Mexico: The Business of Saving Trees

How one woman has created a biosphere

In recent years an entire industry has grown up around the idea of trading carbon to help eliminate greenhouse gases, most notably CO2. While the practice has its detractors, there's certainly interest among businesses in high-polluting industrialized nations such as the United States to limit their carbon footprint -- if not by polluting less, at least by buying carbon credits from countries that are lesser polluters, which is basically how the system works.

This caselet isn't about carbon trading per se. But it does show the potential for poorer developing countries to capitalize on a growing market by doing something as simple as planting more trees and protecting existing ones -- and getting paid to do it. This caselet brings us to the heart of rural Mexico to discover how a former schoolteacher is using carbon trading to revitalize an entire region.

Pati Ruiz Corzo is the director of the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve, a protected area about the size of Rhode Island that is a five-hour drive north of Mexico City. When she left her teaching job in the city and moved to the region 25 years ago searching for a simpler life, she found the place littered with trash and stripped of much of its natural vegetation. She decided it would be her life's work to restore the forest and to create new jobs for the people living in the biosphere.

Corzo's efforts are beginning to transform the once-depleted landscape into a thriving habitat with fertile topsoil, a replenished water table and an abundance of newly planted vegetation. She's also developing an eco-tourism industry with rustic lodge accommodations and craft shops for local artisans.

Now with carbon trading a hot "commodity," Corzo sees an opportunity to use her forest to raise money on the carbon market. Currently, she is working with nonprofits such as Earth Island Institute, based in the San Francisco Bay Area. The company lets individuals donate money to causes like Corzo's to offset their own personal carbon footprint. These donations, made mostly online, help plant more trees and create sustainable jobs for the people living in Sierra Gorda.

Despite debate among scientists about how effective trees are in reducing carbon in the atmosphere -- a lot depends on what types of trees are planted and where, and whether there's some unforeseen slash-and-burn policy down the line -- most experts agree that the growing appetite for trading carbon will help generate much-needed capital for greener energy solutions overall.

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