Indigenous communities transform a Mexican desert landscape into forest

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In Tepejillo, on one of the many hills in the southern Mexican municipality of San Juan Bautista Coixtlahuaca, extreme erosion has transformed the earth into bare rock, making it difficult to imagine that the area used to be home to a forest or, even more incredibly, a civilization.

“These forests supported a city of more than 100,000 residents before the arrival of the Spanish,” says Horacio Miguel, mayor of the Mixteca Alta region, Oaxaca state, where Tepejillo is located.

Miguel, who studied irrigation engineering at the University of Chapingo, has worked all over this limestone landscape, which once held enough water, animals, fertile soil and trees to support the powerful Mixtec ruler of Coixtlahuaca. It was a very different place then than it is today. The current population of some 2,800 people is struggling just to get water. In the upper areas of the basin, the land is devoid of vegetation and unable to retain or filter rainwater.

Around 20 years ago, the communities here decided to start restoring water and soil fertility. Their tenacity has yielded some results: From out of the karst rocks appeared green shoots of vegetation, easily mistaken for glints of sunlight in the white desert. Only by coming closer are they recognizable as pines, oaks, breadnuts and junipers, all planted here in 2021.

“To plant them, first we had to dig ditches to hold the water. To do that, we had to break ground using machinery, because it was pure rock. Sometimes even the machines couldn’t do it,” Miguel says.

The idea that these fragile seedlings would recreate a forest out of such adverse conditions seemed preposterous. But then again, the Narreje and Loma Larga sites a few kilometers away, where communal work had started 20 years earlier, were showing good results. Dense masses of forest 5 meters (16 feet) high flank the highway connecting the cities of Puebla and Oaxaca.

At least 2,000 hectares (4,900 acres) of degraded land in the agrarian community of San Juan Bautista Coixtlahuaca have been reforested through communal efforts since 2000. That’s almost three times the size of Mexico City’s Chapultepec forest, one of the largest urban parks in the Americas.

Coixtlahuaca is just one of 25 communities that form part of this reforesting miracle stretching throughout what is known as the Chocho-Mixtecas Community Alliance. Within the alliance’s territory, more than 20,000 hectares (49,000 acres) have been restored, a feat equivalent to at least three Manhattans. It’s also proof of the potential for forest restoration when an entire population gets behind the idea of working with, not against, the land.

Restoration was so successful that on June 17, 2021, the Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) and the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) selected it to be the venue for the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought.

Goats, everywhere

Coixtlahuaca’s reign came to an end in 1462, according to historical records, when the city fell to a Mexica invasion following a legendary defense by Atonaltzin, its final king. The commercial importance of the area would continue even after Spanish conquest, as is reflected in the imposing convent built by Dominican friars in honor of Saint John the Baptist in 1575.

In Coixtlahuaca, like the rest of Oaxaca’s Mixteca region and other parts of Mexico, Spanish colonization led to intensive ranching that degraded every piece of land it touched. But unlike cattle or sheep, which can’t survive on poor vegetation, goats were able to feed on the plants of the degraded landscape, which are often the last barrier protecting the soil. With their strong teeth, goats can pull up plants from their roots, preventing them from regrowing. Their sharp hooves also cut into the topsoil, exposing it to erosion from rain and wind.

“Since the Spanish, this area has been full of goats, and that devastated it,” Miguel says, recounting that Coixtlahuaca was a crossing point for ranchers headed from Tehuacán toward the coast.

Coixtlahuaca’s true environmental decline, then, started with the expansion of goat ranching and the resulting eradication of the area’s vegetation.

Deprived of the few plants that could protect it, the fragile soil in this part of Oaxaca has begun to change, pressured by the wind and rain, as well as the large expanses of caliche and tepetate rocks that only the most persistent plants, such as cactuses, can grow in.

But after centuries of pastoral traditions, it would be a challenge to ask shepherds to stop entering restored areas. It would be one of many challenges to come. “Most people here are aware of the consequences of overgrazing and even participating in reforestation efforts,” Miguel says.

Nevertheless, in the neighboring community of San Cristóbal Suchixtlahuaca, clashes between restoration-minded community members and those who support grazing can sometimes get heated. A dispute involving one shepherd and his family, who insisted on setting their animals to graze in a recently reforested area, wound up in court in 2015 and rose to the Supreme Court in 2018. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of the community, establishing an important legal precedent….”

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