By Matt Blois
Fernanda walks at the front of the group with a black and yellow GPS in hand. She’s wearing a denim jacket, a lacy black tank top, and artfully ripped blue jeans. Her phone is tucked into a giant elastic belt. Both wrists jangle with multiple colorful bracelets and a blue dream-catcher necklace swings on her neck.
She wouldn’t look out of place hanging out with a group of high-schoolers at a suburban mall in southern California, but instead she’s leading a group of thirty people into a remote cloud forest in southern Jalisco to look for large, predatory felines.
I’m here with National Geographic grantee Matthew Hyde nearly 7,200 feet above sea level and I feel like my lungs are about to burst. We’re surrounded by 70-foot tall fir trees covered in moss and vines and spiny bromeliads. Our path is carpeted in dry oak leaves and bunches of pine needles. The sun is powerful, but the air is cool. We’re in Ejido Adolfo Ruiz Cortinez in the southern mountains of Jalisco, Mexico.
The community here is part of a Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) program operated by the National Forestry Commission in Mexico. They receive annual payments from the Mexican government in exchange for conserving part of the forest on their land. In addition to setting aside a portion of their land for conservation, they also monitor local wildlife using motion sensitive trail cameras. Fernanda is leading us to the spot where she’s placed the trail camera.
The community has put Fernanda and Nayelli, another young woman from the community, in charge of the wildlife monitoring activities. They scout new locations for the camera, hike out to potential monitoring sites, and strap the camera to nearby trees. They return occasionally to switch up the camera location, change the memory card, and check the batteries.
The trail takes a left turn up a steep hill, and I recognize the scene immediately. It’s a sparsely vegetated rock face next to a dirt trail. It’s the background for most of the camera trap photos that Fernanda and Nayelli have been sending us for the last year.
“This is where we captured the photo of the puma,” Fernanda tells me. “Before we put the camera trap up we never would have imagined that we would find a puma here.”
We organized several workshops last year to train the participants of the PES program to use GPS units and camera traps to monitor local wildlife. Nayelli and Fernanda were by far the youngest members of the group, but their youth may have been their greatest advantage. Even in a rural area where cell signal only reaches a tiny area in the center of town, Fernanda is constantly on WhatsApp. While most of the grown men involved in the PES program were struggling to figure out how to turn the camera on, Fernanda and Nayelli were running circles around the workshop with the GPS unit.
In rural towns like Adolfo Ruiz Cortinez there are few opportunities for young people, and many migrate to the US. However, Fernanda and Nayelli have chosen to stay, and they play an important role in their community.
At the end of our second day in Adolfo Ruiz Cortinez everyone gathered at the center of town for a carne asada. Fernanda’s father threw piles of meat onto a smoking grill, while her mother stirred a big pot of beans and chased us back to our seats whenever we tried to lend a hand.
As we sat—immobilized by a potent combination of exhaustion, red meat, and tequila—Nayelli and Fernanda challenged us to a volleyball match. We hobbled over to the court expecting certain defeat. A six-person team, likely representing almost everyone between the ages of 16 and 25 living in the community, waited for us on the opposite side.
As I waited for Nayelli to serve, I wondered if the PES program could give new opportunities to the young people living in towns like Adolfo Ruiz Cortinez. I hope that encouraging communities to make forest conservation a priority and involving young people in the monitoring and management of forests will build stronger communities in rural Mexico, and I hope that the next time we come to Adolfo Ruiz Cortinez, they have a bigger volleyball team to challenge us.