Las Chimalapas: A reserve waiting to be declared?

Watch the animation below carefully (Click on the map to open the animated GIF). First a blue marble image is presented. Then a map of settlements is overlain (red points) Then the current protected areas of southern Mexico are added (blue shading). Finally the registered plant collections are added.

So, what is that large hole in the centre of the map doing? Does no-one live there? Hasn’t it been declared a reserve? Have any botanical collections been made there?

This is the Chimalapas region, in the isthmus of eastern Oaxaca bordering on Chiapas. The vegetation ranges from lowland rainforest in the Atlantic north to tropical dry forests in the Pacific south Cloud forest and montane pine-oak forest lie in between. Rainfall ranges from 1100 mm to over 3500 mm. The whole area totals more than 600,000 ha. It is still in a good state of preservation. The avifauna is apparently the most diverse for any region of comparable size in the country, totalling at least 464 species in the region as a whole (with more than 300 species in the lowland rainforest) representing 44% of the bird species known from Mexico. Important species present in the region include Harpy Eagle Harpia harpyja and several other large eagles. Yet it has not received protected status and is seldom visited by plant collectors.

Giving protected status to the region would seem on the face of it to to be an automatic “no brainer”. There would be few losers. The resources of this uninhabited region are presently not being exploited. Pressures on the region are ever present, but not intense. The publicity associated with protected status might encourage incipient ecoturism in the area. Various conservation organizations such as the TNC and Conservation International are interested in the region and my group in Ecosur are currently looking at deforestation in the region in detail in order to strengthen the arguments.

However, is the protected area model really the best option for the area? I leave the question open in the hope of receiving some comments.

There are a few points that might be discussed.

1. Are governmental resources available in order to ensure that protected status would indeed prevent activities that negatively impact the biodiversity of las Chimalapas?
2. Could protected status have unexpected consequences, such as encouraging unsustainable activities in the the area?
3. Would protected status for las Chimalapas divert resources from initiatives that could be effectively combating more immediate threats?
4. Would protected status interfere with wider long term economic development of the region, specifically in terms of trans isthmus transportation?

It is quite astonishing to notice that the “hole” in question even stands out at a national level when desert regions are included. The only other large areas without inhabitants in Southern Mexico are around Calakmul.

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