"I cut down all of that section," said Esteban Martínez as he pointed to a rectangle of land cleared of trees in the central Mexican state of Querétaro.
"I used to go after the jaguars that killed my livestock… and yes, I killed one. But now we protect them. For me, it is no longer worth it to harm the forest," said Martínez.
From a lookout point on the hill, he explained how 16 residents of the San Juan de los Durán "ejido," a communally owned rural estate, traded subsistence farming for an eco-tourism project in which they run a campground for visitors interested in nature.
The community is situated within the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve, in the northern portion of Querétaro.
Covering 384,000 hectares, one-third of Querétaro, the reserve is home to a great variety of ecosystems, with altitudes ranging from 350 metres to 3,100 metres above sea level: semi-desert, cloud forest, temperate forest and lowland jungles, among others.
There are 360 species of birds, 130 mammals (including six felines, like the endangered jaguar), 71 reptiles, 23 amphibians and 2,308 plant species.
The zone was recovered thanks to the efforts of Martha Ruiz Corzo, a music teacher, and of Roberto Pedraza Muñoz, her husband and public accountant. Together they founded the Sierra Gorda Ecological Group, in 1987, entrusted with managing the reserve.
The work of 23 years, which included the entire family, won support from private foundations and international agencies, like the Global Environment Facility (GEF), which through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) provided 6.7 million dollars from 2001 to 2009.
Local efforts led to matching funds of four dollars for each dollar from GEF to implement a protected area management model involving both government and civil society — an approach that is unique in Mexico.
Thanks to the non-governmental organisation Bosque Sustentable (Sustainable Forest), an affiliate of the Sierra Gorda Ecological Group, international credits for more than 28,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide — the leading greenhouse-effect gas — were put on the international carbon market. That sum is the estimated amount of additional CO2 absorbed by reforestation of degraded forests.
The revenue is earmarked to finance Sustainable Forest projects, but the aim is to use the money to pay local communities for protecting the area.
The team led by Ruiz Corzo, director of the reserve, is developing units of Social Return on Investment (SROI), which combine economic, social and environmental indicators to estimate the economic benefits of the actions taken.
The aim is to create "stock market certificates for planetary health," which include the protection of biodiversity and fighting against poverty, Ruiz Corzo told this reporter.
"We need the local people to receive payment for conservation," she added, going on to explain that it requires creating an alliance with the communities living in extreme poverty. "How are we going to ask them to maintain and conserve the environment when they are among the worst off in the world?"
The shifts in recent years of rain and drought patterns led to onslaughts of plant and insect pests, affecting the encino (of the oak family), junipers and 10 species of pine across 27,000 hectares — one-third of the forest in the reserve.
"The trees are weakened by climate stress," said Roberto Pedraza Ruiz, the reserve’s chief technician — Martha and Roberto’s son.
Pests are not the only threat in the Sierra Gorda, which the federal government declared a protected area in 1997 and UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) proclaimed a World Biosphere Reserve in 2001.
For the past four years the Federal Electricity Commissions (CFE) has been trying to buy up land, including the ejidos, to erect 47.5 kilometres of transmission lines to convey electricity from San Luis Potosí to Guanajuato — both are neighbouring states of Querétaro.
"The consequences would be incalculable," warned Pedraza. "For starters, one out of three amphibian species would be at risk."
The law on natural protected areas prohibits electrical transmission lines in those zones. But the CFE has twice insisted with its proposal, rejected by the Sierra Gorda administration.
However, members of the Citizen Council of the Sierra Gorda report that CFE representatives continue trying to buy land, and have even paid for some lots.
In Mexico, more than half the population of 107 million lives on less than five dollars a day. Despite the fact that 80 percent of the forests is held as ejidos, or communal property, ownership is not well documented, and most lots are too small to appeal to global markets.
As a result, in Sierra Gorda, only a few of the communal properties receive payment for the environmental services they provide, and it ranges between 18 and 27 dollars annually per hectare conserved.
The overarching goal is for the residents of the Sierra to replace timber production, ranching and farming — the region’s only economic activities — with provision of environmental services.
To that end, a state fund has been proposed that would pay compensation to landowners for the ecosystem services of their forests and jungles.
"We need them to get the cattle out of the forest, to maintain water sources for the fauna, to clean up the pests and to maintain active civilian monitoring," said Mario Pedraza Ruiz, assistant director of Sustainable Forest and expert in environmentally friendly livestock methods.
The youngest in the Pedraza Ruiz family is convinced that conservation and cattle ranching are compatible.
"You confine the animals, they produce manure, and with your feet you break up the crust of soil that has been flattened by their step, you scrape and you plough, and they don’t return to that terrain until it has recovered," he explained.
Two communities, Landa de Matamoros and Arroyo Seco, have begun controlled pasturing using electric fences, which also allows forage plants to recover.
They are also developing hydroponic forage, which is grown in water, without soil.
"The cattle are part of the cultural mindset" of the community members, said Mario Pedraza, "even if they have only two skinny cows… It’s impossible to change the mentality," and in those cases the project does the best it can, within those limits.