bridging borders across the americas


El Cielo Adventure
by Maria Araujo

September/Septiembre 1994

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MEXICO -- The term "cloud forest" evokes images of exotic and distant places. Most Texans don't realize there is a forest in the clouds a mere 300 miles south of Brownsville in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico.

El Cielo Biosphere Reserve, designated by the United Nations in 1987 under the Man and the Biosphere program, is a 356,872-acre site stretching from the eastern to the western slopes of the Sierra Madre Oriental. The reserve's biodiversity is among the highest in the world because it lies on the climate transitional zone between North and Central America.

With elevations from 650 to 7,500 feet above sea level, El Cielo includes four distinct eco-systems: tropical jungle, mountain forest, pine-oak forest, and dwarf oak and heath forest. A backpacking trek transecting the four ecosystems would be a naturalist's delight.

El Cielo now is at a major crossroad as its inhabitants seek their livelihoods under new reserve regulations, tourism officials seek to capitalize on the resource, the general population visits in increasing numbers and the scientific community continues to do research and express concern.

"The scientific community is not alone in its concern," said Secretary Pedro Hernandez, head of the Secretariat of Social Development (SEDESOL), which has management responsibility for the reserve. "We recognize the significance of the resource and we are working to find alternative recreational sites for the general population so that the reserve is dedicated to nature study whether by recreationists or scientists." In October 1993, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's International Affairs Program organized a trip to El Cielo to explore the possibility of conducting joint Texas Conservation Passport tours. The first joint ecotour by the State of Tamaulipas and Texas Parks and Wildlife will be held the last week in October 1994. One of the purposes will be to acquaint Texans with significant natural resources in the Mexican states bordering Texas, and the challenges these resources face today.

El Cielo is south of Ciudad Victoria. This city of 195,000 population is the capital of Tamaulipas and is set against the backdrop of the Sierra Madre. On the way from Ciudad Victoria to El Cielo, the country store "La Morita," confirms with its daily fare that the traveler has crossed the Tropic of Cancer. "La Morita" sells mango juice, mango jelly, mango ice cream, popsicles and mango pie.

The tropical forest around the town of Gomez Farias near El Cielo is a paradise for birdwatchers with species such as the warbling vireo, amethyst-throated hummingbird and least pygmy-owl. Contributing to its scenic beauty is the Rio Frio and "El Nacimiento," the headwaters of the river. The growing aquaculture activities in the region enhance the birdwatching opportunities.

Canyons on the road up to Alta Cima, a village in the buffer zone (zona de amortiguamiento) of the reserve, have a Jurassic Park quality to them. One gets the feeling that at some point the road will be completely choked off by tropical vegetation.

One of the clearings along the road offers an ethereal view of Cerro del Bernal, the mountain peak icon in the state's seal that symbolizes the state's resources. At that altitude, Gomez Farias is just a speck against the valley below.

The village of Alta Cima revealed the second purpose of the joint ecotour, which will be showing reserve inhabitants that there is a "market" for protected resources such as El Cielo. T'PWD staff left the Suburban with one of the families and paid them a small fee for watching it. At that point, it became virtually impossible to find a driver for the 4-wheel drive vehicle when everyone in the group wanted to hike up to the research station.

Canindo Research Station is in the cloud forest and adjacent to a village called San Jose. Gregorio "Goyo" Zuñiga, one of the villagers, and his small pack of dogs are the caretakers of the research complex. "The jaguar does a good job of keeping the dog population in check..." he said, "that's why we call them jaguar's feed."

San Jose, a village of about 12 families, is nestled in a green valley and offers interesting juxtapositions of the old and the new. Every house is outfitted with solar collectors that provide electricity for light and the modern conveniences of refrigeration and television. Some objects in the distance resemble the Tiki heads found on Easter Island, but closer examination reveals that the "sculptures" peppering the landscape are rusty cabs of old trucks left behind by the lumber companies operating some 30 years ago.

Lumber operations ceased when El Cielo's topography and inaccessibility triumphed over forestry exploitation. But during the 30-year period of large-scale commercial lumber operations, which ended in the 1960s, San Jose had a hotel, a movie theater and a gas station.

These lumber operations gave rise to the settlement of the cloud forest. Most settlers of El Cielo came from the states of Michoacán, Mexico and Hidalgo because the lumber companies found that Tamaulipecos had little interest in living in the sierra.

At that time, the settlers were paid with vouchers that could be exchanged only for goods at "tiendas de raya" or stores owned by the employer, in this case the lumber companies. These companies wanted undivided attention to their operation, so the families were not permitted to raise crops or animals for personal consumption. Anyone disobeying this rule was suspended temporarily from work.

Current conditions at San Jose are totally different. Every family has gardens and orchards to grow food for themselves and their domestic animals. In fact, the fertile soil yields more than they consume. Bartering is not an option because everyone is growing the same thing, and taking the surplus to market in Gomez Farias is out of the question since no one in the village owns a motor vehicle.

Organizers of the E1 Cielo ecotour plan to involve the villagers in the tours and to purchase the surplus goods they produce. This should benefit everyone involved. "Right now the people (of the reserve) receive basic environmental education," said Ismael Cabral, head of SEDESOL's Natural Resources. "My goal is to provide them more in-depth scientific information so they become better stewards of the resource and can participate more fully in the ecotours."

Another goal of the ecotour is to feature Mexican scientists and their work, including social scientists. "It appears that most Texans aware of El Cielo know only of the work of U.S. scientists affiliated with Rancho El Cielo, the University of Texas Southmost College research station," said Dawn Dittman, TPWD's Marketing Director. "We plan to change that by showcasing the work of Jesus Garcia, Rafael Herrera, Arturo Mora, Gloria Tavera, Cecilia Montemayor, Julian Treviño, and others scientists who are bilingual, have an interest in sharing their knowledge, and possess excellent presentation skills."

For information on these nature tours, fax your address to 512-389-8029 or call 512-389-4901.

This article is reprinted with permission from Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine.



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