Climbing the tree of life

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Kentucky.com, Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Mexico

Cancun. This is the meeting place.

It is the place where United Nations delegates from all over the world are meeting to discuss climate change, the place where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean Sea, where the Yucatan Jungle meets the ocean.

But three hours south of here, in the heart of that jungle, is where the rubber meets the road. The predominately Mayan city of Felipe Carrillo Puerto has a population of 21,530, and it is poor. Here, residents will soon learn whether the United Nations’ reforestation program is a dream come true, or merely a dream.

There are 48,000 hectares of jungle (118,610 acres) surrounding the city in the Ejido de Filipe Carrillo Puerto. Much of that land was once plantation fields, but slowly the jungle is taking it back with help from the local residents. And as they help the jungle regenerate, they are looking to the jungle – and the carbon credits envisioned under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol -- to help them survive. They have named their 1,230-hectare (3,309-acre) pilot area appropriately in Mayan Much’ Kanan K’aax – “Together, we take care of the jungle.”

In Mexico, 70 percent of the land is owned by ejidos – community groups similar to land trusts in the United States. Unlanded laborers can belong to those ejidos and make their living from the land. There are 240 owners in the Ejido de Felipe Carrillo Puerto. But with large chunks of land being cleared for development of hotels and other tourism related uses along the coast, many more being given over to agriculture for agave (the key ingredient in tequila) and other crops, many people are being forced off that land and the forests that are left are becoming more and more precious.

That’s why the people of Felipe Carrillo Puerto are looking to the United Nations reforestation program as a way to make money without cutting down all of the trees, and without leaving the land the government promised them.

This is important to climate change, because carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and its production by man creates a blanket effect around the earth, holding solar radiation in and wreaking havoc with weather patterns. Since trees “inhale” carbon dioxide and “exhale” oxygen, carbon from the atmosphere is effectively sequestered by the trees. The carbon is then stored in the wood until it is burned.

Filiberto Yam Buenfil, one of the ejido members, said through an interpreter that the people have been working on a pilot project at Much’ Kanan K’aax for 10 years, but it will take 35 for the canopy to close above them. The pilot project area is former plantation land used to extract a tree sap called sicte in Mayan or chicle in Spanish – the original chewing gum used by the Mayans and exported for commercial gum (Chiclets) until artificial gums were developed. There is little demand for the organic gum now, and the plantation at Much’ Kanan K’aax was largely a monoculture of gum trees fragmented by agriculture. It sequestered little carbon, and provided little natural habitat.

The group has now planted six species of native trees, including mahogany and yax che.

Ancient Mayans believed the yax che was the tree of life that held together the three levels of the universe. Those who lived a good life climbed the tree to the higher level of the universe, while those who didn’t sank to its roots in the underworld. It is still a sacred tree for the Mayans, but also a tree that they hope will be a tree of life for them today. It grows quickly, a cottony fiber that grows from it can be used for mattresses and pillows, and when its life cycle is over, it can be cut and used for paper and plywood. The ejido is carefully measuring the carbon available from each species. The way they are doing this has now been certified by the Mexican government, but it demonstrates just how difficult it can be determine how much Carbon a tree holds.

David Lopez Meirlin of the non-profit U ‘Yo’ Olche said the process entailed measuring and cutting trees, weighing them, drying them, weighing them again, then burning the wood and measuring again. Though repeated experiments, they developed a formula that now allows them to place an expandable metal band around the trees five feet from the ground, and estimate the amount of carbon the tree contains.

They hope to sell this sequestration as credits to the energy-hungry hotels along the Mayan Riviera beginning next year, and also to investors internationally.

Whether this process will actually work is uncertain. The carbon credits were made possible by the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, but Japanese negotiators at the COP16 said this week that their country will not sign onto any extension of the Kyoto agreement. Observers believe this will destroy the carbon market, and the $12 per ton of sequestration that the Mayans expect will evaporate.

If that happens, the dreams of the Mayans at Much’ Kanan K’aax may descend into the roots of the yax che.

First published Dec. 3, 2010 on Going Green in Cancun at www.kentucky.com/greenspot