One of the largest remaining tropical rainforests in the Americas stretches across the Mexican states of Yucatan, Quintana Roo and Campeche, and reaches down into Guatemala and Belize. The forests are home to an innumerable number of species, from jaguars and mahogany trees, to plants, insects and animals still yet to be named and classified by modern science. In some places, the landscape is dotted with cenotes, caves hollowed out from limestone, that fill with dazzlingly aqua waters. People living in this region have been stewards of the forest for generations.
But when she was younger, Alma Delia Salgado didn’t think she could stay in her small hometown, Nueva Vida, in the state of Campeche. She planned to move away to find work, perhaps to a big city or maybe the U.S.
This is a common dilemma facing young people around the world, who find few opportunities in rural regions. But for the forest communities of the Yucatan Peninsula, the departure of an entire generation could spell disaster for an ecosystem—and global climate change.
Eighty percent of Mexico’s forests are divided up into a system of communidades agrarias and ejidos, land concessions that are communally owned and managed. As in many other forested regions of the world, giving land rights to the community that lives in the forest has slowed the rate of deforestation. According to Global Forest Watch, between 2000 and 2015, Mexico lost just 5.3 percent of its forested areas, compared to 7.9 percent in Brazil and 12.8 percent in Indonesia during the same time period.
For some ejidos, protecting the forests is a great source of pride and identity. For example, Ejido Caobas in the state of Quintana Roo has been sustainably harvesting lumber with Forest Stewardship Council certification for the past 25 years. Nearly half of the community’s 67,781 hectares of land is set aside for protection, where no logging activities take place. The community sells its lumber to sustainably-minded brands such as Gibson Guitars.
However, a major challenge facing the ejido system is a social structure based on patrilineal inheritance. Only the head of the family is allowed a vote in the ejido’s government, and ejido rights are passed down from father to eldest son. There are a few exceptions. If a man without sons dies, his wife or daughter may inherit his place. It is also possible to buy one’s way into an ejido, but the costs are prohibitively high for most people living in the region and the new member must also be accepted by a community vote.
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