In the early 1980s, Pati had a successful career in Querétaro, about two hours north of Mexico City, as principal violinist in the city’s orchestra, soloist in two choirs, and music teacher at a prestigious private school.
She decided to live a simpler life and moved to Sierra Gorda with her family. This drastic change meant abandoning urban comforts, living without electricity for five years, and developing a closer connection to nature.
And soon after her arrival, she realized the extent to which the environment was being destroyed, with rampant tree felling, uncontrolled fires and the indiscriminate opening of trails. This inspired her to work closely with the local community and replant trees to bring back the forest.
Her activism eventually escalated into a project to designate Sierra Gorda as a protected biosphere reserve, which required lobbying the state governor and attempting to secure state and federal funding.
© Grupo Ecologico Sierra Gorda
“We are the only conservation area in Mexico designed from the ground up,” says Pati: Before submitting this petition, 130 meetings were held with community members to get their approval, and when everyone agreed, the official application was made on the highest national level.
Success came in 1997 when Sierra Gorda was designated as part of the Biosphere Reserve, exactly a decade after the mountain communities, led by Pati and her family, created the Sierra Gorda Ecological Group as a civil society organization and gave them an official mandate to do so Preserving biodiversity and raising funds to put their plans into action.
The protected area covers almost 385,000 hectares, almost a third of the state of Querétaro. Once Biosphere Reserve status was achieved, the Ecological Group’s projects, including environmental education and reforestation activities, began to expand, even extending to some areas of the Sierra Gorda outside of Querétaro.
© Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda/Roberto Pedraza Ruíz
Today, more than 17,000 mountain community members participate in activities to improve sanitation, education, training, agricultural diversification, food production and forest resource regeneration.
The achievements of the Sierra Gorda Ecological Group have earned their national and international acclaim, such as the recent 2021 United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Equator Prize. The UN World Tourism Organization, the UN Environment Program and National Geographic have also recognized the group’s work.
One of the Group’s most recognized programs is one on sustainable forest management. It is based on a system called Payment for Environmental Services, which also monitors carbon in the Sierra Gorda’s forests.
Miguel Flores Pedraza, a 60-year-old forest owner, has been involved in this project for a decade and dedicates his land—about a hundred hectares—to conservation.
“I have received support for payment of environmental services or carbon capture and other benefits by leaving the land in its natural state so that it can be regenerated,” he says.
“This project has helped us a lot because it is an income that compensates us,” he explains, giving a concrete example of what can be done: “If I brought five or ten cattle to graze on this land, I would have I have an average profit of 50,000 pesos. That is exactly what I get today for paying for environmental services through the ecological group.”
“That gives me financial satisfaction and has also sharpened my awareness of ecological issues. I have enjoyed seeing the environment enriched, ecosystems restored and the diversity of flora and fauna increased. Today I see wild boar and puma on my land that were not present in this area thirty years ago.”
Keeping the gears of this new green economy turning takes time and a lot of work, not only from the landowners, but also from those responsible for designing, implementing and monitoring the projects.
© Grupo Ecologico Sierra Gorda
Education, the best weapon
An example is ecotourism, which started successfully in an area called Cañada de las Avispas, which is used for beekeeping.
“We started the adventure by building huts,” Pati recalls. We had an excellent team and built wonderful cabins. We started a carpentry workshop in the village and a famous teacher moved to the community to train young people. You can’t imagine the work that went into this project!”
For Pati, education is the best weapon to defend and restore nature, which is why, 34 years ago, she began touring mountain schools with an accordion, singing with children and educating them about the environment. Today the program is carried out in the hands of teachers in more than 150 schools in the region.
The result is that the general population is now more aware of the issues and in some communities cabinet members are ecologists.
“When you go to the market and talk about the zero waste campaign, people know what it is about. The vendors are pro-campaign and are asking people to bring their own containers and baskets. There is no denying that environmental education works.” She says.
“The key figures are the teachers,” she insists, arguing that the only hope for the planet is one that can be generated with a different vision of “cultivating a love of the earth in children.”
This story is part of the UN multimedia news series, featuring prominent women leading initiatives for a more sustainable, equitable future, to be released ahead of this year’s International Women’s Day on March 8th.