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Mexican Communities Are Trying to Protect an Endangered Fir Forest

Mexican Communities Are Trying to Protect an Endangered Fir Forest
The Colima fir tree's distribution has been reduced to the area surrounding the Nevado de Colima volcano. Agustín del Castillo

By Agustín del Castillo

For 20 years, the Colima fir tree (Abies colimensis) has been at the heart of many disputes to conserve the temperate forests of southern Jalisco, a state in central Mexico. Today, the future of this tree rests upon whether the area's avocado crops will advance further and whether neighboring communities will unite to protect it.

The Colima fir tree's distribution has been reduced to the area surrounding the Nevado de Colima volcano. In November 2019, Mexican authorities included the tree on a list of endangered species.

The Nevado de Colima volcano stands 4,260 meters (13,976 feet) above sea level. Agustín del Castillo

According to biologist José Villa Castillo, the director of Nevado de Colima National Park and Nevado de Colima Cloud Forest State Park, it is imperative to stop the commercialization of the tree's timber and to create policies that conserve the forests in which it lives. Villa Castillo also supported the inclusion of the tree on the endangered species list.

Villa Castillo acknowledged the enormous challenge of conserving this tree, and he said the pressure to exploit its timber without sustainable management is far from the only problem. The expansion of the nearby avocado industry also threatens its survival.

When allowed to grow, the Colima fir tree can become monumental: It can reach 60 meters (196 feet) in height and 2 m (6.5 ft) in diameter. To protect this giant, specialists and communities often promote ecotourism and conservation projects inside the national and state parks that surround the Nevado de Colima volcano.

Fires That Clear Land for Avocado Crops

In 2012, a group of researchers from the University of Guadalajara proposed to the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) the recognition of the A. colimensis as a unique species to differentiate it from the sacred fir (A. religiosa), which is the dominant fir tree in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, a collection of volcanoes in central Mexico.

The Colima fir tree "has extremely low genetic diversity; it has the lowest known genetic diversity among all the species in the Abies genus in Mesoamerica and one of the lowest among all the species of trees on the planet," according to the authors of the proposal to recognize the tree as an endangered species. The area it occupies "is very limited": just 15,002 hectares (37,071 acres), or 0.007% of the territory of Mexico.

The Nevado de Colima volcano, which stands 4,260 meters (13,976 feet) above sea level, is one of only eight peaks that exceed 4,000 m (13,123 ft) in Mexico. It is only 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Pacific Ocean and is considered an "evolutionary island" because the ecosystems in its high-altitude areas drive unique adaptations in species and are cut off from other ecosystems by hundreds of kilometers. The Colima fir tree is an example of the area's biological differentiation, according to Libertad Arredondo, a researcher and expert on the ecology of high mountains.

The fir forests are mainly located in the middle of slopes or in ravines. Agustín del Castillo

Even though the tree has remained on that "evolutionary island," its situation has become increasingly complicated by the impact of deforestation, which was propelled by the issuance of permits for forest exploitation. Fires, started to convert the land to agriculture or other uses, also present a threat to the ecosystem, according to the experts who suggested the tree should be considered endangered.

The researchers said the tree's future prospects are further complicated by its slow growth rate, its high degree of genetic erosion, the effects of climate change, and the movement of clouds to higher altitudes. The position of clouds is crucial because they act as an essential source of moisture for fir trees.

Villa Castillo, an expert in pine genetics and reproduction, said the Colima fir tree has never been successfully reproduced in nurseries, which would likely make it impossible to conduct reforestation efforts to help repopulate the species.

The forests that contain the Colima fir tree are in cold, humid climates, with very little light reaching the understory, and they're mainly located in the middle of slopes or in ravines. The species thrives when surrounded by oak trees, coniferous trees and other types of vegetation common in mountainous cloud forests. The tree also requires a primary habitat with little disturbance from humans.

According to Villa Castillo, fire kills most Colima fir tree seedlings, as it kills seedlings of other species in the Abies genus. In recent years, more fires have been started in the forest to clear the way for avocado trees.

A tree and other vegetation in the cloud forest surrounding the Nevado de Colima volcano. Agustín del Castillo

Sonia Navarro Pérez, a researcher from the University of Guadalajara who has monitored and conducted biological inventories in the area, has seen firsthand how the growth of the avocado industry has led to the loss of important forested areas.

She described the case of the indigenous community of San José del Carmen, which is in the municipality of Zapotitlán de Vadillo, near one of the patches of forest.

"We were working with them to establish productive alternatives that are good for nature," Navarro Pérez said. "But when the avocado came, it overwhelmed us completely."

Since 2013, the coniferous forests around the Nevado de Colima volcano have lost nearly 6,600 hectares (16,300 acres) due to illegal logging, livestock rearing and intentionally set fires, according to Mexico's deforestation risk index developed by the National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change.

A section of cloud forest in San José del Carmen, inside the state park created in 2009. Community members have been protecting the forest voluntarily for over two decades. Agustín del Castillo

"[What was once] an original area of 7,000 hectares [17,300 acres] of fir-specific forest is now cut in half," said Villa Castillo, the director of the Nevado de Colima national and state parks.

The expansion of the avocado crops is the most recent threat in a series of events that have negatively impacted the conservation of the forests in the area.

Between the 1940s and the 1990s, the Atenquique Industrial Company had exclusive rights to use the timber from these forests under a concession from the Mexican government. The result was "that the forests were skimmed — that is, they took the best parts," Villa Castillo said.

When the concession expired in 1995, the forests did not experience a transition to a sustainable timber extraction method. Those who, along with landowners who held small plots, had rights to the shared land were limited to selling the forested areas, at very low prices, to the new logging industries located in Ciudad Guzmán. "Then, there were many abuses against the communities. The money was given to the caciques" — families who have always controlled the shared land — "alms were left for the community, and our forests were very poorly managed," said Rafael González Merín, the former president of Huescalapa, a collective of communally owned farmland known as an ejido.

As a result, many residents of the community believe the solution is to conserve the forests with productive projects.

Communities Pitch in to Save Their Trees

Unlike the communities that have been overtaken by the avocado industry, Huescalapa has largely managed to resist its arrival. The community of shared land, which spans more than 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres), is home to pine and fir trees within its shady temperate forests.

The residents of Huescalapa have also set aside the proposals they've received from the forestry industry, which has expressed interest in buying their trees.

According to Gerardo Bernabé Aguayo, logging activity in this area of Jalisco "has been very negative because the industry has managed delicate areas — with very limited species — poorly, so we are supporting and launching projects with the communities." Bernabé Aguayo is the president of the board of trustees of Nevado de Colima and Adjacent Basins, a civil association created about 20 years ago after being promoted by the government of the state of Jalisco. To support the conservation of the national and state parks, the board has financing from the regional private sector.

The board manages about 6 million pesos ($268,000) contributed by the federal government in 2020. With resources from the private sector, it has been able to access an additional 1.5 million pesos ($67,000).

An area of fir trees that has been destroyed by logging. Agustín del Castillo

Rodrigo Cantera Hernández, the president of the El Alcázar Ecotourism Center, said that in Huescalapa, the caciques removed timber from the fir forests, "but they did not report any money to the other community members, so we fought to eject them and were able to do so a couple of years ago."

In Huescalapa, three main conflicts over timber have taken place in the past 20 years. First, in 1999, a group of community members sold part of the forest to a forestry industry from Ciudad Guzmán. A movement led by citizens put an end to the logging five months later.

Next, in 2012, environmental authorities granted permission for forest exploitation in these areas, so fir trees continued to be cut down. An opinion by the Institute of Environmental Law, a civil society organization, cited scientific evidence that demonstrated the uniqueness of mountain fir trees and forced SEMARNAT to withdraw these permissions.

The citizens of Huescalapa formed a cooperative to launch the El Alcázar Ecotourism Center. El Alcázar Ecotourism Center

Then, in 2015, a federal judge suspended a new authorization to exploit timber in the cloud forest.

For communities like Huescalapa to have economic options that do not involve the use of timber because of the detrimental effects that this may have on the remaining population of Colima fir trees, ecotourism and similar activities are promoted.

According to Bernabé Aguayo, the goal is for the natural forest to be conserved as "a key area for contemplation, enjoyment, the preservation of environmental services, and research."

In 2019, the cooperative in El Alcázar received 1 million pesos ($44,600), which allowed it to have the basic infrastructure for the ecotourism center. The cooperative may receive an additional 3 million pesos ($133,800) in 2020 to purchase more equipment and improve the roads, but support for this funding was blocked in a community assembly. "They have not understood that it is for the benefit of everyone, that it is not money for our pockets," said Cantera Hernández, the president of the cooperative.

In Huescalapa, one of the challenges that interferes with efforts to promote the ecotourism center is the division that exists between community members. Many seek to use the timber, but others are already convinced of the importance of conservation.

Villa Castillo, the director of the Nevado de Colima national and state parks, emphasized that projects similar to the El Alcázar Ecotourism Center are being promoted in San José del Carmen and Zapotitlán de Vadillo, which are very close to the border between the states of Jalisco and Colima.

María de la Luz Cortés Reyes, the leader of the Amixtlán cooperative, which was created in San José del Carmen. Agustín del Castillo

The Amixtlán Ecotourism Center is located in the community of San José del Carmen. A cluster of cabins marks the entrance to the cloud forest, designated a state park since 2009.

"We decided to protect our forest long before they declared the state park, 20 years before then," said María de la Luz Cortés Reyes, a community leader in San José del Carmen. She recalled that when loggers came with offers to buy the forest, members of the community believed that they offered very little payment and that "the damage [that the loggers left] was too much." For that reason, they decided "not to touch the forest, because it produces water for the crops and for our houses."

Cortés Reyes said the community was able to construct the ecotourism center because it had resources managed by the Nevado de Colima Cloud Forest State Park and by the Board of Trustees of Nevado de Colima and Adjacent Basins. However, she said it is important that more promotion is given to the area and that urgent problems, such as those with the water supply system, are resolved.

A view of the Nevado de Colima volcano from the Amixtlán Ecotourism Center in San José del Carmen. Agustín del Castillo

In the community of Zapotitlán de Vadillo, citizens also promoted the Puerta de la Hacienda Ecotourism Center, where administrators support the biocultural production of mezcal, an alcoholic beverage made from agave. The drink is made by two mezcaleros, or people who are experts in creating mezcal: Marcario Partida from Zapotitlán de Vadillo, and Rosario Pineda from Tetapán, a small community in Zapotitlán de Vadillo.

Other productive projects that are promoted in the communities include the organic production of eggs, such as by Efigenia Larios, a small producer from the community of El Tecuán. Additionally, the shared land communities of Zapotitlán de Vadillo, San José del Carmen and Huescalapa are provided with equipment for fire prevention and materials to help restore the forest soil.

Artists have painted murals that shine a spotlight on forest conservation in San José del Carmen and Zapotitlán de Vadillo.

The intention of these efforts is to allow those who own land or have rights on this fragile mountain to "understand that there are other options besides logging, and that they, too, can generate development," said Arredondo, the researcher who specializes in the ecology of high mountains.

Despite the strong pressure for land use changes brought by the avocado agroindustry and fostered by the high level of impunity that often prevails in rural areas, many of the area's landowners continue to search for a model in which their forests can remain standing.

"Many neighbors say that we are foolish for not wanting to sell this beautiful forest that we have, but that money only lasts for a short time," said José Avalo Lino, a farmer in San José del Carmen. "We are so certain of [the importance of] preventing logging that, long before the declaration of the natural protected area, our community assembly had already decided to save this forest. We will continue to be 'foolish' in this decision."

Reposted with permission from Mongabay.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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