Participatory restoration of degraded agricultural areas invaded by bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) and forest conservation in the Chinantla Region, Oaxaca, Mexico
Concern about the trajectory of tropical landscapes has focused on the need to conserve existing natural ecosystems and on restoration of degraded forest areas, but much less on restoration of degraded agricultural lands as a source of underperforming landscapes. Invasions of bracken fern, Pteridium aquilinum, are an important source of agricultural and ecological degradation in many tropical areas. We present a case study in a small watershed inhabited by two communities in the Chinantla region of Oaxaca, Mexico, in which indigenous community conserved areas were stablished in 2004. The historical agricultural degradation related to bracken fern has restricted the use of hundreds of hectares for food production, and the current conservation measures restrict agricultural expansion in forestry areas. In this paper, we document the detrimental social-ecological dynamics related to bracken fern invasion and the restoration importance of these degraded areas into more productive land uses. Our study is based on geo-referenced information on the extent of bracken invasion, participant observation, and interviews on local knowledge of control techniques and the social-ecological implications of bracken degraded areas.
Bracken poses concerns for its potential expansion to current agricultural areas that in turn could also create some pressure on forests in the future. Although, farmers display little appreciation or knowledge of how extensive the bracken-invaded area is, our analysis suggests that bracken is covering at least 465 ha mostly between 400-1,000 m. We estimate that the degraded bracken fern area represents around 14% of the area currently or potentially available for agriculture. Yucca and pineapple crops can be grown in the invaded areas, and the cultivation of these control bracken’s invasion. Farmers know that restoration of these areas is possible, but they perceive that it as a time consuming and labor demanding process. There is potential for a participatory restoration project based on the ongoing collective action processes taking place in the communities. A model to restore degraded areas based on local expectations of more productive land uses (multi-purpose forests, maize, coffee and other crops) is proposed and can be achieved through existing local knowledge along with new perspectives on managing diverse pathways to annual agriculture, agroforestry, and forest patches for firewood and commercial timber. Financial support for restoration is needed to incentivize farmers to participate in restoration efforts, where productive lands would be re-gained, and local livelihoods and forest conservation efforts would contribute to a sustainable multifunctional landscape.