From April 23-25, 2012, a DM team comprised of Ricardo Hernandez (Sr. Environmental Specialist), Angelica Calderon (Information Specialist), Douglas Jimenez (Information Assistant), and Myra Valenzuela (Consultant) visited DM2008 Project “Reducing Impacts of Ranching on Biodiversity .”
With the Rio+20  meetings less than 5 weeks away, climate change has once again taken center stage on the global agenda. Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda IAP (GESG) , based in the state of Querétaro, Mexico, is combating climate change through its efforts to establish a conservation-based local economy in the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve  (Reserve). At almost 384,000 hectares, the Reserve covers 32% of the state’s territory, and it is jointly managed as a public-private partnership by the Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas  (CONANP) and GESG.
As a member of UNESCO ’s World Network of Biosphere Reserves, the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve is one of the most ecologically diverse areas in Mexico and serves as a critical refuge for both migratory and threatened species. However, the practice of extensive cattle grazing by landowners throughout the Reserve poses a threat to the delicate ecosystem. GESG’s GEF -funded project with the Development Marketplace, “Reducing Impacts of Ranching on Biodiversity” addressed just that: financing payments for environmental services to local ranchers in exchange for excluding their cattle from the land and performing conservation activities (e.g. tree planting, soil regeneration, no lumber extraction, no hunting). The DM project also supported 5 pilot farms to showcase best practices for animal husbandry and land management. In addition, GESG pursued certification and verification of sequestered carbon captured in reforestation efforts through the Rainforest Alliance , developing a “gourmet” product of integrated environmental services.
Last month, the DM team visited this project in the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve as part of a GEF monitoring visit. We met both the project team from GESG and the ranchers who were direct beneficiaries of payments for environmental services. The map below shows the extent of GESG’s payments for environmental services program, with those funded by the DM award highlighted in yellow.
The ranchers told us how their participation in the project had increased their income and improved their cattle’s health due to trainings and technical assistance provided by GESG. In addition, the ranchers shared stories about more frequent sightings and tracks of wildlife like the margay (Leopardus wiedii ) featured at the top of the page. This is a promising sign that the conservation activities promoted by GESG are having a direct positive impact on the biodiversity of the region.
We also visited one of the pilot farms, which have quickly scaled from an initial target of 5 farms to 10. There were several components to the farm, including a greenhouse, biofertilizer production, various planted crops, and herds of goats, sheep and cows that were placed on rotating pastures in order to minimize impact on the land and improve the health of the animals. This demonstration farm serves as a hub for agricultural innovation and dissemination of best practices for other farms in the Reserve. In addition, a small artisanal cheese factory provides participating farmers with supplementary income. Proceeds from cheese sales in the state capital are divided among the farmers according to the amount of milk they contributed.
During our visit, we learned about the broad, multi-pronged effort GESG and its affiliates are undertaking to establish a financially-viable conservation economy under the umbrella organization Alianza para la Conservacion de la Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra Gorda . For example, GESG has a current partnership with the state government of Querétaro to offset carbon emissions for all state vehicles. In addition, Bosque Sustentable A.C., a member of the Alianza, develops reforestation activities, forestry plans, payment for environmental services, and the development of ecosystem products. Joya del Hielo A.C. cares for unique sanctuaries, now protected as private nature reserves. The Sierra Gorda Earth Center, where we met the ranchers who participated in the DM project, serves as the hub for training activities. Finally, Sierra Gorda Products and Services provides business training to micro-enterprises such as local honey and oregano production, while Sierra Gorda Ecotours promotes ecotourism in the region, boosting both the local economy and environmental awareness.
It was truly inspiring to witness the extent of GESG’s partnerships with the government and local community in reducing poverty and protecting the biosphere. We can only hope that the Rio+20 Conference will be as successful in convincing governments to adopt much-needed measures to implement sustainable development.