Sierra Gorda's hope for income.
Credit: Proceso magazine
Emigration a Blessing for Biosphere Reserve
By Diego Cevallos - (IPS/IFEJ)
Mexico's Sierra Gorda Reserve embodies the paradox of the emigration of the poor: nature benefits from a smaller human population, while remittances from family members abroad are the main source of income for those who remain.
SIERRA GORDA, Mexico, Jun 4 (Tierramérica).- Pressure on natural resources and biodiversity in Mexico's Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve has been reduced as a result of the emigration of half its human inhabitants -- some 50,000 people -- to the United States.
The local authorities of the reserve, which covers 384,000 hectares in the central-eastern state of Querétaro, recognize this fact. Meeting here are the extremes of desert, semi-tropical and lower mountain ecosystems, which are the habitat of unique species -- many of which have yet to be studied.
With emigration, farming, ranching and logging activities have seen a decline. But the landscape has changed also as a result of the money the emigrants send home to their families here: showy new homes made from more expensive materials like concrete, and a growing number of large trucks with U.S. license plates -- the most prized object among young people, say local residents.
The latest data on population density -- 25 inhabitants per square kilometer -- is from 2000 and does not include the flood of emigration of young people in recent years.
Those who have stayed use little firewood, and their main source of energy is propane from small tanks. But there are several garbage dumps in different municipalities that are overflowing. The local authorities assure that by the end of the year there will be several sanitary landfills ready for operation, and that 70 percent of plastic and cardboard will be collected for recycling.
"Those who remain in Sierra Gorda are that critical mass who get by here (with the remittances sent by relatives abroad), reforesting, collecting carbon and protecting watersheds. For others, it is not an option faced with the craze of becoming 'gringos'," says Martha Ruiz, director of the reserve, referring to the nickname given to Mexico's neighbors to the north.
"This going to the United States weighs heavily on my soul because of the loss of identity, but I completely recognize that has allowed us to restore the reserve," she adds in an interview for this report.
Emigration, particularly of people 26 and younger, is a long-time phenomenon in Sierra Gorda, but several studies indicate that it gathered strength in the 1990s.
The National Institute of Statistics says the state of Querétaro, with a population of 1.6 million, sees some 25,000 people emigrate to the United States each year -- mostly from Sierra Gorda.
The residents of the reserve earn an average of 240 dollars a month, while those who emigrate are seeking jobs as farm laborers, which pay between 1,000 and 1,500 dollars a month, or as construction workers, which pays 2,000 or more.
"They leave because there is no work here. I have two brothers living there for the past 11 years. I don't remember them very well, but occasionally they send money," says 14-year-old Dulce Banderas.
Here in Sierra Gorda, the population makes its livelihood subsistence farming and some commerce.
All of Banderas's friends have a family member or friend in the United States. She lives in Tilaco, one of the 600 villages in Sierra Gorda, 54 percent of which have fewer than 100 inhabitants.
Her schoolmate Omar Márquez believes that for "all those who go there (United States) it's pure work and more work. I wouldn't like that very much."
"There, one doesn't know anybody. Some who leave come back on vacation, and arrive here with money, but they spend it all on beer," he says during a break in an environmental education taught by two teachers and financed by the reserve.
Some 16,000 Sierra Gorda secondary-school students attend these classes, in which they learn to care for and appreciate their surroundings. But this doesn't prevent most of them from leaving for the country to the north once they turn 18 or 19, most without U.S. immigration papers and after paying 2,000 to 3,000 dollars to human traffickers to get them across the border.
"We make a maximum effort to transmit to them the value of this place, but the influence of the United States is very strong, and the kids start very young with the idea of earning some dollars and being able to buy a better truck," says Salvador Ortiz, a teacher who coordinates the environmental courses, known as Eco-Clubs.
The emigration phenomenon is paradoxical in Sierra Gorda. If it were to stop, "we would have brutal pressure on all our forested areas," warns Ruiz, director of the reserve that has been protected by the Mexican government since 1997 and declared a World Biosphere Reserve in 2001 by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).
"Our goal is that in 10 years we will be able to pay compensation and incentives to all owners of forest and of important areas of the reserve so that some of their children won't feel the need to leave," she said.
With support from the government, from private foundations, and from the Global Environment Facility, through the UN Development Program (UNDP), over the last four years the authorities have paid for "environmental services" of owners of 21,500 hectares of the reserve, which is just 5.6 percent of its total area.
Here there are no large landowners. Those who receive payment for environmental services -- 18 to 27 dollars a year for each hectare they conserve -- are about 215 owners of plots around 100 hectares. Just a couple community-held properties are taking advantage of the program.
It is an area protected by federal and state laws, but 97 percent of its territory is in the hands of individual or community owners. It is with them that all conservation and restoration programs are agreed and developed.
Although attacks by insect and plant pests have taken their toll on the forests in recent years, Sierra Gorda is Mexico's nature reserve with greatest biodiversity.
Six wild cat species find their home here, including pumas (Felis concolor or Puma concolor) and jaguars (Panthera onca). According to scientists, their presence is a sign of good conservation of Sierra Gorda as these felines require vast areas to live and hunt.
The diversity is such that in a relatively small space there are black bears (Ursus americanus), spider monkeys (Ateles hybridus) and military macaws (Ara militaris), as well as 2,308 different plant species.
The reserve holds ecosystems that vary with the altitudes, from 350 to 3,100 meters above sea level, and with diverse climates, and a geography of jutting elevations, canyons, and caverns.
This natural wealth has attracted non-governmental organizations, conservation foundations and UN agencies to support the conservation and recovery of the area and development efforts for the residents.
There are no notable social conflicts here; no problems related to the illegal drug trade or illicit crops that afflict other parts of the country.
While some people of Sierra Gorda emigrate, there are some new arrivals: the transnationals Shell Oil Company, Wal-Mart and Hewlett-Packard, and the Mexican Bimbo food company are providing different types of backing for the reserve. And soon others will join them, says Ruiz.
* This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS - Inter Press Service, and IFEJ -- the International Federation of Environmental Journalists.)