Directing a Symphony for Sustainability
A Profile of Pati Ruiz Corzo
Achieving sustainability in Mexico can be difficult work. Fortunately, Pati Ruiz Corzo the founder and Director of the Grupo Ecologico Sierra Gorda is up to the task. For nearly twenty years she has been weaving a tapestry of conservation in central Mexico using people and markets as the warp and woof on which all else depends. The Ecosystem Marketplace visits this indomitable force for good.
In Spanish, when someone has taught themselves how to do something -- cook, garden, fix cars -- it is said that they have learned the skill "lyricamente," which translates, directly, as lyrically. The English translation, of course, not only carries connotations of competence but also of grace. In both the Spanish and English senses of the word, then, Pati Ruiz Corzo has come by her approach to ecology and conservation lyricamente.
A chamber violinist from a hard-working, upper-middle class family in Mexico, Ruiz explains, "I lived a very urban life, but in the city I was full of strength, with no cause." Ruiz says she found her cause when she moved with her family twenty-plus years ago to the ranch where her husband was born in the Sierra Gorda mountains of central Mexico. In the mountains, she began home-schooling her two young boys, surrounding them with books and music in the mornings and hiking with them in the woods each afternoon. It was through this very personal "return to nature," that Ruiz says she discovered and subsequently developed her deep commitment to conservation.
Mexico remains one of the most biologically rich countries on Earth. In the Sierra Gorda, where Ruiz now lives, orchids explode from the trunks of oak trees in a cloud forest on one side of a ridge and tall pine trees stretch toward the sky on the other. Bright pink hummingbirds stir the air near red-tailed hawks, monarch butterflies and the world's last population of military macaws. Endemic species abound and jaguars still roam mountain-tops. Unfortunately, Sierra Gorda, despite its stunning diversity, exhibits several other modern Mexican legacies as well -- namely, environmental degradation and poverty.
Mexico is thought to have one of the world's worst rates of deforestation. More than one million hectares are logged each year (many of them illegally) and, according to Ruiz, the destruction is starting to add-up. "The water couldn't be dirtier, the soil is bad, the aquifers are drying."
Concerned about deforestation and the loss of biodiversity in Sierra Gorda, Ruiz and her husband, Roberto Pedraza Munoz, founded an environmental nonprofit called Grupo Ecologico with friends in 1987. The group undertook a widespread campaign of environmental education, advocating recycling and reforestation through community projects, school programs and weekly radio shows. Their efforts paid off and in 1997, Grupo Ecologico, with Ruiz at its helm, successfully lobbied the Mexican government to create a Biosphere Reserve in the region. Today, the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve covers a million acres of mountainous terrain -- from arid foothills to forested peaks -- and houses roughly 100,000 people within its borders.
Ruiz has always been keenly aware that the fate of Reserve's million acres depends, without a doubt, on that of that of its 100,000 residents. Accordingly, she says she is constantly looking to weave a "tapestry of solutions" that will both further conservation aims and combat the rural poverty she sees around her. Sierra Gorda, because it is steep, far from market and lacks good grazing, is bad for traditional kinds of agricultural and livestock production. Traditional kinds of agricultural and livestock production, because they require that forested hillsides be cleared or used for grazing, are bad for biodiversity conservation. Ruiz argues that, from these two wrongs, it is possible to make a right. "We must set up an economy of conservation for the people here," she says.
By making it financially rewarding for the Reserve's residents to switch from extracting their natural resources to stewarding them, Ruiz hopes to prove that people and environmental progress are not incompatible in Sierra Gorda. Grupo Ecologico now has some 20,000 local people involved in different conservation projects. Various communities now boast carpentries, bee-keeping projects, ceramic workshops and flower production and dehydration facilities. Handsome ecotourism cabins have been built in one of the area's prettiest and poorest valleys where birding books have been designed, hiking trails announced and local residents licensed as guides. Thousands of small forestry plantations have been planted throughout the Reserve and the first sustainable harvests are planned for this year. The hope is that, as current plantation owners begin to reap the rewards of their efforts, other community members will come forward to plant trees as well. In Sierra Gorda, it seems that conservation success may soon prove a feedback loop of the best kind.
Recognizing this, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) provided seed funding in 2000 for an ambitious seven-year project (2001-2007) to expand biodiversity conservation in the Reserve. Grupo Ecologico used this US $6.7 million to leverage further funding from a range of local and international partners, generating a total project fund of just over US $31 million.
An Economy of Conservation
Midway through the seven year project, Ruiz says that Grupo Ecologico, in combination with its offshoot forestry group, Bosque Sustenable A.C., and the Mexican government, is increasingly looking to establish revenue streams to pay the Reserve's residents to act as stewards of its ecosystem services. Payments for environmental services like water filtration, flood control and carbon sequestration, says Ruiz, are "something we owe the people here for their willingness to protect the land. It's compensation long overdue."
Sierra Gorda is an important area for hydrological recharge in a country in need of more water. Heavy summer storms known as temporales sweep in from The Gulf of Mexico and douse Sierra Gorda's peaks in rain. The water seeps through the region's porous rock and then collects in underground caverns that act as natural cisterns. While the precise role of forest cover in moderating this hydrological cycle is not yet understood, healthy forests are thought to: facilitate groundwater recharge by making the soil more penetrable; prevent soil erosion and local flooding by providing land cover; and filter impurities from water by passing it through complex root structures.
Based on their hydrological importance, Mexico's federal forestry commission (known by the Spanish acronym CONAFOR) began paying to protect forests in Sierra Gorda two years ago. Specifically, the Payments for Hydrological Environmental Services program pays high-altitude residents $30-$40 per hectare/per year if they agree not to log forest on their property (click here
for more on this program). "The CONAFOR payments were an important piece of the puzzle for us because we didn't have any compensation for landowners in old growth areas before the program," says Ruiz.
Participants in the CONAFOR program, which now protects some 13,000 hectares in the Reserve and puts money in the pockets of 45 local residents, say that it has been a success in Sierra Gorda where on-the-ground monitoring efforts by Grupo Ecologico ensure that the conservation actually takes place. The federal government, too, is optimistic about the results, saying that it plans to extend the CONAFOR program to include payments for carbon sequestration and biodiversity conservation as well.
Importantly, Ruiz says she also wants to develop private funding streams for Sierra Gorda's ecosystem services so that conservation will remain sustainable long after the GEF or government money runs out. Toward this end, Grupo Ecologico has set out to gather scientific evidence of the Reserve's hydrological importance to take to downstream water users like hydroelectric companies and mining ventures. Twelve hydrological sites now measure precipitation, filtration and flow in the different ecosystems -- cloud forest, pine forest, jungle -- in Sierra Gorda. Scientists at the University of Queretaro plan to use the data, in combination with information concerning land cover and soil type, to model hydrological processes throughout the Reserve. "Maybe in three years we will have enough historical data to convince businesses to pay to conserve our watersheds," says Ruiz. Then she sighs and takes a swig of tea to suggest that this particular climb may prove a long one.
Luckily, tough terrain rarely seems to slow Ruiz down too much. After battling for seven years to market a carbon sequestration project in Sierra Gorda to potential Kyoto buyers interested in a Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) investment, Ruiz says she has now found a new way to slice the cake. "I finally realized that CDM rules are too high and too expensive to create a good deal for the people of Sierra Gorda, so now we are going to sell our carbon on the voluntary market." And the first voluntary market deal, she notes, is now in the final stages of negotiation.
Ruiz is also optimistic about the new possibility of selling biodiversity credits to buyers looking to offset development impacts elsewhere. The CONAFOR program, she observes, has already shown her the important role such credits might play in introducing ever more people to an economy of conservation. "There is a man who has been coming into the office for many years to complain because a jaguar has been killing his cows and goats, now we can pay him what we owe him for these many years, for his many cows. Now, he can join us on our side."
One is aware that Ruiz' battle for sustainable development and an economy of conservation is far from won when driving through Sierra Gorda. A rubbage dump burns on a hillside outside the small city of Pinal de Amoles, swaths of hillside lie denuded and thin livestock graze in roadside forests next to feral donkeys. Anyone involved in conservation in the Reserve admits that some people remain uninterested in conservation work and that, despite generous grants from the Mexican government and international NGOs, there isn't even enough money to compensate everyone who is. But, of course, ubiquitous and tidy is not what on-the-ground conservation looks like. And where there is progress in Sierra Gorda, it is real and encompassing.
"I see sustainability like a symphony," says Ruiz. "When I look at the schedule of programs here in Sierra Gorda, I see sheet music with many different voices, many different instruments. Trying to direct on-time and in-tune can be very, very hard but it is satisfying work."
Amanda Hawn is the Assistant Editor of the Ecosystem Marketplace, she may be reached at email@example.com.