The story

A Biodiverse Carbon model is being put into use in The Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve. The model combines mitigating climate change, sequestering carbon and regenerating the natural heritage of Mexico.

Donaciano Chávez Márquez owns 55 hectares of forest in the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve, Querétaro, Mexico. For the last 8 years, he has been receiving payments to keep cattle off his land and allow the forest to regenerate. This is part of a “Biodiverse Carbon” model developed by Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda (GESG), which seeks to regenerate oak forests while offering landowners economic benefits. Donaciano: “I have received various payments over the years that have helped me to keep my fence in good condition, and I have removed the cattle from my land, I just leave them there to be kept and for the wild animals to be there.”

Donaciano Chávex Márquez relieves payments to keep cattle off his land and allow the forest to regenerate (Image credit: GESG).

Opportunity for community based conservation

Forests cover more than one-third of Mexico. And since the Mexican Revolution, at the beginning of the 20th century, over 80% of the forests have been controlled by local communities. Yet unsustainable forest management is widespread. Many communities use old-growth forest as “natural pasture”. Overloading of cattle leads to severe degradation and reduces the potential for forests to absorb carbon and mitigate climate change. Between 2002 and 2018 Mexico lost more than 500,000 ha of primary forest. Reducing unsustainable livestock management is therefore key to protecting Mexico’s forest.

Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda – a community-founded organisation – have been working since 1987 to protect the temperate and cloud forests of The Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve. This biosphere reserve covers 33% of Querétaro state. In a healthy state, the Sierra Gorda forests act as massive carbon sinks and a home for abundant biodiversity: the area is a microcosm of Mexican natural heritage (find out more here). The “Biodiverse Carbon” model recognizes this and matches protecting and regenerating forests with benefits for the local community.

Natural forest regeneration

GESG find that natural regeneration is the best way to protect and restore forests. That means simply fencing an area to keep cattle out to halt grazing and allow a forest to naturally recover. “Natural regeneration by excluding livestock shows incredible results”, says Chava Rivas – Head of Forestry Projects at GESG, “we have seen 15 forest species regenerate in one hectare of forest”.

Keeping cattle off land is a simple way of ensuring natural forest regeneration (Image credit: GESG)

Studies comparing the carbon captured in biomass between grazed forest and plots of natural regeneration are striking. Removing cattle leads to an average of 3.96 tons of additional CO2 captured per hectare, per year. And for landowners like Donaciano, the impact adds up – his 55 hectare plot captures a total of 326 tons of CO2 per year. Donaciano clearly sees the impact: “My neighbour’s farm still has a few cows on it and when you compare it to me you can see a big difference in how it is more full of vegetation and looks more alive.”

Creating local protocols

GESG have developed local protocols to ensure payments for carbon capture reaches local land owners. “Many of the landowners we work with live in extreme poverty and do not have the requirements of international protocols”, explains Chava. “We accept a letter of possession in order to make the requirements accessible to the local people”.

A database is being constructed to support 30 landowners covering 2,098 hectares of temperate and cloud forests. The carbon that these landowners capture will go through Querétaro’s local mechanism for environmental service payments. All vehicle owners in the state pay a modest tax alongside the annual renewal of their license plates, thereby mitigating their personal emissions – thus connecting the residents of Querétaro with the regeneration of their natural heritage.

Protecting Mexican forests is key to mitigating the impacts of climate change (Image credit: GESG).

Scaling Biodiverse Carbon

According to Laura Pérez-Arce, Coordinator at GESG, the Biodiverse Carbon Model is effective in regenerating forests while creating incentives for local landowners: ““We have developed a voluntary framework to offset carbon emissions, verified under the ICAT [Initiative for Climate Action Transparency] guidelines, involving viable protocols and procedures, to quantify the amount of carbon in local oak forests. This framework has produced palpable economic benefits that clearly override the opportunity costs.”

GESG plan to support other NGOs within the bioregion to adopt the Biodiverse Carbon model. “We do not want people to have to go through the same learning curve. We say these are the basics, this is what we’ve learnt about finance mechanisms on a state level, and these are the tools – adapt them to where you are,” explains Laura.

In order to scale nationwide, they need to unlock another level of funding. Laura: “We are talking about fortifying the model and strengthening the local civil society infrastructure in order to be in the operational arm in partnership with the government. Therefore, we need financing that the state government can generate.”

Effective way to regenerate forests

Biodiverse Carbon is an effective and beneficial way to link economic development with the forest ecosystems. Regenerating forests is about more than mitigating carbon. It is also about restoring lost habitat for biodiversity and animals. The Sierra Gorda is home to many highly threatened species, like the bearded-wood partridge, which depend on the forests for their existence. With proper payment for protecting forests, land owners are much better connected to their natural heritage and the process of regeneration.

“During these years I have noticed how the whole property has been covered with vegetation, many small cedar and oak trees growing and many mature ones also preserved,” explains Donaciano, “I have seen traces of deer, rabbits, foxes and some felines, perhaps a puma. They pass by my property and continue on their way.”

Forests are crucial to Mexican natural heritage (Image credit: GESG).

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