works to protect these threatened ecosystems by empowering local rural communities to find new ways to benefit from and be compensated for their traditional environmental management practices. Elizabeth Shapiro-Garza, associate professor of the practice of environmental science and policy at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment, has worked in Mexico since 2005. Her research focuses on ways communities interact with programs that support their conservation effects through payments for ecosystem services.

Shapiro-Garza's work with ICICO is one of her longest and strongest collaborations, leading to innumerable opportunities for the Nicholas School and Duke; including student field courses and master’s projects that explore how communities can sustainably manage their natural resources. These initiatives also help the university mitigate its greenhouse gas emissions.

Oaxaca is the 5th largest state in Mexico, covering 93,757 sq. km., with a population of nearly 4 million people.
The collaboration between ICICO and Shapiro-Garza embodies a wonderful exchange of environmental ideas and cultural identity. Members of ICICO are shown speaking with Nicholas School students and faculty about their environmental management practices.
Javier Cosmes, community leader and former teacher, leads visiting Nicholas School students through a mural that illustrates the origin story, history and traditions of the Zapotec community of Capulalpam de Méndez, Oaxaca.

OAXACA: ITs land, its people

“We were never conquered” is a common saying among the 16 distinct indigenous groups in the state of Oaxaca. Located in the southwest of Mexico, the region is incredibly rich in biological and cultural diversity.

The saying signifies that even under Spanish colonial rule and beyond, Oaxaca's communities maintained their sovereignty and identity. Currently, indigenous and peasant communities own and communally govern about 80 percent of the land. Even so, these historically strong and resilient rural communities face many challenges. Policies, such as NAFTA, have reduced government support and flooded the market with cheap corn and other imports that have reduced the economic viability of local livelihoods. They've led to sometimes drastic levels of out migration, leaving only children and older adults in some communities. The environmental threats facing Oaxaca's forests are exacerbated by the fact that the protections needed are absent.

Oaxaca's rich history is deeply rooted in its diverse cultural heritage, and experienced through its art, food, religion, language, agriculture and the people's connection with the vast geography around them.
ICICO members Rosendo “Charlie” Pérez Antonio, far left, and Carlos Marcelo Pérez González, at the far right, are shown leading a field lesson.

ICICO: creating locally owned, OPERATED carbon market in oaxaca

(From left to right): ICICO personnel - Carlos Marcelo Pérez González, technical director; Rosendo “Charlie” Pérez Antonio, specialist in geographic information systems and carbon projects; and Inés Guadalupe Vásquez Barranco, specialist in geographic information systems and strategic projects.

ICICO is comprised of and works in close collaboration with the 12 indigenous communities it serves. The organization approach is to promote the conservation of ecosystem services in ways that support and complement the livelihood strategies of community members, while also building the capacity of the communities to manage these projects.

Overcoming enormous challenges, ICICO has found many ways to link these communities with markets for the ecosystem services they produce: from carbon offsets, to ecotourism ventures, to spring water bottling plants.

One of ICICO’s major accomplishments has been to create and link with markets for forest-based carbon offsets. First, working with the national environmental non-profit, PRONATURA, ICICO created and began selling carbon offsets in 2008 through a national offsetting program called “Neutralize Yourself (Neutralizate).” They've gone on to work with the California Climate Action Reserve to develop the monitoring and verification protocols for forest-based carbon offsets in Mexico, and have verified offsets produced by one of ICICO’s communities, San Juan Lachao. They have since sold these offsets to the City of Palo Alto and the Disney Corporation, among others.

VIDEO: Elizabeth Shapiro-Garza, Ph.D., shares how her work with community-based non-profit ICICO has yielded important insights and opportunities for the Nicholas School and Duke University.

ICICO’s innovative approach links rural communities with markets for ecosystem services, from carbon sequestration to biodiversity conservation to cleaner and more abundant water, in ways that provide environmental and social co-benefits and empowers and develops the capacity of participants.
On-site learning meets real-world application for Nicholas School's master's of environmental management students taking part in Shapiro-Garza's biennial field course in Oaxaca.

icico leads student field course in community-based environmental management

Working with Shapiro-Garza, ICICO provides on-going support for the professional development of Nicholas School students. Every other year since 2013, Shapiro-Garza has offered a field course in Oaxaca for DEL-MEM and on-campus MEM students. ICICO consistently organizes the field visits and home-stays in the communities it works with to explore themes of community forestry, community-based ecotourism, payments for ecosystem services and cooperative coffee production.

During these visits, ICICO staff and community members serve as co-instructors, passing on lessons learned through their traditional ecological knowledge and profound experience in community organization and development.

ICICO also served as advisors for Nicholas School master’s and doctoral student theses. Most recently, the Duke Office of Sustainability, through their Carbon Offsets Initiative, have collaborated with ICICO to purchase forest-based offsets as a way to mitigate Duke's greenhouse gas emissions.

Video: Elizabeth Shapiro-Garza, Ph.D., shares how her biennial field course to Oaxaca provides Nicholas School graduate students with the chance to learn about an exemplary example of community-based environmental management.

The hands-on learning and exchange of ideas with ICICO provides an integral opportunity for Nicholas School students to understand the process of environmental management.
The education of Nicholas School students extends beyond the academic; enriched with vital lessons from communities in Oaxaca about their centuries old culture, traditions and rituals.
The 12 indigenous communities that comprise ICICO have worked to adapt the sustainable forestry practices introduced through sustainability certification and government regulations to best meet local conditions and practices in ways that produce timber and non-timber forest products; and also conserve soil, water sources and biodiversity, and sequester carbon.


(From left to right): Elizabeth Shapiro-Garza, associate professor of the practice of environmental science and policy; Jennifer Swenson, associate professor of the practice of geospatial analysis; John Poulsen, assistant professor of tropical ecology; Andrea Alatorre Troncoso MEM'19; and, Johanna Depenthal MEM'19.

Shapiro-Garza is working with ICICO to develop further linkages with Duke researchers and students and with outside resources. She is currently collaborating with WWF-Mexico and MEM students Andrea Alatorre Troncoso and Johanna Depenthal on a master’s project that will serve as a pilot for broader research on the ways in which payments for ecosystem services, such as carbon offsetting, can support biodiversity conservation.

She is also collaborating with Nicholas School faculty members Jennifer Swenson and John Poulsen to evaluate ICICO's current or potential future role in forest cover conservation and the development of biological corridors. In coordination with ICICO, Shapiro-Garza is also developing a larger project to create an Indigenous carbon network that would provide avenues for exchanges and cross-learning with other Indigenous groups in the Americas, who are linking with markets for forest-based carbon offsets.

Pictured: A zoomed in portion of an image from April 2018 for a couple of the forestry concessions in Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec provided by Planet.com “PlanetScope” 3-m imagery (Jennifer Swenson)
Alatorre Troncoso, Depenthal and Swenson are shown working with ICICO and forest managers from the community of La Trinidad, Oaxaca in 2018.

Words by Elizabeth Shapiro-Garza, Ph.D. Edited by Sean Rowe and Tim Lucas. Photos by Shapiro-Garza, Tianyu Wang MEM’17 and Wikimedia Commons.


Shapiro-Garza and the Nicholas School would like to thank the following persons and groups for their dedication, contribution and passion to empowering communities, preserving the environment and advancing education:


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