Protecting Oaxaca’s Natural Treasures through Community-Based Tourism

In the heart of a small town in central Oaxaca rises a massive, ancient tree called El Árbol de Tule, a 2,000-year-old Montezuma cypress with a trunk so wide it takes 17 people with arms outstretched to encircle it.  The Tule tree is just one of Oaxaca’s abundant cultural and natural treasures: steep mountains, vast tracts of old-growth forests akin to natural cathedrals, and rugged coastline with world-famous surfing beaches. Oaxaca’s wild natural landscapes provide habitat for 133 species of amphibians and 245 species of reptiles found only in the state—not to mention the striking array of birds that make it a birder’s paradise.

"If there is no income, what are the options? Slash-and-burn agriculture, unsustainable cattle ranching, or wood extraction."

Ronald Sanabria, vice president sustainable tourism at the Rainforest Alliance

For the past two years, the Rainforest Alliance has worked with communities across Oaxaca to introduce sustainable tourism as a means of conserving these stunning landscapes. Central to our work in the region is the development of economic opportunities for rural and indigenous forest communities. “If there is no income, what are the options? Slash-and-burn agriculture, unsustainable cattle ranching, or wood extraction” says Ronald Sanabria, vice president sustainable tourism at the Rainforest Alliance. “Economic desperation is a major driver of deforestation.”

To address the environmental threats in the region, the Rainforest Alliance worked to develop the capacity of local partner organizations, including the Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (CDI), the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT), and the NGO Women Generating Change and Wellbeing, to assist more than 30 micro and small tourism enterprises. With support from the Mitsubishi Corporation Foundation for the Americas, our field team trained local advisors from those institutions, as well as key community leaders in sustainable tourism management.

El Arbol de Tule (Tule tree in Oaxaca, Mexico)

El Árbol de Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico

Photo credit: iStock

In addition, with the support of these local partners, the Rainforest Alliance held training workshops in which community-based entrepreneurs learned how to manage waste, reduce energy consumption, and work with local suppliers to support host communities and bolster local economies. Our trainers also provided promotional and marketing support. In total, 60 tourism entrepreneurs in Oaxaca participated in the program, and 45 participants went on to train others. The program continues to grow in places like San Miguel del Valle, where new community-based tourism initiatives benefit nearly 3,000 people and conserve 16,857 hectares of pristine forest that provide habitat for cougars.

“This training provided by the Rainforest Alliance to our institutional teams and community-based enterprises has been of our great benefit for our projects,” said Armando Osvaldo Vargas Ruiz, a local delegate from SEMARNAT. “It has increased interest in improving day by day to provide services up to international standards, resulting in customer satisfaction and thus impacting our local economy.”

CDI has adopted the Rainforest Alliance’s diagnostic tool to assess training needs and market opportunities among indigenous community tourism businesses. “This project has strengthened the capacity of CDI through the training of our regional technicians, whose main day-to-day task is to establish constant communication with the community enterprises and propose standards to improve the projects assigned to them,” says Cesar Anacleto Garcia, head of the Improvement of Indigenous Production and Productivity Program at CDI.

People collecting dirty river water

Around the world, 1.3 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day.