If you go to La Encrucijada Biosphere Reserve of Chiapas, Mexico, you step into another world. Exotic creatures such as the spider monkey adorn Mexico’s tallest mangroves, and birds like the spoonbill fish the waters. Witnessing such a place today wouldn’t be possible without the help of the local community that protects these ecosystems. As with much of Mexico’s coastal region, towns surrounding the reserve were founded on small-scale fishing and farming. In recent times, the local fishing cooperatives established 5 fish recovery zones and updated their logging methods. Making this change wasn’t easy, as the loss of economic profit from fishing is easy to see. But the community realized that they wanted and needed to increase environmental responsibility in their day-to-day living. The fishermen also take great pride in the biodiversity of the reserve, working hard to repopulate the endangered species such as the American crocodile. Local families protect nesting females and care for juveniles, increasing both the species’ success and the ecological knowledge of its citizens. This has led La Encrucijada to develop respect towards the ecosystem and an understanding that translates into actions, fostering the growth and health of La Encrucijada Biosphere Reserve.
But herein lies the Mexican mangrove paradox: Mexico is one of the countries with the most mangroves, but is also deforesting them at the greatest rate. At the current rate, 50% of these forests will be lost in just 25 years, and along with it, Mexico’s carbon sinks, fishing nurseries, and coastal barriers. These ecosystems are being mowed down to pave way for shrimp farms, plantations, and tourist developments. Fortunately, the La Encrucijada Biosphere Reserve protects over 144,000 hectares of habitat, including some of the tallest mangroves within Mesoamerica. These mangroves shelter nesting spoonbills, jaguars, and giant wren, the state’s only endemic bird. As such, Chiapas has developed a community tourism network, one united by the mangroves and increasingly successful within the tourism industry. But this is all threatened by wildlife poaching, climate change, and illegal harvest of the mangroves themselves. Not only is the fishing and tourism economy at risk, but the local protection from tropical storms, buffering from rising carbon dioxide levels, and land fertility is also threatened.
Collaborating with local authorities, nonprofits, and researchers, La Encrucijada Biosphere Reserve has acted as a foundation for research and legislation. These partnerships are enabling around-the-clock ecological monitoring of the reserve as well as raising public awareness and education. Likewise, increased interdisciplinary research and action is required to address the legislative, environmental, and socioeconomic goals and needs of the region. The future of the people of La Encrucijada rests on the branches of the mangroves, and vice versa: conservation of the region is necessary for the survival of both.