Friday, January 14, 2011

Picnicking at the Sierra de Montenegro

Last month I hosted an evening picnic for a group of environmentalists and researchers in the scenic Canyon de Lobos.  I met them as they emerged from the Sierra de Montenegro Reserve onto the Cuernavaca-Cuautla highway.  What had been planned as a four-hour reconnaissance hike through the Sierra de Montenegro, just east of Cuernavaca, turned into an all day traverse -- literally bushwhacking towards the end, as they pressed on to get to the highway before susnset.  Early that morning I had dropped the group of fifteen off on the side of the mountain in Zapata territory, halfway between Cuernavaca and Tlaltizapan.  Though they were in cell phone communication, occasionally even in sight of Cuernavaca, they were hiking through some of the last of Morelos' pristine forests for the purpose of monitoring its status of conservation. 

Morelos is the second smallest state in Mexico, occupying only a quarter of one percent of the national territory, yet it is one of the most biologically diverse states.  It is home to seven of the nine great ecosystems of Mexico (missing are mangroves and rain forests) along with 10% of the fauna, 33% of the species of birds, 14% of the reptiles, and 21% of Mexico's mammals.  Tragically, in the last five decades it has lost more than 70% of its forests.  Of the remaining 30%, two thirds is seriously deteriorated and only a third -- or 10% of the original forest cover -- hasn't been affected by our species.  Sadly, Morelos is in second place (after Tabasco) with regard to the percentage of its territory suffering from the transformation of its original ecosystems.   

One of the principal strategies to conserve Morelos' biodiversity has been the creation of Protected Natural Areas (ANP), foremost of which is the Sierra Montenegro State Reserve which runs parallel to, and just to the east of, the Cuernavaca-Acapulco highway.  It is part of the limestone ridge and hence is where a huge cement factory, visible from the highway, is located -- limestone being one of the principal ingredients in Portland cement.  

One of the most important characteristics of the Sierra Montenegro state reserve is that it is a bridge, or biological corridor, between two other protected areas: the Chichinautzin Biological Corridor, running along the volcanic ridge we cross over when driving between Mexico City and Cuernavaca, and the Sierra de Huautla in southeastern Morelos.  Despite its protected status, the Sierra Montenegro is seriously threatened by human activity threatening to reduce the width of the protected area.  If it should be severed completely the continuity of natural vegetation from the northern to the southern part of the state will be lost. 

The threat is coming from both extremes of the social spectrum.  Poor squatters, on the outskirts of the Cuernavaca metropolitan area, are seizing land and building houses, and the cement company -- on whose board sit representatives of the wealthiest person on the planet -- has recently been given the right, by executive decree, without any compensation to the State, to exploit 300 hectares of what had been part of the Montenegro Reserve.  This exploitation involves clearing all vegetation and dynamiting the limestone.  The result will be a canyon that breaks the continuity of the biological corridor.   Legally, the decree cannot be reversed. As the only remaining option, environmentalists are doing their best to demand, through changes in the mitigating measures required by the environmental impact statement, that the cement company restore the flora after extracting the limestone.  Obviously that will be impossible, but the attempt is to force the company to mitigate damages to the extent they can.     

The northern end of the Montenegro Reserve is known as the Canyon de Lobos -- through which runs the Cuernavaca-Cuautla highway.  It is the narrowest part of the corridor, only about 400 meters wide in places.   This is the most vulnerable part of the Reserve with the highway making it easy to be encroached upon by illegal construction by squatters. 

Over the evening picnic, and during the drive back to Cuernavaca, I learned about the Unified System of Natural Regions of Land and Freshwater Lakes of the World for Purposes of Conservation.   Biologist Fernando Jaramillo, of UNAM's staff, told those of us in the van that the Sierra de Montenegro is at the northernmost part of the overlap of the Nearctic Realm and the Neotropical Realm.  The area between the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrowest part of Mexico, and where we are in Central Mexico is where flora and fauna of those two realms mix.  Pumas, white tailed deer, mountain cats, and Gila Monsters from the Nearctic coexist with ocelots, jaguarundis, and boa constrictors of the Neotropical realm.  The most obvious flora, which seems out of place, is the oak forest, reason for the name of the Sierra de Montenegro -- the forest is so thick on that ridge that sunlight is blocked,. We drive through similar oak forests, left over from the last glaciation, when we are are slightly above the switchback known as La Pera (because of its shape) on the Mexico City-Cuernavaca autopista. 

It seems clear to me that enforcement of the legislation establishing the Sierra Montenegro Reserve is essential and should be strengthened.  The Sierra Montenegro Reserves merits being elevated to the status of a federally designated reserve with stiff enforcement of rules and regulations governing Protected Areas.   Furthermore, each of us should do what we can to honor and to save what is left of this marvelous ecological corridor; yes, even you Carlos.

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