December 10, 2010

El Triunfo: Cloud Forests, Coffee and Conservation

El Triunfo

Fog curls endlessly through the evergreen forest. The air is damp and humid. Out there, unseen, is the hauntingly beautiful call of the Azure-rumped Tanager - a bird so rare that less than 10,000 of them exist in the world. This is the last refuge for dozens of species on the brink of extinction.

Human voices rise up from the edges; in the Spanish tongue, mostly, though there are the occasional exchanges in Mayan. These are in dialects of the Tzotzil, Tzeltal and Mam people. Their villages are dotted throughout these mountains; but, for the majority, their work is in the plantations. This is coffee country, where economy and ecology collide for supremacy. Yet they may just have found a compromise.

El Triunfo

This is the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve, in the Sierra Madre Mountains, Chiapas. It is in the southern tip of Mexico (any further south and you would be in Guatemala) and it is the wettest region in the country. 10% of the rainfall, in the whole of Mexico, falls on this one small area.

Several rivers have their headwells on its soaring slopes; including the mighty Rio Grijalva. On its snaking 480km (298 mile) north-east journey, to empty into the Gulf of Mexico, this river becomes temporarily diverted by the Malpaso Dam. 40% of Mexico's electricity comes from the hydro-electrical plant tapping into this majestic source.

El Triunfo

Back in El Triunfo, the water means life itself. It irrigates the lush vegetation that covers the chain of deep valleys and corresponding pinacles, reaching up to 2,000 meters (6,562ft) above sea level. This is the last remaining wilderness home of nearly 200 endangered species, including the resplendent quetzal, tapir, puma, spider monkey and horned guan. But it was shrinking fast. Only 25,000 hectares (61,750 acres) of it remain.

The culprit, as is so often the case, is human industry. In the 19th century, the Mexican government realised that the climate here was perfect for growing coffee beans. Large tracts of forest were cleared for the coffee plantations. Export profit boomed. International coffee companies vied for the opportunity to buy land, clear more forests and to create ever-expanding plantations.

Plantations attracted a workforce, who chopped down yet more vegetation, in order to construct their towns and villages. Increased prosperity in the area brought cattle ranchers, who also needed large, clear areas, in order to graze their livestock. The cloud forest shrank more and more each year.

El Triunfo ranch

The alarm bells were first sounded in the 1940s, when Prof Miguel Alvarez del Toro conducted a series of research studies in the area. His work provided evidence that El Triunfo needed protection; and his personal friendship with several politicians ensured that they listened to him. It became a protected zone, both federally and within the MAB-UNESCO Programme for Biosphere Reserves.

But little was able to be done about the damage already wrought there, especially since the plantations remained so lucrative. The USA alone imports an estimated 207,900lbs. of coffee from El Triunfo each year. The Mexican government were reluctant to risk such a market. Conservation work tended to fall into the hands of local communities, who could see the dangers. It was the population there who, ultimately, saved what remained of the cloud forests, until a proper policy could be formed.

El Triunfo

It wasn't until 1991 that a workable compromise, between coffee profit and conservation, was formed. El Triunfo is now surrounded by a 90,000-hectare (222,300-acres) buffer zone, within which there are strict rules about how the land may be worked.

One of the most significant changes was how coffee was grown there. Conventional growing switched to more environmentally friendly methods. This is where Starbuck's 'Organic Shade Grown Mexican Coffee' comes from. It also forms part of the Starbuck's Shared Planet and Social Responsibility pogram. Many of the plantation farmers there have switched entirely to Fair Trade initiatives, such as that discussed in this Equal Exchange blog and on the CESMACH site. Conservation International performs yearly inspections of the plantations, ensuring that farmers are not taking short-cuts with regulations.

El Triunfo man

Nurseries have been set up, within the buffer zone, to nuture indigenious plants and trees, such as palm and cycad. An awareness campaign has travelled deep into the towns and villages on the reserve. It is believed that 70% of its residents now not only know about the conservation pressures, but are also actively supporting them.

There is now a conservation program, funded and co-ordinated by Fondo de Conservación El Triunfo AC (El Triunfo Conservation Fund). The future looks very bright indeed.



  2. Indeed it is. :) Mexico is one of the 17 megadiverse countries in the world. We get a lot of choice.

    Actually, you've just given me an idea for a future blog entry. Thank you!


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