The El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve: 28 years of history and counting
By: Biol. Carlos Castillo Sánchez. Senior Conservation Specialist, Wildlands Network Mexico Program
It was at the beginning of the 80’s when a group of researchers headed by Dr. Ezequiel Ezcurra from the UNAM Institute of Ecology visited the Sierra del Pinacate region. In 1981, they published the results of their previous visits to the region proposing, perhaps for the first time, the idea of turning the area into a “Biosphere Reserve”. This idea was very popular at the time for famously adapting the concept of the UNESCO MAB (Men and Biosphere) program to Mexico’s social and environmental conditions. The concept was known as the “Mexican modality” of biosphere reserves proposed by Dr. Gonzalo Halffter which incorporates local communities in conservation.
Let’s not forget that at the end of the 70’s, more precisely in 1979, a small portion of the region, basically corresponding to the Sonoyta River basin, was declared as a Forest Protective Zone and Wildlife Refuge, through the then Secretariat of Agriculture and Hydraulic Resources (SARH).
However, it was not until 1987 that the Sonora Ecological Center (CES) began the recovery program for the Sonoran pronghorn, an endangered species. I was assigned the responsibility of following up on this strategy, which forced the government to turn its attention once again to this wonderful place. The Sonoran pronghorn recovery program was the bridge that allowed us to get closer to the few residents that were living within the limits of the proposed reserve and get to know them better.
The recovery program even extended to the border of the municipalities of Puerto Peñasco and Caborca, where the densest populations of this endangered species lived, and to where, at some point, there were plans to extend the polygon of what would become the El Pinacate biosphere reserve.
It was during these years that I came in contact with the Intercultural Center for the study of Deserts and Oceans (CEDO) and its director, Peggy J. Turk-Boyer, who opened the doors of her facility to become my operations center and with whom I started a great friendship that lasts to this day.
When Dr. Samuel Ocaña (former governor of Sonora) became part of CES in 1990, a new phase began and the System of Protected Areas of the State of Sonora (SANPES) was implemented. One of the system’s priorities was undoubtedly to reactivate the initiative to create a biosphere reserve in the Pinacate region. An initiative well known to Dr. Ocaña because during his tenure as governor, Dr. Ezequiel Ezcurra himself presented the first proposal to declare it as a Natural Protected Area (ANP).
Based on this, Dr. Ocaña instructed me to coordinate with Dr. Alberto Búrquez from the UNAM Institute of Ecology based in Hermosillo, to develop a new preliminary study to justify what would culminate in the declaration of the El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve on June 10, 1993.
Between 1993 and 1996, it was the CES, with support from The Nature Conservancy through the Parks in Peril program to the first ANP management team and begin equipping the facilities located in the Ejido Los Norteños.
This operational team began a strong effort of community work, surveillance, strategic planning and identification of the main threats present in the area. In addition, during this period a base group led by me was established to develop the ANP Management Program, as part of the CES and with the support of the Geology Department of the University of Sonora, CEDO, the INAH-Sonora Center and the School of Architecture of the Autonomous University of Baja California.
In 1996, with my appointment as Director by the Coordinating Unit of Natural Protected Areas (UCANP) of the National Institute of Ecology of the then SEMARNAP, and with the legal and administrative support of the entity responsible for federal protected areas, we began to control and organize one of the main threats to the area, which was the extraction of morusa or volcanic ash, as well as the disorderly access to the area, the protection of the O’odham Nation sacred sites and the work with the area’s residents to search for sustainable productive alternatives adapted to the inhospitable conditions of the region.
The dreams of agriculture and livestock of the then few inhabitants had already disappeared. The forces of nature at the “heart of the Sonoran Desert” had been in charge of burying any attempt to implement economic activities compatible with the climatic and geological conditions of the ANP under an immense sea of dunes like the ones that had buried the volcanic shield itself.
The El Pinacate Biosphere Reserve has always been the ideal model for an ANP. However, this model does not necessarily fit with the reality of the rest of the country. El Pinacate has been privileged in that sense. Its small population, the majesty of its natural settings, the climatic conditions themselves (very cold winters and extremely hot summers), the few passable accesses, the infrastructure (Biological Station, Visitors Center, routes access, and excellent signage) built throughout its 28 years of existence, and the national and international recognitions that have been granted, have all made El Pinacate a place that anyone with an adventurous spirit dreams of knowing. All these conditions added to the scenic beauty given by the various geological manifestations and its great biological wealth have strongly attracted the attention of national and international tourism. Unfortunately, these times of sanitary crisis added to the perception of insecurity and the brutal budget reduction suffered by the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP), are putting at risk the “28 years and counting” of efforts to conserve this jewel of the natural and cultural heritage of Sonora, Mexico and the world. Let’s hope that these conditions will change and that this natural gem will shine again as before. This is my greatest wish for this majestic place.
In 1990 he was appointed to design the Preliminary Justification Study for the Declaration of the El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve, which was decreed on June 10, 1993, and became the first director appointed by the Federal Government (1996-2004). In 2002 he was commissioned to begin regionalizing the CONANP, and becoame Director of the Northwest Region and Upper Gulf of California (2004-2017).
Since 2017 Carlos has worked as an independent consultant on issues related to biodiversity conservation and protected natural areas on projects for organizations such as World Wildlife Fund, UNDP, Amigos del Centro Ecológico de Sonora, A.C. and Naturaleza y Cultura Sierra Madre A.C., and in April 2019 he joined the Wildlands Network Organization as Senior Conservation Specialist. He is also president of the Board of Directors of FONNOR, A.C. and member of the scientific committee of Prescott College, Bahía de Kino Unit, Sonora.