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From Farmland to Forests - How Reforestation Projects in Chiapas Benefit Rural Farmers Part I of III - Yaluma, Chiapas

Climate change is one of the most preeminent threats facing our planet today. Without a substantial decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, we risk dramatically altering our landscapes with rising sea levels, increased risks of drought and flood, and loss of sea ice that could change the way we live permanently. One of the ways individuals or businesses can help protect our environment is by purchasing carbon offsets on the voluntary carbon market, which are used to fund climate change mitigation projects around the world. But are those most affected by climate change, people living in rural and developing countries, benefiting from these carbon offset programs?

Future generations depend on us to help shape the environment they will grow up in. A young mother gazes lovingly at her son in rural Chiapas, Mexico

In early December, I met with Cooperativa Ambio, an NGO working in Chiapas, Mexico that uses the proceeds from carbon credit sales to help rural farmers and community groups in preventing forest loss, launching reforestation projects, and supporting sustainable agricultural practices. My goal was to find out from the farmers themselves how they have benefited from participating in these climate change mitigation projects.

An example of the land management practices supported by Cooperativa Ambio: replanted forest on the left, corn crops in the middle and coffee on the right.

Cooperativa Ambio's program, Scolel'te ("the tree that grows" in the Tzeltal language) is the longest running program based on the Plan Vivo Standard. This standard contains guidelines that allow community land use and forestry projects that improve local livelihoods and mitigate climate change to earn and sell carbon credits. Scolel'te works with over 1300 smallholders and 9 community groups to manage, protect and restore 9,049 hectares of land in Chiapas, about four times the size of Victoria, BC. Their project has generated over half a million sales of carbon credits since its inception in 1997.

Yaluma community members gather in a plot of reforested land

Where rainforest meets mountains, highlands and ocean, Chiapas is one of the most ecologically diverse states in Mexico. It is also the most impoverished state, where 50% of the population live in rural communities, without many of the services or access to markets other Mexicans may have. Our first stop was the town of Yaluma, a village of approximately 2500 people, 2 hours from the popular tourist town of San Cristobal de las Casas. Yaluma is home to one of the longest-running reforestation projects in the Scolel'te Project. We met with the community members who originally planted the trees and those that currently take care of the forest, to find out why they chose to participate in Ambio's projects and how they have benefited from the woods.

The dirt roads of Yaluma, Chiapas

Yaluma sits in a broad valley of fertile agricultural land. Dirt roads and small houses dot the landscape, intermixed with vast expanses of farmland. Although small population-wise, Yaluma has a large footprint, with signs of human impact across large portions of the valley. Yet, not so long ago much of the land was covered in forest. As the population slowly grew, farmers needed more land to grow their crops and raise their livestock, so they cut down much of the existing trees to expand their plots. As a consequence, the local climate began to change. Less rain fell, making it increasingly difficult to grow the crops they needed to survive. In the early to mid-1990s, some of the residents began asking why there was much less precipitation compared to previous years. They discovered that deforestation was one of the major factors that led to decreased localized rainfall in their region.

Some of the original participants in Project Scolel'te outside their forest plot.

Bartolo Aguilar Lopez, a tall man with a soft-spoken voice, explains that they began working with Ambio not for the money Ambio provides, but because they needed the rain. Through coordination with Ambio, they learned best practices for reforestation, including how to organize the plots and the importance of maintaining the undergrowth. Slowly, the local climate has improved, with more rain falling in recent years. But the forests provided more benefit than just increased rainfall. As we talked outside of the the plot where the forest currently stands, Aguilar Lopez explained "now we see more animals like birds and squirrels, and that is a joy for us".

"If we don't take care of our forests, the ones who are going to suffer are our children" -Bartolo Aguilar Lopez

However, Aguilar Lopez is most concerned about the legacy that they are leaving to future generations, and the irreparable harm that doing nothing to improve the ecosystem could cause. "If we don't take care of our forests, the ones who are going to suffer are our children."

"Want to live longer? Take care of your planet". Posted on a property in the town of Yaluma, Chiapas

The smell of freshly cooked corn enticed us into the homes of Maria Helena Lopez Aguilar and Maria Helena Garcia Lopez, two hard-working ladies who live in Yaluma and are participants in the project. Their main livelihood consists of making and selling tostadas, deep fried or toasted corn tortillas which are a staple of Mexican cuisine. The proceeds from the sales of the tostadas provide them with a meager income to help support their families. As such, they rely on a healthy crop of corn year after year to continue their livelihood. In addition to baking the crunchy corn shells, they also help manage the forest lands and pick the corn crops from the fields.

Homemade tostadas fresh from the oven

Despite their reliance on the corn harvest for their income, they have also seen the benefit of maintaining a plot of land for forests. They've noticed cleaner air and more precipitation in recent years, as well as providing a space for shade after long days in the field. "I'm happy to come to a forested area because, in the area where there are no trees there's nowhere to protect us from the sun, there's no shade. We are very hot working in the fields and coming to where the trees are is enjoyable", Lopez Aguilar notes.

"When we are in the cornfield we come to the reforested area [for shade] and it's nice" - Maria Lena Lopez Aguilar

In addition to reforestation, the locals have attempted other methods of increasing water availability. On a modest plot of land on the outskirts of town, locals dug a large pit, hoping that it would eventually become a lake. As rain fell, filling in the hole, they continued to expand its size, until it became a permanent body of water. They hope the lake will induce more rainfall through the process of evaporation, condensing into clouds, and the clouds releasing their precipitation over the nearby lands.

A small lake built by residents of Yaluma to help increase rainfall.

But the efforts of this small community group haven't been enough to make the necessary change in climate for the region as a whole. To make a bigger impact, more communities needed to get involved. Eventually, word spread to other nearby towns of how some of the citizens of Yaluma were trying to increase rainfall in their area. A small family group formed in the nearby village of Gonzalez de Leon to work with Ambio to help shape their future. After our visit to Yaluma, we hopped in the truck to make the short drive to visit this family and find out their story.

Part 2 - Gonzalez de Leon

Special thanks to Cooperativa Ambio for access and interviews. Find out more about Ambio and Scolel'te at http://ambio.org.mx/

For more information on the Plan Vivo Standard, visit http://www.planvivo.org/

Spanish to English translations provided by http://www.ccdtranslations.com/

Created By
Mark Locki
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Mark Locki

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