28 Jun 2019 Story Ecosystems

Protecting the Sierra Tarahumara, a biodiversity hot spot

The shy and elusive neotropical otter is widely distributed in Latin America, but it is hardly spotted. When Manuel Chávez and his team discovered that a specimen was captured by one of their river camera traps in the depths of the Sierra Tarahumara canyons, in northwestern Mexico, they were thrilled.

“This is very good news. For a very long time, no presence of this species had been reported in the area. We believed the otter to be extinct here,” says Manuel Chávez, coordinator of Tarahumara Sustentable, a five-year conservation project, funded by the Global Environment Facility.

The tropical otter, an indicator species of water quality, is plummeting. The study of this mammal was part of an effort to update data on the Sierra’s biodiversity under the conservation project, which is in its final stage of implementation.

Located in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, the Sierra Tarahumara is made of formidable escarpments and deep canyons of unparalleled beauty that host other emblematic species such as the jaguar, the American black bear, the military macaw, the thick-billed parrot and the Tarahumara salamander.

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“The study of these species helps assess the health of the ecosystems and represents a key tool for decision-making on land-use management,” says Chávez.

The Sierra Tarahumara is part of the Western Sierra Madre, the longest mountain range in Mexico, which harbours some of the richest biodiversity in North America. Around two-thirds of the standing timber in the country are in the Sierra.

“We knew the prominence of the Sierra Tarahumara in Mexico’s biodiversity, but we now have even more scientific evidence of it thanks to the Tarahumara Sustentable project,” says María Elena Rodarte, Director of the North Region and the Western Sierra Madre at the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas. The Commission executed the project in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund, with support from UN Environment and financial backing from the Global Environment Facility.

The scientific component of the project aimed to produce a reliable environmental assessment of the Sierra Tarahumara’s ecosystems, including information on species, vegetation cover, water quality, land-use changes, degradation of ecosystems and socio-economic indicators.

Currently, 3,271 species of plants, 470 birds, 475 invertebrates, 206 mammals, and 150 reptiles have been registered in the Sierra Tarahumara. Indicators based on the abundance of selected species are helpful to assess the health of ecosystems. The spotted owls, for example, indicate the presence of ancient forests, while the white tail deer can provide information on land-use changes.

As part of the Tarahumara Sustentable project, a monitoring and information platform with updated data from diverse sources and new findings has been put in place, as well as a cartography tool, with at least 200 layers of information. Both open-access instruments are designed to inform decision-making on a wide range of conservation issues.

Every tree is important

At least four indigenous groups live in the Sierra. The most populated and influential are the Rarámuris, known for their ancient traditions, their colourful clothing and their unbreakable relationship with nature.

María Luisa Bustillos is a Rarámuri community leader, charismatic, soft-spoken and with huge influence on the ejido (communal farmland) of Norogachi, one of the most relevant in the Sierra. The ejidatarios decided to devote around 100 hectares of their land to reforestation, as part of a pilot project under the Tarahumara Sustentable initiative.

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Pine trees are usually used for the reforestation projects, but Bustillos decided to include seeds of white oak, an endemic species of Mexico. “We use this tree for medicine and for firewood, for cooking our tortillas, and above all, to prepare our tesgüino (a ceremonial beverage). The white oak is a tree that we care a lot for, and we want it to continue to exist. That is why we cannot understand why people keep destroying the forests,” says Bustillos.

In recent decades, the most dramatic changes in the Sierra Tarahumara and the whole Western Sierra Madre have to do with forests. Deforestation has accelerated, habitats have been fragmented, and forest density reduced. Illegal logging and drug production are rife. The so-called Golden Triangle (comprising the states of Durango, Chihuahua and Sinaloa), where most of the drugs trafficked by the cartels are grown, is located in the Sierra Tarahumara.

Guadalupe y Calvo, one of the municipalities covered by the Tarahumara Sustentable project, has seen several indigenous leaders killed for defending the forests. The most notorious case involved Isidro Baldenegro, a Rarámuri leader, who won the Goldman Prize for his efforts against illegal logging. He was killed in January 2017.

“They (illegal loggers) are continually harassing us, but in our ejido we do it all legal: we cut trees and manage them in a sustainable way, because this is the only way we can secure the food for our children in the long run,” says Estalisnado Rubi Aguirre, President of the ejido Caborachi, which manages the only sawmill in the region run almost entirely by Rarámuris. The sawmill, certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, has been supported by the project.

Guachochi and other four municipalities—Balleza, Bocoyna, Ocampo and Guadalupe y Calvo—were chosen as priority sites to implement pilot projects, from reforestation and peatlands restoration to ecotourism and environmental governance.

In small maize farms in Balleza, for example, agricultural specialists helped Rarámuris introduce keyline pattern cultivation to maximize the use of water. The result is less land degradation and more productivity.

“The only way to succeed in the conservation of the incredible richness of the Sierra, is with the participation of the indigenous communities and the respect of their own ideas on environmental governance,” says Manuel Chávez, the coordinator of Tarahumara Sustentable.

Bustillos agrees with Chávez. “The best thing of this project is that for the first time we felt our voices heard, the voices of the indigenous communities. Because it is for us to decide if we wake up and defend our forests, our water, our land, our future. No one will do it for us.”