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The king we’re seeking isn’t some remnant ruler of the Mayan temples rising out of the carpeted jungle floor, but an avian emperor; the king vulture, or Sarcoramphus papa, one of the New World’s largest vultures and one of its most threatened. Yet, in Ejido Nuevo Becal, these enigmatic vultures are thriving thanks to the community’s sustainable forestry practices and commitment to conservation.
Ejido Nuevo Becal is in the municipality of Calakmul, in the southern Mexican state of Campeche. It covers just over 51,000 hectares in the jungles of the Yucatán, of which more than 99 per cent is classed as ‘voluntarily assigned for conservation’. To date, this is the largest such protected natural area in the whole of Mexico. Since the Ejido was granted Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification in 2016, it has gone from strength to strength and currently supports over 350 people, consisting of 74 ejidatarios (community leaders) and their families.
Ejido Nuevo Becal is biologically and culturally diverse, as it is made up of inhabitants from different regions of the state of Campeche, including indigenous groups from the Mayan and Chol cultures. The Ejido has a robust governance structure, and decisions on the responsible management of its resources are carried out through the organisation and participation of its members. The system promotes equal participation and access to development and capacity-building for the entire community. This is demonstrated by the inclusion of women in projects and the productive diversification of the Ejido's resources, thus increasing the ejidatarios' sources of income and ensuring the permanence of forest resources for future generations.
We’re joined on our quest by Hector and Ernesto, two community members charged with managing the Ejido’s natural resources and protecting their enviable biodiversity from exploitation. It’s a fine line to walk, but Nuevo Becal has found a way to make their resources profitable and beneficial to the entire community while protecting these forests and helping them to thrive. Together we are hiking along through a 500-hectare section of forest specifically designated as a king vulture sanctuary.
From the dense canopy overhead, we hear branches rustling and a series of quiet whistles and squeaks. Suddenly a small group of Yucatán spider monkeys swings into view, their long limbs and prehensile tails expertly gripping the branches, propelling them through the trees at a surprising speed. They’re a curious and wary primate, and from high above us they pause in their foraging activities, aggressively shaking the branches at the sight of humans down on the trail. Before long, though, they relax and begin feeding on fruit and quietly grooming themselves.
The fruit they are happily gorging on is ramón, the large citrus-flavoured seed of the Brosimum alicastrum tree, a member of the fig family and an essential food source for several forest creatures.
Ramón is also the latest product in a long line of diversification in the forest economy of Nuevo Becal. A collective of sixteen women in the Ejido was recently granted 5,000 hectares of land to harvest ramón, a seed also known as ‘bread nut’. They turn it into a range of products including flour, coffee and horchata (a local drink).
The Women’s Ramón Collective is an excellent example of how the Ejido effectively manages its natural resources and balances productivity with conservation. Some 5,000 newly protected hectares of forest, rich in ramón-bearing trees, is not only good news for the sixteen women and their families, but it will also benefit the endangered spider monkeys. Ramón fruit is a cornerstone of their diet, and the low-intensity, low-impact nature of the collective’s harvesting means that plenty of fruit will remain for the monkeys.
Another tree that provides food for the spider monkeys and a source of income for the community is the chicozapote (Manilkara zapota). While the monkeys enjoy the sweet, malty flavoured fruit, the residents of the Ejido benefit from a different non-timber product: latex, or chicle as it is known locally. Around 20 chicleros (rubber tappers) are currently working in the Ejido, and the latex produced in Nuevo Becal is certified by FSC.
A day earlier, we met Pedro, who has been working with chicle for 25 years now. Before we even started talking, Pedro had shinned up a large chicozapote and started expertly slicing a ladder of cuts into the rough bark with his machete. Instantly, the cuts began to glisten with a thick white liquid, which slowly ran down the network of slices and gathered in a deep gourd at the base of the tree. It’s easy to spot a chicozapote in the forests of the Ejido – the larger trees all carry the scars of years of rubber tapping. Thankfully, this practice causes no long-term damage to the trees. Chicozapote remains an essential food source for many mammal species and is a cornerstone of the Ejido’s income.
Back in the forest, the path now starts to descend a muddy slope. As we carefully choose our steps over the slippery rocks, we hear the sound of running water nearby. Ernesto suggests a detour down to the creek. The forests of the Ejido are a vital watershed in the jungles of the Yucatán, with at least 56 large bodies of water registered in Nuevo Becal. Hundreds of small creeks and rivers criss-cross the forests, and the king vulture sanctuary is home to the source of a number of those.
We walk off the trail down to the banks of the creek. Looking down into the clear water, we spot a small crocodile sunning itself on a flat rock in the middle of the channel. Startled by our sudden presence, it slips soundlessly into the water and swims downstream. According to Ernesto, they regularly encounter large adult crocodiles six times the size of this youngster in the many big lakes dotted around the Ejido.
Not only do these lakes provide a valuable habitat for species like the Morelet’s crocodile, but they are also the source of the community’s water supply. So by preserving the forest, the residents aren’t just helping to conserve the wildlife around them; they are also ensuring that creeks like this one don’t dry up and continue to feed the lakes on which they depend.
Ernesto knows these forests like the back of his hand, and he points out a muddy bank where he once came across a Baird’s tapir (Tapirus bairdii) bathing. The mammal biodiversity in Nuevo Becal is astounding, and, as if to hammer home the point, a couple of hundred metres further along the trail, Hector stops and points out a large patch of earth that has been scraped and disturbed. Alongside the patch sits a fresh pile of dung. Sometime in the past few hours, a jaguar has walked along this same path. It could even be somewhere in the forest around us now, silently watching from the dense undergrowth.
The healthy jaguar population in the Ejido is more evidence of a well-managed and healthy forest ecosystem. Hector’s camera traps have captured several of them prowling the forests within just a few kilometres of the community. A recent grant will soon allow a team of biologists to fit radio collars on two jaguars to monitor their movements further, and better understand their habits in the Ejido. Nuevo Becal’s FSC-certified status helped them win this grant: Hector tells us that FSC certification opens up many doors since it acts as a stamp of approval and clear evidence of good practices during the application process.
In fact, with Nuevo Becal’s 46,000 hectares of protected forest and a further 35,000 hectares in an adjacent Ejido, these jungles form one of the most significant protected jaguar corridors on the continent. They are potentially one of the secretive big cat’s most important strongholds. This jaguar population also points to a healthy ecosystem from top to bottom since the jaguar is a keystone species that depends on stable prey populations for survival. Deer and tapir populations in Nuevo Becal are on the rise, mirroring the ascendancy of both jaguar and puma populations in these vast forests.
Jaguars are the headline predator stalking these jungles. Still, throughout our stay at Nuevo Becal, we observed many other less showy predators whose presence is also a sign of a healthy ecosystem at work. For example, walking through the forest at dawn, the sharp, barking call of the barred forest falcon echoes through the canopy, and the cawing call of the larger collared forest falcon periodically sounds in the distance. On one evening walk, we even spot both of these shy forest raptors in quick succession, and later in the day, Ernesto points out a bicoloured hawk – another rarely seen forest predator – silently perched on a branch overhanging the road.
The relative abundance of these species is a clear indication of the health of Nuevo Becal’s forests, and a further sign that their forestry practices are being managed sustainably and with conservation in mind. Forest falcons require thick forest cover to survive. Studies have shown that collared forest falcons prefer to nest in the cavities of cedar trees, a tree species often exploited by the logging industry. Cedars are harvested in Nuevo Becal, but only within a specific, well-defined area and within the strict limits required for FSC certification. In short, the Ejido appears to have found the perfect balance between sustainable forestry and conservation.
As we settle in to wait, we hear an insistent humming sound from a flowering tree in the canopy. It’s a swarm of bees, out harvesting nectar. The previous day, we had joined Antonio Guzmán Montejo as he visited his apiary to collect the honey from one of his bee colonies. Apiculture has become one of Nuevo Becal’s most profitable activities in recent years, and Antonio is now able to live solely from the income generated by his bees. There are currently 35 community residents who own hives, and beekeeping economically benefits more than 200 people.
As well as being a tremendously profitable business for many members of the community, Antonio explains how apiculture benefits the Ejido ecosystems at the same time: “It’s an environmentally friendly activity. We help pollinate the trees, so there’s more fruit, more seeds, more regeneration year on year. And it’s good for the animals too, as they have more to eat.”
He also tells us how FSC certification has vastly improved the apiculture business in the Ejido. A more biodiverse and protected forest means more flowers for his bees to pollinate and better-tasting honey. He now sells his own brand of honey – ‘Miel Selva Tropical’ – locally in Campeche state, with plans to branch out to Mexico City shortly. He explains how customers are happy to learn that the honey comes from FSC-certified forests. The Ejido’s thriving apiculture business is a further testament to the community’s commitment to diversification and conservation.
As the buzzing of the swarm dies down, we suddenly hear the sound of a large bird flying nearby. As if from nowhere, a giant winged shadow passes low overhead, and there it is: a huge adult king vulture, staring imperiously down at us from the mahogany tree. The bird’s red and orange head wattles would give it a faintly comical appearance were it not for the piercing white eyes that help it locate food from miles away. The vulture’s arrival visibly enlivens Hector. Later he explains that, even though he monitors the vultures regularly, he feels privileged to work protecting them. “It’s a luxury to see them that not many people have, and I’m always happy to see them here.”
Over the next half hour, a dozen more vultures arrive at the tree, including at least three juveniles. The presence of these young vultures is excellent news for the Ejido since it shows that the birds are successfully and regularly reproducing. Hector, whose job is to monitor the vulture population, tells us that he has registered thirty-five king vultures at this site and that the population appears to be stable. This stability bucks the prevailing trend in the Yucatán, where king vultures are on the decline, principally due to deforestation.
King vultures are classified as an umbrella species, meaning that their protection indirectly protects many other species that make up the ecological community of their habitat. As the biggest vulture in the region, they also provide the vital service of cleaning the environment of dead animals, protecting local people and livestock from the spread of disease. Furthermore, they often perform the initial cut on large animal carcasses, allowing the smaller vulture species to feed. It’s safe to say that the king vulture is one of the most vital species living in these jungles. Their loss would be catastrophic for the ecosystems of Calakmul.
The king vulture, one of the most emblematic species in the Mayan culture, has become a symbol of Ejido Nuevo Becal. The fact that this species has found sanctuary here in these jungles is the perfect demonstration of the possibility of aligning profitability and development with sustainability and environmental consciousness. When we ask people in the community about the birds, everyone replies with fondness and pride that their actions contribute to the survival of these magnificent vultures. It’s a testament to the community-wide commitment to conservation that defines Nuevo Becal and makes it such a unique place.
As suddenly as they arrived, the vultures take flight, one by one. A small troop of black howler monkeys has arrived and disturbed their rest. As the male howler starts to grunt and whoop at us, marking his territory, we turn and head back out of the forest.
Ejido Nuevo Becal has the rare feeling of a place where humans and nature have managed to strike a perfect balance, where forestry exists alongside exceptional biodiversity, and where the people understand that there is no future without nature. As Ernesto puts it: “If we just chopped down this forest, we would only benefit once. But, by managing it sustainably, we can benefit year after year and make sure that the forest is protected at the same time.”
FSC has been committed to supporting Indigenous Peoples since their founding in 1993. In 2018, FSC launched the FSC Indigenous Foundation, who began their flagship programme The Indigenous Peoples Alliance for Rights and Development (IPARD) in August 2020. IPARD is a five-year programme that is led and managed by Indigenous Peoples, which seeks to deliver long-term and resilient solutions for Indigenous Peoples worldwide. IPARD is a Global Development Alliance that was created with seed funding from the US Agency for International Development and FSC International, and is seeking private sector partners to join the Alliance. For more information about IPARD, please contact Mary Donovan (firstname.lastname@example.org).