Community Category Finalist
The cloud-wrapped forests of the Sierra Norte, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, are one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth. 400 species of birds and 350 species of butterflies can be found here, along with rare animals such as jaguar and ocelot. Of the nine types of vegetation found across the whole of Mexico, seven flourish in these 20 million year old forests, with a staggering 2,000 plant species identified overall.
This natural wealth is also a storehouse of indigenous traditional knowledge - it's no coincidence the country's Centre for Indigenous Traditional Medicine is found here. For centuries traditional healers have walked the paths through these wooded hills, gathering the plants they use in their many treatments and ceremonies. And for the last 22 years the community-based ecotourism project Expediciones Sierra Norte has followed in their footsteps, working to both preserve that knowledge and share it with the growing number of people who visit this region.
The company has established more than 100km of walking and mountain biking routes through the forest, all following the ancient trails and paths that connected the communities in the past. Everything about the scheme has been designed to ensure it both delivers the most authentic experience possible, and also brings the most benefit to the community. So, for example, when it was time to design the interpretive manuals for their routes, they turned to the elders and leaders of each community. This ensured grandparents had the opportunity to share the stories that revolve around the community, its organization and way of life, something of which many younger generations were unaware. The company may have been designing route maps for tourists, but they were also ensuring the survival of their stories among their own young people.
The success has been clear to see. In 1995 the number of tourists who stayed overnight in the villages was less than 20 per year, and most tour operators and traditional travel agencies didn't believe the state's rural communities could successfully manage a tourist program. 22 years later, however, Sierra Norte annually receives around 17,000 tourists. And rather than increase pressure on their environment, the growth in visitors has been used to increase the capacity of community members to protect and sustainably manage the cultural heritage these visitors are flocking to see.