Mexico

Residents of Mexico’s Biggest Wetland Brace for an Unpredictable Future

Close to 87% of the world’s wetlands have disappeared in the past 300 years. Now, a community in Mexico is fighting to save their corner of the swamp.

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Residents of Mexico’s Biggest Wetland Brace for an Unpredictable Future

Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

Sebastiana Molina walks along the small bridges of her house in El Palmar, Tabasco, Mexico. Centla swamp residents, who live above water, build wooden homes on piles, or stilts.

EL PALMAR, MEXICO — Edy Gordillo fixes his eyes on the horizon, searching for clues about how the water levels will rise. It’s a habit he has adopted gradually.

Gordillo, 56, is a resident of El Palmar, an ejido, or communal land, of 145 inhabitants in the Pantanos de Centla Biosphere Reserve, a protected natural area in the southern Mexican state of Tabasco, home to the largest wetland in North America.

The wetlands are areas of flat land covered with water either permanently or seasonally, and their carbon-sequestering capacity — 50 times that of tropical forests — makes them crucial in the fight against climate change.

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Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

Clothes hang in the sun in a stilt house in El Palmar, Tabasco, Mexico.

However, close to 87% of these ecosystems have disappeared from the face of the planet in the past 300 years, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature, an international conservation organization.

In recent years, the water levels in the swamp have been increasing, and floods in El Palmar have intensified. The region is further threatened by poaching, the burning of pastureland, indiscriminate fishing, and garbage dumping. These problems endanger the livelihoods of local residents. In response, they are returning to traditional construction techniques and launching conservation initiatives to protect their heritage and environment.

An elevated lifestyle


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Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

Sebastiana Molina prepares a meal while she keeps an eye on her flooded patio in El Palmar, Tabasco, Mexico.

“We live in the swamp, practically on the water, and that makes us different from those who live on the land,” Gordillo says proudly.

Because they live above bodies of water, residents here build stilt houses: wooden homes placed on piles, or stilts, between 2 and 3 meters (6 and 10 feet) high.

“We have to be prepared when it comes to the rising water, so we don’t go under,” Gordillo says. He takes additional precautions in his home. His furniture hangs from the ceiling or sits high on boards or bricks in case the water rises higher than expected.

Some families have built cement houses in the highlands and filled in wet areas with gravel to have a solid foundation for their homes. Sebastiana Molina, a resident of El Palmar whose house is partially built out of cement, says this practice ended up being costly.

All the materials must be transported by an elongated, hand-hewn boat called a cayuco, the principal means of local transportation. Plus, the cement construction doesn’t necessarily keep the home from flooding.

“In 2020, El Palmar was completely flooded. For nearly three weeks, all the houses were full of water,” Molina says. “We all had to build internal structures or second floors in order to keep dry while sleeping or to preserve some of our belongings.”

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Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

María Gordillo Hernández cooks for her family at her house in El Palmar, Tabasco. Gordillo Hernández and her family raised the stove to prevent it from getting wet when the swamp floods.

The event accentuated the importance of stilt houses to the community. They can be modified quickly, and because they utilize wood and other raw materials from the swamp, they’re more affordable.

Life in the swamplands is governed by the water levels, which fluctuate on an annual cycle. During the dry season, residents usually work on building or reinforcing their homes. In the flood season, they fish.

“The different stages of the inhabitants’ lives are delineated based on the flood seasons,” says Adolfo Vital, the director of Pantanos de Centla, the reservation where the Centla swamps are located.

Given the irregularity of the seasons and uncertainty about the magnitude of future floods, those who opted for cement structures are reverting to the area’s traditional construction practices.

“I want to build a room for my daughter, but I’ll be doing it with wood in the stilt house style,” Molina says. “We don’t want to bring in outside materials to fill in the swamp anymore.”

Multipurpose construction


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Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

Agustín Trinidad walks through the swamp at his home in El Palmar, Tabasco, Mexico.

Plants and other animals have also benefited from stilt construction.

Agustín Trinidad, 59, and his wife, Gloria Hernández, 57, have built stilt structures not only for their family but also for their vegetable beds and poultry.

“Now I have henhouses two and three floors high,” Hernández says. “That way, our chickens, turkeys and ducks go up bit by bit on their own, according to the water level.”

Hernández remembers how difficult it was to survive the floods before. “The flood days were really tough; all the animals and vegetables would die. The flood would wipe everything out.”

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Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

María Hernández prepares ingredients for the antojitos she sells on the side of the road with her family at her home in El Palmar, Tabasco.

Now, the poultry stays outside during the driest months and goes inside when the water rises. Meanwhile, the family’s raised vegetable gardens allow them to produce a variety of food all year, without the need to leave their community.

“Here, we can eat fish, shrimp, crabs, but if you want a tomato, you have to travel out to the highway or go to Frontera,” says Trinidad, referring to Centla’s main town. Now, he eats the food he grows at home.

Trinidad says he would prefer to build stilt structures and reinforce his home rather than leave El Palmar. He is already planning his next round of renovations.

All hands on deck to save the mangroves


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Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

A red mangrove in El Palmar ejido, in the Pantanos de Centla reserve.

Beyond their doorsteps, the community has also launched mangrove conservation efforts.

Since 2020, Trinidad and some of his neighbors have restored 409 hectares (1,011 acres) of the reserve — almost 0.1% of its total area — most of it on ejido-managed land designated for common use. The reforestation targets the canals and waterways, helping to protect biodiversity and maintain fish populations.

“The mangroves are our allies. They protect us against hurricanes and help us to filter the salt water, and it’s an ideal space for fish, shrimp and crabs to reproduce,” says El Palmar resident Erika Nogueda as she jots a red mangrove’s height in her notebook. “Without that filter, everything salinizes and the fish don’t reproduce. It all ends.”

The Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas, better known as CONANP, the federal agency that manages the reserve and coordinates reforestation efforts, is prioritizing this area for conservation due both to its flora and fauna and to its benefits to the ecosystem.

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Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

Students and technicians constantly monitor reforestation efforts in El Palmar.

Along with sequestering carbon, the wetlands act as a natural barrier against hurricanes and salinization, mitigate coastal erosion, and improve water quality by acting as a biological filter, says Vital, the director of the reserve.

“To restore, protect and conserve this strategic zone, it is necessary for institutions and authorities at all levels of government, civil society organizations, but above all, the communities and ejidos that inhabit it, to unite behind our efforts,” he says.

Nogueda says that between 2017 and 2018, wildfires consumed 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres) in the reserve, which included 200 hectares (494 acres) in El Palmar. She adds that today’s reforestation, which started in 2020, is a continuation of restoration activities that the ejido has been carrying out with CONANP since 1999.

A project for survival


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Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

Sebastiana Molina displays shrimp traps, which she uses in the Pantanos de Centla reserve, in Tabasco, Mexico.

Trinidad thinks the ejido’s restoration projects have been crucial for filtering salt out of water that enters from the sea.

“In the area where the mangroves grow, the water is less salty. And that helps to create better conditions for the crabs and fish — even the gars — to reproduce,” he says, pointing out that certain fish and crustacean species, like the blue crab, are of high commercial value for ejido residents.

Adriana Rodríguez Jiménez is a biologist and member of Foro para el Desarrollo Sustentable, a nonprofit that has supported the region’s restoration. She says El Palmar’s efforts have involved the entire community. “Everyone participates. Women have become experts in selecting propagules, men in cleaning and maintaining the canals, young people in monitoring the flora and fauna.”

Molina, who participates in mangrove restoration work, says wildlife has increased by as much as 30% since the efforts began. “We have found a wider variety of fish in the canals — as well as birds, frogs, turtles and snails — that had not been seen for some time.”

She adds, however, that not all area residents harbor the same spirit of care and conservation. Many still burn pastures and mangrove forests so they can hunt or farm. Or they fish in nesting grounds or with fine-mesh nets.

“We are concerned not only with caring for the mangrove forest and restoring it, but also implementing sustainable fishing practices. For example, using nets that only catch large or adult fish, or giving canals back to female fish in order to ensure the fish reproduce,” Molina says.

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Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

Agustín Trinidad monitors recently planted mangrove trees in the Pantanos de Centla reserve.

She says that participating in mangrove restoration has given her a greater awareness of the mangroves’ benefits and the importance of planting them with clear plans and objectives.

“By planting mangroves and leaving it at that, not watching them or monitoring them, the mangroves become dense and block up the canals. The water doesn’t run, and these areas become unproductive,” Molina says.

Nogueda recognizes that restoring the mangrove forests is a difficult, long-term job, but the result, she hopes, will be healthy communities both above and below the swamp’s stilts. “We are barely seeing the results, but it is very exciting to see more fish, more crabs, more fauna.”

Adriana Alcázar González is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Chiapas, Mexico.


TRANSLATION NOTE

Shannon Kirby, GPJ, translated this story from Spanish.

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