Conservation through community participation in the Maya forest

Gabriel Ramos Fernández, Ph.D.
Pronatura Península de Yucatán

Environmental scientists currently face the challenge of producing sound solutions for urgent problems in which a variety of parties hold a stake. This project is an attempt at informing the decisions of local communities and government officials on the management of a new protected area in the Yucatan peninsula.

The Otoch Ma'ax Yetel Kooh protected area (“house of the monkey and the jaguar”, in Yucatec Maya; 5327 hectares) contains fragments of medium, semi-evergreen rainforest among wider areas of forest in various stages of succession in the context of continuous slash-and-burn agriculture practiced at a subsistence level by around 100 Yucatec Maya families. This type of agriculture can be sustainable if practiced at low densities and using long fallow periods. Climate changes and a loss in soil fertility associated with shorter fallow periods have decreased the production of corn, beans, squash and other traditional products. This constitutes an incentive for local communities to abandon their land and apply for low paying jobs in nearby, fast-growing cities like Cancun and Playa del Carmen. At the same time, these tourist spots provide an incentive for protecting the forest inhabited by spider monkeys, the main attraction for visitors. Ecotourism then substitutes slash-and-burn agriculture as an economic activity for some of the villagers.

Long-term results of research on the habitat use and population size of spider monkeys in the area indicates that both slash-and-burn agriculture and ecotourism could be practiced at the current levels. However, both activities may be incompatible with the presence of spider monkeys if managed incorrectly or with short-term goals in mind. Pronatura Península de Yucatán, a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of natural resources in the region, has worked closely with the local communities in the management of the area for the past eight years. With its official declaration as a reserve, local, state and federal authorities must work together with the local communities in the design and implementation of different sustainable resource use projects, including community-managed ecotourism as well as the intensification of swidden agriculture. The way in which information on the spider monkeys and the forest ecology is presented and understood by both local communities and government officials is a crucial step in this process.