Community development and conservation in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, Quintana Roo, Mexico

Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is a 1.6 million acre site that is one of the largest protected areas in Mexico. Designated as both a UNESCO World Heritage and RAMSAR site, it has the most pristine wetlands in Mesoamerica and is also the setting of the ancient Mayan culture and twenty five Mayan ruins. The reserve’s magnificent barrier reef, part of the second largest in the world, unique coastal and marine ecosystems, wetlands, tropical forest, and the longest underground river system on earth, enclose a high biodiversity of species, many of which are endemic and endangered. Jaguar, jabiru stork, tapir, manatee, crocodiles, sea turtles, howler monkeys and many species of coral, can all be found here.

Amigos de Sian Ka’an (ASK) is a non-profit Mexican organization that has for the past 18 years promoted biodiversity conservation for the benefit of current and future generations. For 12 of those years, 36 year old Gonzalo Merediz-Alonso has worked with ASK, and is leader of a project to develop collaboration strategies with Mayan communities to promote the sustainable use of natural resources.

By encouraging the use of traditional skills and development of economic activities such as embroidery, furniture carving, medicinal plant use and honey making, Gonzalo and his team are helping the Mayan culture survive whilst developing income generating activities that do not harm the environment. By consolidating the market for locally-made products, and improving quality control, Gonzalo is supporting the Maya’s activities, and promoting an information exchange between producers that is allowing the Maya to diversify and improve their profits.

A part of the forests of Mexico for thousands of years, Gonzalo is committed to finding a future for the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve which not only incorporates, but depends on the indigenous Mayan people’s intimate knowledge of the forest and their unique culture. Through building capacity and incorporating a strong environmental education program, Gonzalo and his team at ASK are succeeding in reducing the number of Mayan people forced to abandon the forests to migrate to Mexico’s cities from lack of income and quality of life. By helping the Mayan to generate additional income, Gonzalo is empowering the Mayan to safeguard community resources and protect their ancestral lands through environmental stewardship, instead of leaving them vulnerable to development by outsiders.

Gonzalo is a graduate of SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF), New York. You can read more about him on the SUNY ESF website by clicking here.

PROJECT UPDATES

SUCCESS FOR ASK! BALA’AN K’AAX GIVEN OFFICIAL PROTECTION BY MEXICAN FEDERAL GOVERNMENT

May 4th 2005

Just a few weeks after Gonzalo received the Whitley Award in London in April 2005, the Mexican federal government officially established the Bala’an K’aax Flora and Fauna Protection Area.

This lush tropical rainforest area acts as a vital water catchment which feeds the region’s many communities, as well as hundreds of thousand of hectares of wetlands. From here, the water of Bala’an K’aax flows to an important coral reef on Mexico’s coast – the second largest barrier reef in the World.

Until now, Bala’an K’aax has been threatened by the selective logging of precious hard woods and the expansion of agriculture, which has brought with it the pollution of the basin by agricultural pesticides and fertilizers, with follow-on impacts for the marine environment.

Bala’an K’aax, which is a 128,390 hectare area, is now officially and legally protected and is the 8th protected area established by Amigos de Sian Ka’an initiative.

The news comes following over a decade of research and campaign work by Amigos de Sian Ka’an, which has worked tirelessly to provide evidence to justify the protection of the area. ASK brought together local communities and municipal, state, and federal authorities in order to obtain the decree.

The communities around Bala’an K’aax are the poorest in the region, but with this recent news, ASK is confident that the protected area will be the engine for sustainable development and a better quality of life for the people. Much work still needs to be done with these communities, but the people of Bala’an K’aax stand to benefit more than ever from the natural product marketing and environment education activities supported by the Whitley Award to help bring themselves out of poverty sustainably.

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