Conceptions of Primary Forest in a Tzeltal Maya Community: Implications for Conservation

By Casagrande, David G. | Human Organization, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Conceptions of Primary Forest in a Tzeltal Maya Community: Implications for Conservation


Casagrande, David G., Human Organization


Tzeltal Maya of Chiapas, Mexico, recognize and name different stages of forest succession. Ethnobotanical interviews and analyses of free lists indicated that the Tzeltal Maya of Matsab are knowledgeable about what plants and birds are limited to the primary forest, but they do not appear to rely exclusively on this knowledge to distinguish between habitats. Other features such as tree size, humidity, and soil characteristics appear to take precedence over species composition. Consensus analysis indicated that knowledge of primary-forest plant names and potential uses was no different than for plants from the managed landscape, and knowledge was not correlated with frequency of visits to the forest. Conservation professionals should not assume that knowledge is synonymous with behavior or cultural importance, that indigenous classification is based on the same features as modern, scientific classification, or that indigenous perceptions of habitats are homogeneous.

Key words: ethnoecology, forest conservation, traditional ecological knowledge, Tzeltal Maya, Mexico

Above 2,400 meters in the Central Highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, moisture and temperature provide conditions for the development of evergreen cloud forest (Breedlove 1981). This type of primary (old growth) forest is characterized by a canopy of very large trees up to 30-35 meters high with diameters at breast height as wide as 1.5 meters, a subcanopy up to 20-25 meters high, and a dense understory (Breedlove 1981; Ramirez-Marcial, Ochoa-Gaona, and Gonzalez-Espinosa 1998). These forests are usually shrouded in fog and support moisture-loving species like epiphytes, mosses, and giant tree ferns. Berlin, Breedlove, and Raven (1974) noted that evergreen cloud forest had largely been eradicated in the Central Highlands by 1970. Between the 1970s and 1990s there has been a further 50 percent reduction of primary forest in the Central Highlands (De Jong et al. 1999).

Eradication of evergreen cloud forest has resulted primarily from a rapidly increasing population that relies on subsistence swidden horticulture. Population density in the Central Highlands was estimated to be 56 per square kilometer in 1974 (Berlin, Breedlove, and Raven 1974). Collier (1975) argued then that population densities could not be supported by the traditional corn-swidden system. Population density in the Central Highlands was estimated to be 273 per square kilometer in 1989, and shortened fallow times had reduced soil productivity to unsustainable levels (Aleman Santillan 1989). Census data for 2000 indicate a population density of 334 per square kilometer for Tenejapa, the Central Highland municipality where this research was conducted (INEGI 2001). As a result of this pressure, the Tzeltal have converted nearly all primary forest to subsistence horticultural use. They have also begun commercial agriculture, pasture grazing, and logging in previously undisturbed primary forest (De Jong et al. 1999; Gonzalez-Espinosa et al. 1991, 1997). Evergreen cloud forest in the Central Highlands is now restricted to a few small, isolated, relict stands above 2,400 meters in elevation where low temperatures, exposed bedrock, and steep slopes preclude most human activities.

Conservation of remaining evergreen cloud forest relicts is considered critical for maintaining regional biological diversity because it provides unique habitat for threatened fauna and endemic flora (Breedlove 1981; Gonzalez-Espinosa et al. 1997; Parker, Hilty, and Robins 1976). Chiapan summits, in particular, contain many endemic flora because they are often relicts of ancient habitats (Rzedowski 1993). Conservation of evergreen cloud forest is a high priority for PRONATURA, Mexico's largest nongovernmental conservation organization (Romeo Dominguez-Barradas, PRONATURA, personal communication, July 2, 1999).

There are many different approaches to conservation, but community-based conservation and development has been the leading paradigm among mainstream environmental organizations and major donors since the mid-1990s (Browder 2002; Ferraro and Kiss 2002), and PRONATURA has a special program for community-based conservation. …

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