Sierra Gorda, part 1

Trip Start Mar 23, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Mexico  ,
Thursday, June 14, 2007

The capital city of Querétaro lies near the southwestern border of the state with the same name, in the dry altiplano of central Mexico, at the southern end of the great Chihuahuan desert.  Heading northeast from the city, the air gets drier.  Cactus forests dominate the landscape, wild oregano blooms in arroyos, and the road begins to climb, entering the Sierra Gorda, a national protected area comprising nearly a million acres.  Climbing, rows and rows of mesquite covered hills extend to the horizon, and as the roads get curvier and climbs higher, the air starts to cool.  Trees start emerging from the matorrales below--tall pines, and hearty oaks with bromeliads and orchids in their branches.  As the road approaches the ridge, it reaches the edge of the rainshadow, and drops into the eastern slopes of the Sierra Madre, where waters from the Gulf of Mexico are swept inland to condense in these forests, turning the landscape lush and green and exploding life to the hills.  Over the peak, the road winds down and down, through villages, past waterfalls and farms, past stands selling apples, roasted ears of corn, and pottery, past 400 year old Benedictine missions, past grazing cows and goats, wandering sheep, dogs, and children, and mules laden with firewood.  As the road continues winding down and down it drops into the valley of the Rio Jalpan and to the small town of Jalpan de Serra, our new home.  Further east lie the jungles, the stomps of jaguars...
100,000 people live in the Sierra Gorda, but in recent years this number has dropped as men head to the States for work.  The reasons are obvious--the minimum wage in Mexico is 42 pesos a day--equivalent to about 45 minutes work at minimum wage in the U.S.  The money they send home is collectively the second largest source of foreign revenue in Mexico, just behind oil.  But unlike oil revenues, remissions are dispersed to the poor, bringing dramatic changes to rural areas.  Huge homes (or 'dollar houses' as the locals call them) and big trucks purchased in the US look out of place.  The women find themselves with more power, freedom, and responsibility, often running businesses and taking care of communally owned lands.  The pressure to exploit natural resources has been greatly reduced, and forests are naturally re-generating on many of the steep slopes once cleared for agriculture.
The Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve was founded 10 years ago, after a decade of hard work by the Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda, the non-governmental organization where we will be working for the next two years.  The program was founded by a remarkable local woman named Pati Ruiz, whose larger-than-life personality, inspiration, and dedication have motivated legions of employees, volunteers and residents throughout the Sierra Gorda and across Mexico to conserve this diverse landscape and provide sustainable livelihoods to its people.  Pati's husband and two sons live and work in the Sierra as well, and have helped to build a progressive and successful community-based conservation organization.  Our work here will be varied, but will center on technical assistance with some very interesting programs.  Buffy's first task for work is to attend a meeting on Bainbridge Island, just across from Seattle, to learn about Biodiversity Offsets, and how they might be applied in the Sierra Gorda.  Ben will be helping to manage the Sierra Gorda's monitoring program as well as joining the GIS team.  We will both be supporting the reserve's biologists, and helping to expand the ecological monitoring the reserve does.
On June 13th, Ben's birthday, we offically ended training and become cooperantes.  The US Ambassador was present, attracting other pescas gordas (big wigs), along with all our spanish teachers, professional counterpars, and Mexican families.  Formal speeches were followed by finger food and a surprise appearance by a Mariachi band, who serenaded Ben and Tony Garza, the ambassador, in honor of Saint Anthony (who shares his name) with the beautiful Mexican birthday son "Mañanitas."  The tequila came later, along with fireworks celebrating San Antonio in the big chuches downtown.  Now, we're on our own!
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