Mexico First in Latin America to Set Aside Wilderness

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, October 4, 2005 (ENS) - The new El Carmen Wilderness Area located in northeastern Mexico is the first wilderness designation to be made in Latin America. The designation protects the Sierra del Carmen mountains that stand adjacent to the Big Bend National Park in Texas.

The Sierra del Carmen is a 40 mile long sky island which lies high above the Great Chihuahuan Desert floor and is the core of a bi-national mega-corridor that is considered an international conservation priority.

A collaboration among a private corporation, the Mexican government and four conservation groups has created the wilderness designation. They announced the new wilderness area to the 1,100 delegates from 55 nations assembled this week in Anchorage for the 8th World Wilderness Congress.

Cement giant CEMEX, the Mexican government's Comision Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP), and conservation groups Agrupación Sierra Madre, Conservation International, The Wild Foundation, and Birdlife International cooperated to preserve this unique ecosystem.

Sierra del Carmen

Sierra del Carmen mountains as seen from Big Bend National Park, Texas (Webcam image courtesy U.S. National Park Service)
The northern end of the Sierra del Carmen, located at the international border between Mexico and the United States, is a pristine environment with deep canyons and great walls that connect it to the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River and the Big Bend National Park.

Within the new wilderness area, the Sierra del Carmen is a series of northwestward oriented high ridges sheltering more than 500 plant species, 400 bird species including eagles, 70 mammal species, and 50 types of reptiles and amphibians, according to Conservation International.

CEMEX, which owns and manages this land, is committed to working with its partners and all stakeholders to transform it into the first private wilderness area for Mexico and Latin America.

Publicly owned land is not common in Mexico, so the designation of Mexican wilderness areas must be a voluntary process where responsible private landowners commit their land to the wilderness concept and compatible conservation and management practices.

Mexico is the fourth richest country in diversity of species and the second richest in ecosystems worldwide, but after thousands of years of constant use of natural resources, very few places have remained unmarked by the human footprint. Only the deep canyons of the sierras like Sierra de Carmen have been left in pristine condition.

In the last 10 years, the Mexican government has created CONANP, the National Commission for Natural Protected Areas, to conserve its biodiversity. The commission is entrusted with ensuring that a representative sample of each of the different ecosystems present in Mexico are conserved.

Sierra del Carmen

A stream in the Sierra del Carmen mountains (Photo courtesy Rio Grande Institute)
CONANP is an independent agency of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources of Mexico responsible for the conservation of Mexico’s natural heritage.

CONANP operates all 155 federally-designated protected areas encompassing 47 million acres and implements priority species conservation programs. In the last five years, CONANP has established 28 additional protected areas and its budget has grown by 400 percent.

Mexico is adopting the designation of wilderness in two ways.

First, the existing legal private and social conservation land certification system is being used by CONANP to recognize land conservation efforts by legally protecting these lands.

The commission offers economic incentives to landowners such as payment for the ecosystem services from watershed forest conservation to biodiversity conservation, carbon sequestration and scenic landscape protection.

Recently, conservation groups and the private sector approached CONANP to suggest a new level of certification, wilderness zones, that would promote the highest possible level of ecological integrity of the land and avoid negative or excessive human impacts.

Wilderness zones would embrace wilderness within this certification framework and would facilitate the re-wilding process of more land in the future, the conservationists suggest. They hope wilderness zones would be an incentive to expand strict conservation into additional areas.

Second, from the private sector, a coalition of national and international conservation organizations and academic institutions will create a private wilderness certification system.

They intend the new system to provide solid, verifiable, moral and prestigious backing either to landowners who have already certified their lands through CONANP or to those who prefer to certify their land as wilderness through the private sector process.


Mexican black bear in the El Carmen Wilderness Area (Photo courtesy Bear Trust International)
Three of the El Carmen Wilderness Area partners - CEMEX, Conservation International, and Agrupación Sierra Madre - launched a new book at the conference that illustrates the value of protected areas that span national borders.

"Transboundary Conservation: A New Vision for Protected Areas," describes new strategies of shared environmental responsibility for keeping wilderness areas intact across national borders.

"'Transboundary Conservation' is the 13th in our series of conservation books," said Armando Garcia, executive vice president of development, CEMEX. "Similar to its predecessors, this book illustrates methods on how to protect the world's biodiversity and works to promote a culture of environmental awareness within our communities and our society at large."

"This new book shows how transboundary conservation areas have a very special role in international conservation," said co-author Russell Mittermeier, Ph.D., president of Conservation International. "It examines the importance of protecting land across borders as well as the impact on human populations if these areas of rich biodiversity are degraded or lost."

Fifty conservationists, scientists, and professional photographers contributed to the book. It focuses on 29 transboundary parks around the world, from the El Carmen-Big Bend in North America to Southern Africa's Kavango-Zambezi Four Corners Transboundary Conservation Area.

The title, "Transboundary Conservation," defines the new terminology for international efforts to protect ecosystems in their entirety, says Mittermeier.

From the first transboundary protected area established in 1932, when Montana's Glacier National Park was joined with Canada's Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta to form the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, the concept has expanded to more than 100 parks and protected areas throughout the world.

Transboundary conservation areas, or TBCAs, offer multiple benefits, both internationally and at regional and local levels. They can reduce tensions between countries and help rebuild peaceful cooperation. Peace parks celebrate historically good relations along with a shared commitment to managing precious natural resources.

"Transboundary Conservation" was produced with the collaboration of the International League of Conservation Photographers, and IUCN-The World Conservation Union. The preface is by Valli Moosa of South Africa, president of IUCN-The World Conservation Union.