Jun 20, 2012

Painting the town REDD

It was happening.

After paying my dues for over a year as an intern for EcoLogic, reading stacks of reports and articles about the Lacandón Rainforest and the three Mayan communities that own it, and being just days away from finishing my grad program on sustainable international development, it was actually happening. I was finally getting the opportunity to meet the communities and the forest I had read so much about first hand. This past April, EcoLogic’s very own forest carbon ninja, Bryan Foster (aka CarbonPlus Director), and I traveled to Chiapas, Mexico to collect data for EcoLogic’s Sierra Cojolita REDD+ project.

A landscape view of the Selva Lacandona.

Because you’re all dedicated EcoBlogic readers, I’m sure you remember Dave’s excellent description of REDD+ -- a type of project that reduces the amount of carbon dioxide that’s produced when trees are chopped and/or burned down by working with communities to prevents deforestation. Over the next week, I quickly discover that reading dozens of academic articles and reports does not compare to experiencing the Lacandón Rainforest first hand.
That's me on the left taking notes during our meeting.

We arrived in the city of Tuxtla Gutierrez on a Wednesday, and spent two days meeting with other REDD+ folks, who, like Bryan and I, are crazy enough to dive head first into the complex and at times overwhelming world of carbon.  It was exciting to meet our Chiapas brethren who were a fountain of information about all things REDD+ and Lacandón. But I was itching to get to our final destination, the actual rainforest, which still involved a nine-hour drive along the Guatemalan border.

Enrique Chankin showing off some taro root from his garden.
We met Ricardo Hernández, Lacandón expert and Director of our partner organization -- Na’Bolom, in San Cristobal de las Casas, and began our drive with chilly morning temps and plenty of chatter.  But as the hours went by and the jeep cruised down to lower altitudes, the heat and humidity climbed. We drove through town after town for about 5 or 6 hours until we reached what was supposed to be the edge of the Lacandón Rainforest. Instead, I slowly opened my eyes to scorched trees and oil palm plantations. We were in Marqués de Comillas, a section of the rainforest, which has been settled by farmers who migrated from the center of the country. Oil palm plantations aren’t just bad because rainforests are cleared to plant them and reduce natural biodiversity and critical habitat; the oil palm also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions because of its immense need for petroleum-based pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.

A couple hours later, we crossed the Lacantún River, and the landscape completely changed. The midday heat had subsided, and we were closer to the Cojolita communities. In this area the forest actually reaches the edge of the road instead of being lost to slash and burn. But this doesn’t mean this section of the rainforest isn’t threatened. Two of the three Mayan communities that own this land are struggling to meet their farming needs with the land they already have, and would like to clear more of the forest.
Enrique Chankin giving us a tour of the rainforest near his eco-lodge, Top Che.
All three communities reside and carry out their farming around the base of the Cojolita mountain range, and the forest on the Cojolita is part of a 35,000 hectare communally owned reserve.  However, the reserve is a source of conflict for the communities. The Lacandones were given authority over the territory by the government over thirty years ago, and they will not grant the Tzetlales and Choles access to the land in the reserve. The Lacandones fear that the other communities will clear too much of the forest in the reserve for farming. The communities show no signs of settling their differences, which, could be detrimental for the rainforest in the Cojolita Reserve. The REDD+ project seeks to help the communities recognize and achieve the economic reward from leaving the rainforest intact as opposed to the current income generating practices such as cattle ranching that require the forest be cut down.
Tzetlal land that was cleared for cattle pasture. Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve in the background.

Driving through Marqués de Comillas provided a frightening peek into what could be the future of the Sierra Cojolita that I would never have seen from my desk in Cambridge. The experience helped me thoroughly understand the critical importance of Na’Bolom and EcoLogic’s role in working with these communities to identify and pursue livelihood alternatives, like REDD+, to help minimize their need to deforest, and allow them to achieve the development goals they are so determined to attain.

A waterfall we came across while touring the area.
We spent the following days meeting with leaders from the Chol and Lacandón communities, two of the three communities that will be managing and financially benefitting from the REDD+ project.  During these meetings we interviewed community members about their land use practices. My prior REDD+ experience took place in Papua New Guinea, possibly the least developed country in the world with the most isolated communities. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that one of our Mayan interviewees was a social anthropologist and another spoke perfect English.  Unlike their Papua New Guinean counterparts, these rainforest communities are on a well-paved road headed straight for development. This reality check reinforced one of the many lessons I learned in graduate school – there is no such thing as “one size fits all” conservation. Despite the many top-down guidelines that exist for implementing REDD+, EcoLogic and Na’Bolom will have to design a project that is carefully tailored to fit the needs of these unique Mayan communities.

On Monday, as we drove back to the city along Chol territory at the edge of the Cojolita mountain range, Bryan and I saw a plume of smoke drifting over the trees in the reserve – a sign that slash and burn may already be underway. It is clear that Na’Bolom and EcoLogic have an important and challenging road ahead.

-Andrea Savage, CarbonPlus Associate
Andrea works for EcoLogic's CarbonPlus program by writing grant proposals and project reports, and following trends land tenure right throughout Mexico. She recently completed her Master's in sustainable international development at Brandeis University. 


  1. Wow, Top Che looks gorgeous. Rain forests are the secret patches of Earth that hold so much tranquility. Its a shame, they've always been in so much danger. We need to preserve! Show 'em whos boss!!

    -Carlos Hernandez

  2. Thanks for you comment, Carlos! We believe that working with the three Mayan communities that own the forest is the best way to assure sustainable change and conservation of the Lacandón Rainforest.

    1. I think a lot of context is missing in your 'journey' to discover that the pressures of forests cannot be studied behind a desk and that these mainly come from the outside.
      I recommend you to read many of the posts which have tried to denounce the many impacts that REDD+ actually gives to people that live there. Not for the ones behind a desk or for the ones counting carbon for credits for money, but for the people.
      See: http://climate-connections.org/2013/01/14/colonialism-and-the-green-economy-villagers-defy-pressure-to-forfeit-farms-for-carbon-offset/
      Or: http://reddeldia.blogspot.mx/

      Im not so surprise of your position when reading that you refer to Papua New Guinea, as "possibly the least developed country in the world". Ironically is one which remains with much of the forests intact in opposition to the 'developed' US or Europe. Thinking of Indigenous Peoples as in the need to be developed (that is, to follow the destructive, polluted and failed path of the US economy) is a colonialist thinking which the people from the Lacandon and other forested lands have struggled against for centuries.

    2. Thanks for addressing such an important debate, Joanna. We are familiar with the Global Justice Ecology Project (GJEP) and REDDeldía, and are even more aware of the indigenous rights risks when REDD —like many other conservation tools—applied unethically. While working on conservation in Papua New Guinea (PNG for short!) in 2008 and 2009, I saw firsthand as individuals in the PNG government tried to sell carbon credits to enrich themselves not the indigenous landowners (97% of forests in PNG are customarily owned by indigenous people). This is why I am passionate about making sure market-based conservation tools, like REDD, are used with an ongoing community consent process and truly benefit the environment and the people that protect it.

      EcoLogic's role in Chiapas is to help our indigenous colleagues in the Lacandón Rainforest make their own decision about REDD+ using a process called Free, Prior, and Informed Consent, and guide them in developing their own project, if they choose to. FPIC is a process that originates from the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and is based on the principle that all people have the right to make informed decisions about what happens on their land (more information about FPIC here: http://ow.ly/h6fg0 EcoLogic won't reap any financial benefits from carbon credits sold by the communities. By participating in the communities’ own conservation and development efforts, we aim to uphold EcoLogic’s mission to empower rural people to restore and protect tropical ecosystems.

  3. Hola,

    Por favor hagan un blog es español, para que toda América Latina conozca sus projectos!

    ¡Me gusta lo que hacen en Chiapas!


    Maria del Carmen

  4. Brilliant!

    When is this project going to be implemented? I would love to visit the area while local people and NGOs are working to protect the Lacandona Rainforest.

    I just heard the new elected governor is from PRI-PV, that's the green party, which problably can help make this project happen successfully.

    Want to read more from this project, it is exciting and sounds very interesting!!


  5. Thanks Jaime! We are starting implementation now. We'll be sure to update you with our progress soon!

  6. Hello EcoLogic team,

    I think this is a very important project for Chiapas and California, and also for the three communities who own these lands. I have never had the chance to visit the area, and I do not know where this Cojolita Reserve is located, can you guys upload a map showing where the project site or area is located? I can more or less locate the Lacandona Rainforest, but it is so big!

    I also heard there is a big REDD+ Program from Chiapas' Government going on in the Lacandona Communities, is this carbon project the same or just part of it?

    It is great to see how the Government is implementing so many green policies and projects with the help of NGOs


  7. Thank you for your interest in the Sierra Cojolita REDD+ project, Susana.

    The Government of Chiapas is definitely doing a lot work to prepare the State to host REDD+ projects with a number of different types of activities taking place in the Lacandón Jungle. Our partner organization for this project, Na'Bolom (www.nabolom.org), is invaluable to the success of this work, as they are the ears, eyes, and voice on the ground to keep us abreast and aligned with all of the State's plans. The importance of having this connection to what is going on at the ground level is why EcoLogic always partners with a local organization in project implementation.

    Thanks again and we'll be sure to keep you up-to-date with our work in the region.

  8. Dave Kramer, Senior Program Officer at EcoLogicAugust 15, 2012 at 12:32 PM

    This may give a little insight into where the project is located: