Protecting water by conserving forests puts communities in Mexico to the test
Posted on Apr 07, 2022
Almost 15 years ago, the inhabitants of eight towns in southern Mexico’s Costa Chica decided to conserve an area that provides them with water by setting aside five square kilometers of their land to create an ecological reserve. Previously, sewage from the largest municipality in the area was discharged into the rivers that communities used for washing, bathing and drinking. Conflicts initially broke out between communities over sharing water and contributions to the protection of the reserve, though the project has sensitized people to conservation and increased the amount of water in the spring. However, according to forestry experts, Mexico’s protected natural areas have exceeded the institution’s capacity and available resources, meaning the communities that manage the conservation of the reserve receive little institutional support.
“It still rains here,” says Emeterio Hernández Cano, the San Francisco communal land commissioner, at the start of a tour of La Fabriquita, a pine and oak forest of just over five square kilometers (2 square miles). In 2007, the inhabitants of this community decided to conserve the forest to ensure that its spring, Las Cazuelas, would not dry out.
The spring provides drinking water for about 14,000 inhabitants living in eight towns of the municipality of Tecoanapa, located in the state of Guerrero, southern Mexico.
While it’s not the rainy season yet, it rained yesterday and will likely rain again today. In La Fabriquita, the carpet of leaves that covers the ground is wet and slippery. A blanket of clouds hangs low over a mountain in the forest.
“Those at the top are pine trees,” says Hernández Cano, pointing to where the clouds gather.
University professor Procoro Valente Gil, an adviser to the Consejo de Autoridades de los Cinco Pueblos Bajos de Tecoanapa (Council of Authorities of the Five Low Towns of Tecoanapa) is also joining the tour of the forest.
The San Francisco Communal Land Commissioner, Emeterio Hernández Cano, and professor Procoro Valente Gil. Photo by Marlén Castro.
San Francisco is a town in Costa Chica in Guerrero, where there are no coconut palms or mango trees, which is common along the coast, and especially in this community, which finds itself 489 meters (1,633 feet) above sea level. The forested area that the communal landholders decided to conserve has a different altitude, with the lower part 700 m (2,297 feet) above sea level and the highest part 1,100 m (3,609 feet) above sea level.
La Fabriquita forest has a mix of oak and pine trees – a mountainous ecosystem where it is also possible to find several orchid species, including vanilla. It is still possible to find species such as the jaguar (Panthera onca) and the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), but flora and fauna studies have not yet been carried out.
The story of how 320 communal landholders decided to create a 5.36 km2 (2.07 mi2) ecological reserve out of the area’s total 19.95 km2 (7.7 mi2) is linked to a struggle for water that five towns in Tecoanapa began experiencing 18 years ago.
2003: the fight for water
At the beginning of 2000, the inhabitants of Tecoanapa, the municipal seat and the largest population in the municipality, began discharging their sewage into the Tecoanapa River, a tributary used by the inhabitants of the towns of Barrio Nuevo, El Carrizo, Mecatepec, Tepintepec and El Guayabo.
Jaime Gallardo Morales, the commissioner of Barrio Nuevo at the time, recalls that the people in those communities used the river water to wash, bathe and even drink. But with time, they started to develop stomach and skin diseases. In 2003, Gallardo Morales remembers convincing them to manage the construction of a water system. That year, the inhabitants affected by the sewage discharges formed the Council of Authorities of the Five Low Towns of Tecoanapa.
One of the areas preserved by the inhabitants of the San Francisco communal land in the municipality of Tecoanapa, Guerrero. Photo courtesy of Mongabay Latam.
It was not until three years later in 2006 that the Las Cazuelas Multiple Potable Water System project was approved, with 24 million pesos (about U.S. $1,145,000) contributed by the federal, state and municipal governments to bring water to eight towns. These consisted of the five towns that started the movement, along with Tecuantepec, Bella Vista and Tecoanapa.
When the project was approved, a conflict broke out between the inhabitants of the five towns and the inhabitants of Tecoanapa, who argued that there would not be enough water for everyone and that the spring would run dry.
“But the people of San Francisco had been carrying out conservation tasks in their communal land for years to take care of the water,” Valente Gil points out.
Gil also recalls that the inhabitants of Tecoanapa had connected their pipes to the Las Cazuelas spring without asking the permission of San Francisco’s inhabitants.
“Once they’d done this, the water began to decrease and people’s lemon trees or Jamaica plants began to dry out because water was becoming scarce.”
Image of the community of the San Francisco communal land in the municipality of Tecoanapa, Guerrero. Photo courtesy of Mongabay Latam.
Valente Gil mentions that the older inhabitants of San Francisco summoned the rest of the population to do something to keep the spring water running. The agreement they reached was to allocate the upper part of the communal land to conservation.
The San Francisco communal land commissioner, Hernández Cano, recalls that making the decision was not an easy one for the community.
“Three meetings were held in which the pros and cons were discussed until a vote was taken,” he said. “The idea that we should allocate part [of the communal land] to conserve the spring was won.”
While the inhabitants of San Francisco reached an agreement, the inhabitants of Tecoanapa and the five towns clashed several times, using sticks and throwing stones. On Mar. 17, 2011, the conflict escalated. After several months of interruptions of work on the Las Cazuelas Multiple Potable Water System, inhabitants of the five towns arrived at the spring to finish it themselves. This resulted in several being wounded on both sides.
Part of the protected natural area in the San Francisco communal land. Photo courtesy of Mongabay Latam.
Allocating land for a common good
The clouds over the La Fabriquita reserve threaten to break open at any moment. At times, the sun is completely hidden. Sometimes rays of light horizontally filter through the cracks in the oak trees and the dense vegetation that climbs between their branches in the rainy season.
During the tour of the forest, Hernández Cano, Cirilo Ramírez and Valente Gil say that maintaining the ecological reserve has been difficult, especially since almost half of the communal landholders allocated part of their land to form the conservation area, implying that they stopped using the land to plant crops and rear cattle.
The 320 communal landholders also decided that there would be no type of forest exploitation permitted in La Fabriquita. Hernández Cano says that the people of San Francisco and the five towns share the idea that they should not cut down trees, hunt, plant crops or rear cattle as part of efforts to conserve the spring.
According to Hernández Cano, “that was the initial agreement – if trees were to start being cut down, even to make use of older ones, it would be viewed as a breach of the agreement, which would cause a huge conflict.”
One of the forest areas of La Fabriquita. Photo courtesy of Mongabay Latam.
Miguel Segura is one of the communal landholders from San Francisco who, in 2007, gave part of his land away to make the reserve.
“I said that I’d do it if that’s what the majority said. Most said yes, so I did it too,” he explained. “I gave 4 hectares (10 acres); I had 7 hectares (17 acres), which left me with three (7 acres).”
In order for other communities to benefit from the spring, the communal landholders of San Francisco made it a condition that the towns lower on the mountain also help take care of the forest. The agreement reached was that the inhabitants of all the towns would give a day of work, either in money or in kind. Furthermore, in the event of a fire, everyone was obliged to help put the fire out.
The La Fabriquita reserve is able to be maintained because each family that receives water contributes resources or a day of work. In 2021, the San Francisco communal land received 180,000 pesos (about $8,700) from the inhabitants of the five towns and 200,000 pesos (about $9,700) from the local government.
Image of the San Francisco communal land. Photo courtesy of Mongabay Latam.
In 2007, when the communal landholders agreed to give part of their land, the federal and state governments offered projects to the community members. In the first five years, the communal land received support from the Comisión Nacional Forestal [National Forestry Commission – CONAFOR], through an environmental services payment program.
In recent years, the productive projects promised by federal and state authorities have remained just that: promises.
“Now we’re dissatisfied because we haven’t achieved anything. I used to go up there [into the reserve] for firewood and to plant, but I can’t anymore because it’s what we agreed on,” laments Miguel Segura.
An ecological reserve without support
When the people of the five towns asked the San Francisco communal landholders for permission to use the water from the Las Cazuelas spring, the ecological reserve became official with federal and state agencies, with the area certified by the Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas [National Commission of Protected Natural Areas – CONANP] as an Area Destined for Voluntary Conservation (ADVC), a protection category that is included in the General Law of Ecological Balance and Environmental Protection.
Communities that have ADVC certification can access public resources to develop various projects, though the problem in most cases is that they need technical support to comply with procedures. Unfortunately, CONANP’s budget has decreased significantly in recent years.
A path in the protected natural area in the San Francisco communal land. Photo courtesy of Mongabay Latam.
La Fabriquita had ADVC status until 2012 when the communal landholders stopped carrying out the procedure to renew its certification, reports adviser Marlén Castro.
According to Castro, the Costa Chica region, located southeast of Guerrero, is an area that environmental institutions have abandoned because it does not have significant forestry potential, despite having areas such as La Fabriquita.
Arturo García Aguirre, an environmental consultant and forest management expert, maintains that despite ADVCs being a viable conservation strategy, CONANP has priority regions, which do not include Costa Chica.
Miguel Mijangos, a member of the Red Mexicana de Afectados por la Minería [Mexican Network of People Affected by Mining – REMA], believes that the ADVC scheme has the same conservationist logic as the institutions. From his perspective, the best way to conserve an area is through forest management by the landowners themselves, without imposing any restrictions on their use and enjoyment of the land.
Forest area in Costa Chica, Guerrero. Photo courtesy of Mongabay Latam.
Sharing the water
La Fabriquita has a narrow three-kilometer road that crosses a reserve and leads to a middle section of the forest. The communal landholders’ comment that a fire break needs to be built in the area to make potential forest fires easier to control.
According to the landholders, three years ago, a fire broke out that affected 3 square kilometers (1.15 square miles) of the reserve. Volunteers walked with water containers on their back, but there was little they could do. The lack of a fire break complicated the work. The fire break they want to now create would enable access to a car that would carry the water.
The communal land authorities met with the current secretary-general of the state government, Saúl López Sollano, to whom they raised the urgent need to carry out this work. Despite listening to their request, the communal land authorities are unsure whether he actually heard them.
They also insisted on having productive projects for the inhabitants of San Francisco, especially for those who gave a portion of their land for the reserve 14 years ago.
Jamaica plants that were left unharvested in December in the San Francisco community. Photo courtesy of Mongabay Latam.
For the inhabitants of San Francisco, Jamaica plant production is among their main activities, but in recent years, many have lost their plants due to the presence of a fungus, explains Hernández Cano.
However, something that has improved over time is the Las Cazuelas spring.
“As the forest is being cared for, it now has more water,” both Hernández Cano and Cirilo Ramírez say happily.
“The older men, who have passed away, said that the water belonged to God and that we shouldn’t keep it just for ourselves. Since it is a sacred resource, when it is shared, it is plentiful,” says the commissioner.
In her master’s thesis on natural areas in Guerrero, published in 2018, Laura Angélica Guzmán Salgado, a master’s graduate of sustainable development management, used the San Francisco community and the La Fabriquita reserve as a reference point. Although her report highlights that conservation has been a challenge for the community, she also notes that is has been a success.
“It is work that has been jointly achieved by the community and the commissioner, and [it has created] a concern for the conservation of the area’s natural resources and its hydrological function,” she says.
The river that crosses the forest of the San Francisco communal land. Photo courtesy of Mongabay Latam.
On a November afternoon, in an area of La Fabriquita known as La Hacienda, a group of San Francisco inhabitants cut up a tree of about 20 meters (65 feet) that was blown down by wind during one of the recent storms.
About 300 meters (984 feet) ahead is the location where the fire break will be made. There is an excess of organic matter in the soil, such as branches and leaves that are fuel for disasters in the dry season.
Hernández Cano and Cirilo Ramírez speak with pride about the communal land’s decision to conserve the forest, although they recognize that they lack the training to undertake productive activities that generate income and would prevent them from relying on the resources promised by the state government.
As community authorities, they themselves are responsible for ensuring that people do not enter the reserve to hunt or cut down trees for firewood. Only wood from fallen trees is allowed to be used.
Men from the San Francisco communal land make use of a tree that fell during the rainy season. Photo by Marlén Castro.
Castro points out that in reserves such as La Fabriquita, communal land authorities and communities (such as Costa Chica in Guerrero) have been forgotten for many years.
Arturo García Aguirre says that the problem is that Mexico’s protected natural areas, including its ADVCs, have exceeded the institution’s capacity and available resources, which is why there are reserves such as La Fabriquita without institutional support.
García Aguirre argues that payment for environmental services is not enough and that inhabitants of such land should be trained to use their resources in a sustainable way.
The life that exists in the forest that the communal landholders of San Francisco decided to allocate to conservation is evident. Birds seek shelter when clouds burst, the water of which pours over the forest and rushes down its slopes toward the Las Cazuelas spring.
For the inhabitants around the reserve, there will finally be more water.
A stream in the middle of the forest of the San Francisco communal land in the municipality of Tecoanapa. The inhabitants of this community in Costa Chica in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, allocated part of their territory for conservation. Photo courtesy of Mongabay Latam.
Banner image: Men from the San Francisco communal land make use of a tree that fell during the rainy season. Photo by Marlén Castro.