Martha Isabel Ruiz Corzo

2002 Associate Laureate, Environment
Mexico, Born 1953

Project Goal

Forge a unique coalition to protect the forests of Mexico

Location: Mexico

Environment Revolution

One of Mexico's most biodiverse yet threatened natural areas is coming back to life as an innovative educator makes conservation profitable for the thousands of poor families who live in the Sierra Gorda Mountains.

Two decades ago, seeking a simpler life for her family, Martha Ruiz Corzo traded urban life for the backwoods of Mexico's Querétaro State. Yet Ruiz Corzo, a teacher and musician, grew concerned as she watched forests disappear and rivers go dry. As the natural diversity of her new mountain environment diminished, many of her neighbours in search of jobs began to migrate to other countries.

In 1987, with her husband and some friends, Ruiz Corzo formed the Sierra Gorda Ecological Group to reverse environmental degradation and encourage sustainable use of the region's rich resources. She trekked through the mountains to conduct workshops with poor farmers, convincing them it was in their own best interest to take responsibility for the environment. Dragging along her battered accordion, she taught schoolchildren songs about conservation. She used radio programmes to promote conservation and lambaste those who sought to destroy the forests.

Back to Nature

Her campaign paid off as mountain residents built cooking stoves that consumed less firewood and reforested steep hillsides denuded by improper farming techniques and livestock grazing. Villagers started small businesses that used the forest in sustainable ways.

Ruiz Corzo then took her fight for nature to Mexico City, where her persistent lobbying led to the creation in 1997 of the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve. At the crossroads between South and North America, the 3,837km² reserve hosts animals and plants that do not usually mix. Black bears and military macaws live side by side, and cactuses grow adjacent to pine and oak forests. The reserve, with 14 distinct ecosystems, is one of the world's most ecologically diverse spots.

It is also the first such natural area in Mexico to be established in response to pressure from civil society. Ernesto Zedillo, then Mexican president, rewarded Ruiz Corzo in 1997 for her relentless campaign for nature by naming her the reserve's director.

Staying Strong
For her pioneering efforts to combine conservation with economic development for the poor, Ruiz Corzo was named an Associate Laureate in the 2002 Rolex Awards.

Yet not everyone was pleased with her advocacy for the reserve and the 100,000 people who live in it. In 2004, Ruiz Corzo came under attack from logging mafias and others who wanted to exploit the Sierra Gorda without restrictions. They attacked her in the press and filed spurious charges against her in the courts. Ruiz Corzo says the Rolex Award helped her weather the attacks. "The recognition by Rolex had incalculable value because our work is very difficult in a region where we've touched the economic interests of very powerful groups," she says. "The Award gave us new visibility that made it more difficult for those who wanted to step on us, hurt us or even exterminate us. It gave us credibility with other sectors of the population and helps us to keep our balance in those times when we're attacked and overwhelmed."

Eyes on the Horizon
Through all her trials, Ruiz Corzo kept her eyes on the mountains. Several recent scientific studies show key species, like jaguars, are increasing in number. With Ruiz Corzo on its side, the natural environment is winning the battle against those who would destroy it.

"The mountains are greener than ever, and we have more fauna than we've had for years," Ruiz Corzo says. "The increase in big animals — the umbrella species — provides evidence that there is more diversity below them."

Around 97 per cent of the Biosphere Reserve is in private hands. Ruiz Corzo believes that orchids, butterflies, wild turkeys and macaws are thriving today because residents have assumed responsibility for conservation, in part because they stand to profit from maintaining a healthy and diverse environment. "If you give value to the habitat, the people will care for it," she says.

Community-based Solutions
A key element of Sierra Gorda's approach to conservation is an innovative programme of "payment for ecosystem services", which in 2003 began to compensate landowners who preserve critical environmental treasures. In assigning economic value to water, for example, and recognising the economic cost of erosion, the reserve — using funds from the federal government's Forestry Commission — pays US$30 to US$40 per hectare to landowners who protect the viability and quality of watersheds by keeping cattle out and not cutting down trees.

The programme guarantees not just the health of mountain environments, but also reduces flooding and assures plentiful and safe drinking water for cities downstream. In a country facing worsening droughts and water conflicts in several regions, the Sierra Gorda region has become a model of community-based solutions to national problems.

An Environmental Revolution

Funding can disappear as political landscapes shift however, and Ruiz Corzo is concerned about the long-term sustainability of any scheme to finance conservation. So she has begun laying the foundation for market-based solutions by working with scientists at the University of Querétaro. The aim is to document how hydrological processes in the reserve provide financial benefits to businesses downstream — including hydroelectric, mining and wood-product companies. By monitoring precipitation, filtration and water flow at 12 different sites, Ruiz Corzo hopes the project will compile sufficient data in the next three years to enable her to convince the companies that paying for conservation is a good business investment.

Another element of making conservation pay involves recognising the role of the Sierra Gorda forest in capturing carbon dioxide — a key contributor to global warming. "Through the miracle of nature, the trees capture carbon from the air and convert it into wood, storing it away, providing yet another eco-service to the planet," Ruiz Corzo says. Under the Clean Development Mechanism of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, forests that sequester carbon from the atmosphere can sell this service on the international carbon market. Ruiz Corzo spent eight years trying to peddle such a scheme involving Sierra Gorda, but was not successful. She finally decided that the provisions of the international treaty did not fit the reserve.

Independence from Kyoto

"The gap between Kyoto and the conditions of extreme poverty is too great. You need extensive properties with legal titles, yet in the reserve no one has such titles, even if they've been living here for generations. Nor do we have the extensive single-owner properties. People own one hectare here, one hectare there. And the expenses of monitoring and certification under Kyoto are too high for poor communities," Ruiz Corzo says. "So we finally declared independence from Kyoto."

Pioneering a new approach, Ruiz Corzo last year hammered out a voluntary carbon deal with the United Nations Foundation in which the U.S.-based organization is paying the reserve to capture and sequester 5,500 tons of carbon. "This one deal doesn't have a huge impact for the region, but it opens the door for other extremely poor communities to create a mechanism that's viable for them, and that can benefit people who live way up in the mountains," Ruiz Corzo says. Seeking other ways to link reserve residents with an international marketplace that can fund conservation, Ruiz Corzo will soon unveil a "gourmet" environmental investment product that will combine carbon sequestration, water conservation, protection of jaguar habitat and the economic development of poor communities, all in one package.

Earth Centre
Ruiz Corzo also remains committed to education as a fundamental tool of conservation. She opened the reserve's Earth Centre, a comprehensive training centre that also houses the biosphere's offices. Funded in part by her Rolex Award, the Earth Centre offers a variety of training programmes, including a degree in environmental education for elementary school teachers. The Earth Centre is used extensively for training local residents in sustainable economic activities, and hundreds of families in the reserve who today earn an income from carpentry, bee-keeping, ceramic production, food dehydration and other small business activities that use the forest without destroying it. Sierra Gorda Ecotours, an enterprise of the Sierra Gorda Ecological Group, has begun bringing tourists into the reserve – and their money into the local economy. An ecotourism corridor of eight sites has been established, with local residents trained as guides. Trekkers, birders and mountain bikers are flocking to the reserve, which won a "Tourism for Tomorrow" award from the London-based World Travel and Tourism Council.

Expanding the Reserve
The biosphere has proved so successful that it is being expanded, with an adjoining section of Guanajuato State being set aside as a reserve. An organisation modelled on the Sierra Gorda Ecological Group has been established to strengthen civil society, while promoting conservation and economic development. Ruiz Corzo is helping shepherds along that process, and looks forward to someday establishing similar reserves in the nearby states of Hidalgo and San Luis Potosi. For Ruiz Corzo, Sierra Gorda's success proves that conservation is not something imposed by elites, nor does it run counter to economic progress. "In Sierra Gorda we've strengthened the idea that conservation has to be carried out through and with the people in the villages," she says.

The battle for Sierra Gorda is far from over, however, and she remains vigilant, recently working to block a large hydroelectric project that would have flooded huge swaths of forestland while providing no benefit to mountain communities. To defend Sierra Gorda, Ruiz Corzo travels constantly, averaging one international trip each month and travelling weekly to Mexico City. If she laments anything about her work in recent years, it's that she has had little time for music. Her accordion, which accompanied her in the early days as she sang with the children of the mountains about conservation, remains in its case. "I miss it. Part of my heart is there in that case, but I have little time to play," Ruiz Corzo says. "And when I do take it out and play, I sound really bad.”

Other 2002 Associate Laureates