Cornell works with Mexican tribe on forest management

Cornell researchers are teaming up with Maya leaders to tap traditional ecological knowledge for a contemporary challenge: managing community forests in Mexico for conservation now and livelihoods – including bee-keeping and ecotourism – far into the future. Their new approach to conservation will help traditional forest communities flourish, along with native species and natural resources critical to Maya life.

Mexico – a biodiversity hotspot – leads the world in successful community-based forest management. Roughly 80 percent of Mexico’s forests are community-owned, but with globalization and new land management regimes, Mexico’s forests and the species they sustain are under attack. Supported by a Rapid Response Fund grant from the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, CALS researchers Stephen Morreale, Richard Stedman and doctoral candidate Ted Lawrence joined with indigenous Maya communities in Yucatán, Mexico, to map out a comprehensive conservation plan.

A series of workshops, planning sessions and collaborative activities last summer led to a strategic conservation initiative for the mixed agricultural and forested region. The new framework builds on Maya peoples’ traditional knowledge and encourages a shift toward long-term livelihood incentives. The team also collected baseline ecological data, launched an open-source conservation database and trained local people to maintain it.

The active partnership with Cornell is bringing new conservation projects to native communities, including traditional bee-keeping, reforestation of native plants and a collaborative effort with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to train local people as bird guides. In one community, leaders have set aside a 20-hectare parcel of land for conservation and research, with ecotourism trails now under construction.

The top priority now, Morreale says, is expanding the pilot project across numerous native communities. Starting this summer, the team will coordinate and align their community-engaged efforts with Mexico’s federal biodiversity conservation agency, nearby protected areas, and IUCN’s Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas program to help initiate a regional biocultural diversity corridor. This is a new model of conservation in the region, so the team is pursuing additional strategic alliances with international organizations and long-term funding.

“We aim to establish an interdisciplinary Cornell team and a broad coalition, including numerous Maya communities across the region,” Morreale says. “We want to promote and apply better landscape management practices that eliminate the loss of biodiversity and the unsustainable use of the human-ecological landscape, while bolstering traditional livelihoods and community well-being.”

Sheri Englund is science writer and editor for the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

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