Wetenschap - 14 februari 2002

Conservationists clash with locals in Mexican nature reserve

Conservationists clash with locals in Mexican nature reserve

People first, then butterflies

Nature conservationists are putting a lot of effort into preserving and enlarging a protected area for a butterfly, but according to MSc student Lucia Genchi, the people who live there are being ignored. "Increasing the livelihood of the local people is necessary if you want to conserve nature."

The move to prevent more timber felling in the forests of Central Mexico comes largely from North American organisations, because the Monarch butterfly spends the winter in this area. But according to Lucia Genchi, an MSc student in Tropical Forestry who did fieldwork in the area, one cannot expect miracles by enlarging the protected area. First the real problem needs tackling and that is poverty and insufficient means of livelihood for the local people.

The protected area, which conservationists want to extend to cover 40,000 hectares, is an area of high land with steep valleys. From Italy herself, her stay in Mexico made a deep impression on Ganchi: "In Europe high mountains tend to mean leisure activities, but in the tropics it is different. Many people depend on what the land can give them, in this case wood." They cut down trees and sell the wood, an activity that the North American conservationists want to stop because it is depriving the butterflies of their winter quarters.

Sustainable management

But the local people face considerable constraints, continues Ganchi: "The land is not suitable for agriculture. The soils are very poor and the terrain too mountainous. Exploiting the trees for wood is an obvious activity." People moved into the region about two centuries ago to work in the silver and gold mines. When the mines closed the people stayed on and turned to the forest for their livelihood, without a tradition of sustainable management. This, and too many people using the forest, has led to its degradation.

While Genchi is a firm believer in nature conservation she says that social and economic factors cannot be ignored when considering ecological problems in countries such as Mexico. Genchi is just one of many MSc students from Wageningen University who have learned that when studying the destruction of nature in the field, it is necessary to look at both ecological and human factors.

Hugo Bouter

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