One third of the population of Sierra Gorda in Central Mexico migrates to the USA for work. But can jobs in environmental protection make a difference?
I meet wildlife ranger Abel Reséndiz to find out if a successful conservation partnership can providing employment in rural communities
In the garden of his small bungalow, dotted with pink orchids, Abel greets us with a handshake and a wide smile under his moustache. Toddler’s cowboy boots stand on the window behind him, the property of his young son who clings to his shoulders. Coyly, the boy fiddles with the green badge sewn on the chest of his dad’s shirt. It reads: Keepers of the Wild – Ranger Programme, a simple statement that signifies a major change in Abel’s life.
Abel is a ranger in the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve, a one million acre protected area that spreads across Querétaro state in Central Mexico. An international conservation charity, the World Land Trust (WLT), supports Abel’s employment through its partnership with the local Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda (GESG) and the Keepers of the Wild programme.
We’re about to set-off on a trek through the forest with Abel as our guide. It’s a sight-seeing tour of these two organisations’ successful partnership. But before we hit the forest trail, Abel is eager to show us the latest wildlife photos he’s captured on his camera: a fer-de-lance viper basking in the sun. The pride shines through Abel’s face as he flicks through the images, revealing his passion for wildlife and his delight at finally being able to capture the creatures of the forest on camera.
Abel’s new equipment is one of the perks of being a Keeper of the Wild; it not only allows him to document the reserve’s wildlife but also to record signs of illegal hunting and logging. With his camera at the ready, Abel is soon leading us through the forest; it’s a biological melting pot where young pines, ancient oaks and towering sweetgums meet strangler figs, rare orchids, and tropical bromeliad plants.
We’re hiking towards a 370 acre nature reserve, the Cañón del Fresno (Ash Canyon), that was recently created by GESG thanks to support from WLT.
Man of the forest
As we trek through the reserve the forest closes in around us, the trail disappears and Abel swings his machete. But there is no question of getting lost; Abel is a man of these forests, he has mountain legs and never breaks a sweat.
His dedication to his work is clear: “I’m convinced the forests and animals are in trouble”, he says, “and they need all our help.”
But Abel wasn’t always in the position to protect his forests; instead, he had to leave his family to work in the USA, a story I hear from local people time and again during my month in Sierra Gorda. Abel said:
“I’m glad I no longer have to work in the US. I feel proud of my work now because we are protecting special places that were being destroyed.”
The Sierra Gorda is poverty stricken, with one third of its population migrating to the USA for jobs. The only answer is to provide an alternative income for the rural, low-income communities.
With this in mind, GESG has pioneered the concept of valuing the ‘natural capital’ of the region. Payments for environmental services, which include protecting biodiversity, water and carbon, is now creating an annual income of around US$1.1 million for local forest owners in the Sierra Gorda.
Conservation is now a better business than cattle ranching or agriculture. A green economy is steadily growing in the area, creating a future where both people and wildlife can thrive.