“I have a bias towards orchids,” says Milton Diaz, curator of Clavijero Botanic Garden, laughing. He has studied them. He’s studied lots of things, in contrasting ecosystems, before returning to concentrate on the plants of the cloud forest and community ecology, in Eastern Mexico.
Asked to describe the cloud forest reserve that they manage at Clavijero, he starts talking about fog, and rainfall, the remarkable diversity – “you don’t need to walk far to start seeing another arrangement of species” – trees towering up 30m, then pauses. “But the forest is… it’s lovely.”
His is one of the conservation projects we are delighted to be supporting through our partnership with BGCI. The garden and its 30 hectares of cloud forest are in the city of Xalapa, which sits 1400 – 1700m above sea level, in the shadow of volcanic mountains, 350km from Mexico City. Known in Spanish as the “city of flowers”, and “the flower garden of Mexico”, it has renowned universities and a vibrant arts scene, and “is surrounded by tropical vegetation” [wikipedia]. Yet the reality is that the region’s cloud forests have been reduced to just 3% of their original area.
What has been happening there to put the native vegetation under pressure?
The population of Xalapa grew by 20% between 2000 & 2014, which is when the last figures were published, so there has been housing development. Land is being used for cattle, or coffee, or sugar cane; “all monocultures”.
Cloud forests in Mexico’s Central Veracruz have been reduced to just 3% of their original area.
Felling the forest so as to grow coffee began twenty or thirty years ago but, according to Milton, it isn’t the worst offender. “Some people have started to cut, or to replace, coffee for sugar cane. Sugar cane plantations are a big problem because they are really aggressive in the way they grow these plants and how they apply herbicides or fertilisers. So they don’t allow any plant or other animals to get in. Whereas coffee plantations are more friendly, so you can find a lot of diversity with plants, with animals that can live in these ecosystems – well, agro-ecosystems.”
What fragments of forest remain are vulnerable. He describes unheard of temperatures, up to 31*, and changing rainfall regimes, in a context where endemic species are extremely sensitised to their altitudes and micro-climates. “A little period of drought it’s really bad for these plants. They are not used to this lack of water, you know?” There is a strong local market for timber, orchids, even soil from the cloud forest. “We have some markets on the streets where people can find and ask for this type of soil; it’s really good, you know, it’s really rich in nutrients. So people do that, extract soils.” The trade in orchids has left their reserve depleted. “They extract a really huge amount of plants. I have talked with people that do that and they also tell me that as the time goes by, and they are doing the same activity to extract the orchids, it’s more and more difficult to find them in the forest.”
Engagement with the local community could offer some hope
Leverage in the opposite direction obviously isn’t easy for anyone working in conservation, which often seems to require immediate, personal sacrifices for longer-term, general gain. Meanwhile, governments change, funding structures are liable to change too. “I cannot choose, like, a monetary value in the forest, but all the services that the forest provides for us, I think that would mean value. I mean Oxygen or water capture, all the biodiversity… But I cannot put that in a tangible way. It’s really difficult to do that.”
Locally at least, that’s where the community ecology comes in. It’s practical: workshops in the garden, more one-to-one conversations, and demonstrations of the alternatives to harvesting wild plants from the forest. On the supply side, the garden has given people plants that they can grow and sell. On the demand side, they show people that they can buy these plants, cultivated, out of greenhouses or labs, instead.
Milton and the experienced team of scientists at Clavijero are focussing on researching and restoring the shrub layer in their project. “Nobody is paying attention to shrub species in the cloud forest, for restoration. Even for germination. People don’t have an idea how these plants reproduce or develop in the forest. So I think there’s a lot of potential…” They have identified a 2 hectare area, an ex-coffee plantation, for what they term “restoration intervention”. The plan is to plant up 6 plots with 150 individuals from each of 10 shrub species. When we spoke in early summer, they had been collecting seeds, ready to start germination tests and develop the protocols which could be shared to help other restoration projects. Meanwhile, they had made an exciting discovery that some of the plants, like Palicourea padifolio pictured above, could be replicated very successfully through coppicing. “I’m going to plant some of these in urban parks also,” says Milton. “So I think it’s just the start of a big big project. And also I’m really thankful that you guys supported us with this research.”
We believe that Milton and his team’s work is capable of making a big difference in their immediate locale, and in other places where they face similar challenges. They are striving for a better future. Watch this space for more reports about how they’re getting on.
We’ll be talking to Milton later in October for live updates on the experiments. Keep an eye on our social channels for an announcement of the details.