Into the Mists

Moist, misty tropical mountain ranges are among the richest – and most threatened – ecosystems on Earth. Although they account for just a few percent of all tropical forests, they hold a remarkable range of species and play a pivotal role in sustaining water supplies and nutrient flows. Now, researchers in Mexico have taken a careful look at the forces threatening that country’s cloud forests – and identified those most in need of protection.

Cloud forests cover less than 1% of Mexico’s territory, and the nation has probably lost more than half of what it used to have to agriculture and other forms of development, a research team reports in the Journal of Environmental Management. Today, less than one-quarter of the forests are protected – even though they may hold up to one-third Mexico’s native species.

To better understand how to protect that biological wealth, in 2007 and 2008 the Mexican Biodiversity Commission convened researchers in Mexico City to conduct a complex analysis of the biological, economic and social factors shaping cloud forest health. In particular, the group worked to rank more than 40 cloud forest regions according their ecological value, the threats they faced and potential opportunities for conservation.

That balancing act ultimately produced a map that tells a sobering story. Fifteen of Mexico’s remaining cloud forests, for instance, are in “critical” need of quick conservation help. Another 17 are “high priority” targets, and 10 are of “medium” priority. There were no “low” priority sites, and the researchers couldn’t rank three regions because they lacked information.

The approach helped highlight the widely varying threats – and opportunities – facing different regions, the researchers write. In the central and northern Chiapas Highlands, for instance, poor indigenous communities “are exerting pressure on [cloud forests] through demand for firewood, and agricultural and pasture land.”  In the more developed Veracruz area, however, the threat is from “the conversion of remnant forest patches to urban and suburban housing.”

In some areas, the team found that forests are relatively degraded, but social stability offers good possibilities for preservation and restoration. Ironically, however, in other, better-preserved forests, the opportunities for conservation were “slim due to land tenure conflicts and a lack of social organization.”

Such analyses, they conclude, “reveal the complexity of the challenges faced by our society regarding the maintenance of this severely threatened ecosystem.” But one promising step that can be taken immediately, they say, is to expand and strengthen community forestry programs that discourage illegal logging and promote sustainable practices. David Malakoff | December 9, 2010

Source: Toledo-Aceves, T., Meave, J., González-Espinosa, M., & Ramírez-Marcial, N. (2010). Tropical montane cloud forests: Current threats and opportunities for their conservation and sustainable management in Mexico. Journal of Environmental Management DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvman.2010.11.007

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