Map of Coahuila



Cuatro Ciénegas is a small (approximately 150,000 hectares), intermontane valley in the Sierra Madre Oriental at the eastern edge of the Chihuahuan desert in the Mexican state of Coahuila (see Map 1). The city of Cuatro Ciénegas de Carranza, situated at the northern edge of the valley, is about 270 kilometers south-southeast of the Río Grande (Río Bravo del Norte) in Big Bend National Park. The valley floor averages 740 meters above mean sea level (Minckley 1969:9), and is surrounded by massive, limestone, mountains with peaks which reach up to 3,000 meters. Alluvial fans radiate from the steep, vertical canyons of the mountains which border the valley (Winsborough 1990). The valley extends roughly 40 kilometers east to west and 30 kilometers north to south (Minckley 1969:9) and is bisected by the Sierra San Marcos y Pinos. Climatically arid, Cuatro Ciénegas receives less than 200 mm. of precipitation annually, most of it occurring between May and October (Shreve 1944). When rains do come, they can be torrential, and flash flooding is common. While the valley's drainage was once internal (Rodriguez Gonzáles, 1926), thus forming the four marshes [Cuatro Ciénegas] from which the valley took its name, canals now transport much of the water out of the valley. The temperatures are extreme, exceeding 44 degrees Centigrade in the summer and dropping to below 0 degrees Centigrade during the winter (Minckley 1969:12).

Though it receives little rain, the valley has abundant subterranean water which emerges at the surface in hundreds of small, spring-fed, travertine-lined pools (locally called pozas), ranging in depth from less than a meter to over 10 meters and extending in diameter from a few centimeters to over 200 meters (Pinkava 1978:329). Other aquatic habitats of the valley include marshes, rivers, barial lakes (large, saline lakes locally called lagunas or playas), and canals. For the most part, the ground water has high concentrations of minerals--dominated by calcium sulfate, with lesser amounts of sodium, magnesium and chloride--and is low in nutrients (Winsborough 1990); consequently, aquatic habitats support an unusual assemblage of species. Stromatolites--lithified, carbonate deposits built by microbial communities--grow in many of the pools and rivers of the valley, and are considered to be globally rare (Winsborough 1990, 1996).

Due to the abundance of aquatic habitats and the diversity of the terrain, the valley supports vegetation which is not entirely typical of the Chihuahuan desert. The plant communities within the valley include basin grasslands, aquatic plants, sedge borders and marshes, gypsum dune assemblages, Chihuahuan desert scrub, and chaparral (Pinkava 1978:330). While the basin supports common Chihuahuan desert species such as creosote (Larrea tridentata), tarbush (Flourensia cernua), lechuguilla (Agave lechuguilla), and ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), it also hosts a number of plants not usually encountered in the desert.

Fresh water riparian areas such as Rio Cañon provide habitat for willow (Salix nigra), seepwillow (Baccharis glutinosa), acacia (Acacia greggii), and ash (Fraxinus sp.) (Minckley 1969:12). Pino Falso or tamarisk (Tamarix ephylla), an Old World introduction, is found commonly throughout the valley, especially around old haciendas. This tree provides habitat for the migratory monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) and offers shade for animals and people.

The gypsum dunes provide perhaps the most dramatic scenery in the valley. Blindingly white and up to six meters tall, the dunes are stabilized by half-buried mesquite trees (Prosopis glandulosa), Spanish dagger (Yucca treculeana), and desert willow (Chilopsis linearis), and dotted with delicate clumps of unusual gypsophilic composites such as Machaeranthera restiformis, M. gypsophila, Gaillardia gypsophila, Dyssodia gypsophila, and Haploesthes robusta (Pinkava 1978:331). Though they formerly extended across approximately 1,000 hectares (Brown 1996), the gypsum dunes have been heavily mined, and much of area previously covered by vegetated dunes has been denuded and flattened.

The pools of the valley create their own ever-changing microenvironments which vary according to the age of the pool. In their early stages, pools are surrounded by the basin grasslands. As the pools mature, their banks slump and become colonized by sedges (Eleocharis spp.), additional grasses (Phragmites communis and Spartina spartinae), and associated wildflowers (Polygala turgida, Cynanchum sp., Eustoma sp., and Flaveria sp.) Eventually the pools themselves will support a community of aquatic plants, including water lilies (Nymphaea ampla), bladderwort (Utricularia obtusa), and macroalgae (Chara spp.) (Pinkava 1978:330-331; Pinkava 1987:8). A variety of fishes swim in the pools and rivers; there are roughly twenty native species, half of which are found only in the valley (Taylor and Minckley 1966:19). The pools and rivers are also home to a number of aquatic turtles, including a spiny softshell (Trionyx spiniferus), another softshell with an endemic subspecies (T. ater), Pseudemys scripta, an endemic subspecies, and the endemic box turtle (Terrapene coahuila). The associated marshlands provide habitat for egrets, herons, and ducks.

The thorny brush of the valley floor has been cited as an important habitat for birds. Catclaw acacia (Acacia greggii) and honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) provide food, shelter, nesting, and resting habitat, for three permanent, seven summer, nine migratory, and one occasional bird species (Gonzalez-Rojas and Contreras-Balderas 1994).

Above the valley floor, the slopes of the mountains support their own unique biotic assemblages. The foothills are full of unusual cactus such as Ancistrocactus breihamatus and Coryphantha echinus, living rock (Echeveria strictiflora), and resurrection plant (Selaginella lepidophylla), all of which demonstrate a stunning array of adaptations to the infrequent rains. The protected canyons support a great variety of oaks (Quercus glaucoides, Q. gravesii, Q. greggi, Q. hypoxantha, Q. intricata, Q. invaginata, and Q. pringlei), heaths (Arbutus xalapensis and Arctostaphylos pungens), and pines (Pinus cembroides), along with other shrubs and small trees, including an unlikely palm (Brahea berlandieri). The highest elevations support montane forest, which is composed of pine (Pinus arizonica, P. strobiformis), Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), fir (Abies coahuilensis), and Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica) (Pinkava 1978:322; Pinkava 1987:9).

The encircling mountains have kept the biota of the valley floor from interbreeding with similar species outside the valley for millions of years. Due largely to this long-term isolation, the valley's different habitats have produced a highly endemic and relict biota (see Table 1). The term endemism, which is cited over and over again in

Within the scientific literature, as many as thirty more species have been mentioned as suspected endemics, but taxonomic studies remain inconclusive.




Plants (Pinkava 1984)

Selino carpus undulatus
Ancistrocactus breihamatus
Coryphantha echinus
Coryphantha sp.
Abutilon pinkavae
Sedum parvum var. diminutum
Rosa woodsii var. maderensis
Mimosa unipinnata
Euphorbia pinkavana
Sabatia tuberculosa
Phacelia marshalljohnstonii
Tiquilia turneri
Poliomintha maderensis
Satureja maderensis
Penstemon hendricksonii
Justicia coahuilana
Dyssodia gypsophila
Erigeron cuatrocienegensis
Gaillarida gypsophila
Haploesthes robusta
Machaeranthera gypsophila
Machaeranthera restiformis
Agave scabra

Amphibians and Reptiles (Mc Coy 1984)

Terrapene coahuila
Scincella lateralis
Gerrhonotus lugoi
nemidophorus scalaris

Crustaceans (Cole 1984)

Speocirolana thermydronis
Sphaerolana interstitialis
Sphaerolana affinis
Mexistenasellus coahuila
Mexiweckelia cloei
Mexiweckelia particeps (Paramexiweckelia particeps)
Palaemonetes suttkusi

Fish (Minckley 1984)

Cyprinella xanthicarais
Lucania interioris
Cyprinodon atrorus
Cyprinodon bifasciatus
Gambusia longispinis
Xiphophorus gordoni
Etheostoma sp. (yet unidentified)
Cichlasoma minckleyi

Mollusks (Hershler 1984)

Cochiliopina milleri
Coahuilix hubbsi
Coahuilix n. sp.
Durangonella coahuilae
Mexipyrgus churinceanus
Nymphophilus minckleyi
Nymphophilus n. sp.
Mexithauma quadripaludium
Paludiscala caramba

Insects (Contreras-Balderas 1977)

Brephidium sp.

Scorpions (Williams 1968)

Vejovis gilvus
Vejovis pallidus
Vejovis cazieri
Vejovis minckleyi

PROBLEM pleas to protect ecosystems, refers to a distribution of taxa (subspecies, species, genera, etc.) which are restricted to one region or area. Endemism is related to the geographic and climatic history of an area, its subsequent isolation, and the present day environment of the region (Jones and Luchsinger 1986:71-72). Minckley (1969:55) suggests that geologic stability of the Cuatro Ciénegas region may account for the persistence of its ancient and relict fauna. Endemism in the fauna of Cuatro Ciénegas is found especially in fish, reptiles, snails and crustaceans (Pinkava 1987:9). In order to account for diversity of the flora in the region--879 taxa distributed among 860 species in 456 genera from 114 families--Pinkava (1978:332; 1987:9) suggests that the basin was a Pleistocene refugium, an isolated area which maintained hospitable conditions during times of climatic flux, which offered an ice-free environment for the flora during the last Ice Age (30,000-40,000 years ago).

Cuatro Ciénegas is one of only two desert systems in North America to be characterized by such high rates of endemism. The other is Ash Meadows, Nye County, Nevada, which is considered a critically endangered habitat by the United States Department Fish and Wildlife Service (Almada-Villela and Contreras-Balderas 1984:127). The Cuatro Ciénegas region has been compared to the Galapagos Islands and the Rift Lakes of Africa because of the high incidence of endemism found in many of its groups (Taylor and Minckley 1966).


Evidence of Cuatro Cienegas' earlier human inhabitants can be found throughout the valley; artifacts such as arrowheads, bows, woven mats and sandals, human bones, and rock paintings have been found in caves and other sites in the surrounding mountains. While the archeological record offers no evidence of indigenous agriculture or water use at all in the valley (Minckley 1969:23), there was apparently abundant use of turtles, waterfowl, and fish. The people indigenous to this area have been poorly studied, and we therefore know very little about their lifestyle.

During the sixteenth century, Cuatro Ciénegas was a stop along a well-traveled trade route (Alessio-Robles 1938:487), and in 1674, Manuel de la Cruz founded a mission of Cuatro Ciénegas, though it apparently did not last long due to the presence of "indios barbaros"[barbarous Indians] (Alessio-Robles 1946:13). A quote from friar Juan Agustine de Morfi offers a hint of the Spanish sentiment toward México's northern territories, which included Cuatro Ciénegas: " Auquellas tierras eran la boca del Bolsónde Mapim' que vomitaban naciones barbaras y cruelas"[Such lands were those at the mouth of the Bolson de Mapim' that they spat out nations barbarous and cruel] (Alessio-Robles 1938:459, translation mine). Though the Cuatro Ciénegas valley saw flurries of settlement activity throughout the colonial period, the town of Cuatro Ciénegas de Carranza was not officially founded until 1800 (Secretaria de Programaci--n y Desarrollo 1991). During the mid 1800s, land tenure in the Cuatro Ciénegas valley changed from the ladifundio system, in which one family controlled a large tract of the land and the resident people, to that of communally held lands known as ejidos (Alessio-Robles 1946).

During the nineteenth century, the economy of the Cuatro Ciénegas valley centered around agriculture and ranching, as was the case throughout most of Coahuila and Texas at that time (Alessio-Robles 1946). Though mineral extraction did not become an important industry until the early part of this century, as early as the mid-1800s the shores of the lakes were periodically flooded and drained in order to extract the ground water's salts (Alessio-Robles 1946). From the period of its founding, Cuatro Ciénegas--along with Parras, a valley to the south--was considered a desert oasis; thanks to the fresh water which poured into town from the Rio Cañon, Cuatro Ciénegas was famous throughout México for its vineyards and orchards, many of which had been planted during colonial times by the Spanish (Alessio-Robles 1938:31).

At the start of the twentieth century, American writer George Weeks spent a summer in the valley, and his account, published in 1918, offers a detailed look at daily life at that time. According to Weeks, the vineyards and orchards were thriving, producing figs, plums, peaches, and pears. Weeks portrays the valley as a place "known by hunters" and describes the baths of Escobedo as being famous for the curative powers of their water, and for the smooth, greasy mud and tiny spiral shells which people used together as soap. His account suggests that due to the wine and the water, the town of Cuatro Ciénegas supported a small-scale tourism industry. Important industries included ranching and agriculture, the production of candles from animals fat, the fabrication of matches from cotton thread and phosphorus, and the collection of guayule (Parthenium argentatum), a rubber producing shrub (Weeks 1918). By the beginning of the twentieth century a number of canals had been constructed in order to divert water from the pools to irrigate fields (Minckley 1969:14-15).

Today, ranching and agriculture continue to constitute some of the principle industries in the valley, and center mainly on horses, goats, alfalfa, sorghum, and melon. Other extractive industries include gypsum mining and explosives manufacturing. Many miners live in town and work in the mountains to the west. On a smaller scale, local people collect candelilla (Euphorbia antisphilitica) for its wax and cut mesquite trees (Prosopis glandulosa) for firewood and charcoal.

Recently, the valley of Cuatro Ciénegas has seen industrial growth. New businesses include a salt extracting plant and a clothing assembly plant. In June 1996, the Sales Coahuiltecas company began operating in the northwestern edge of the valley. The production process pumps ground water to the surface, evaporates it in artificial pools, and extracts magnesium and sodium. This business employs approximately eighty workers. In October 1996, a new Fruit of the Loom clothing plant opened, and this business may soon become one of the largest employers in the valley. The company has plans to hire one hundred-fifty people initially, and three hundred eventually (Davila 1996). Maquiladoras, or assembly plants, are often cited by local people as the industry of the future for Cuatro Ciénegas on the grounds that they do not pollute, and do not depend on materials from the valley, especially water. Maquiladoras in México, as well as in other developing countries, have generated controversy because they use inexpensive Mexican labor to produce large quantities of finished products, while the profits go back to American-owned companies. Historically, work in the maquiladora involves long hours and low pay, and the majority of workers are women. Nevertheless, people in the valley are hopeful that the new maquiladora will improve their economy by offering stable, year-round jobs supported by a strong consumer base in the United States. In a variety of ways, the Cuatro Ciénegas valley has been impacted by the market demands of the United States; more than one person told me that their town was "un trampoline"[a springboard] for drugs moving up from the south.

Many people in Cuatro Ciénegas either commute to work in Monclova, eighty kilometers to the east, or travel to border cities such as Ciudad Acuna and Piedras Negras in order to support their families. Others make long trips to the United States to work and return with the higher wages they can earn across the border. Many people of Cuatro Ciénegas are looking to the north, for jobs and opportunities that they do not see in their own town.

Recently, conflict has surrounded one of Cuatro Ciénegas' major employers. In June of 1996, Proyeso S. A. de G. U., a gypsum manufacturing plant which has operated in the valley for twenty-seven years, was closed down. The federal government filed two suits against the company: one closed the white sand dunes, from which the company mines their gypsum, to extraction due to the presence of rare plant species; the other shut down the operations of the plant itself because of infractions of environmental regulations committed by the company between 1989 and 1995 (El Centinela del Desierto, July 1996, 4). In the first case, a court decision declared the dunes to be off-limits to mining; the dunes, which will take millions of years to reattain their previous size and range, were protected as the "patrimonio de la humanidad"[patrimony of humanity] and as the habitat for a number of endemic plants (El Centinela del Desierto, July 1996, 4). Proyeso appealed this decision, and Mexican federal agency PROFEPA will plead this case in the Mexican Federal court on December 27, 1996, in order to decide whether or not the dunes will be protected from mining activities (Rodolfo Garza, e-mail to the author, 26 December 1996). The second case was decided in favor of Proyeso, and they have consequently resumed operations in their processing plant using gypsum mined outside the protected area.

Because it is a major employer in a town that is perceived as having few employment potentials, Proyeso received much public support during its shutdown. Public opinion was that the factory was closed down " because of ecology" and that this never would have happened if the valley had not been declared a Natural Protected Area. In fact, this shutdown was not Proyeso's first; the company had been closed down numerous times for non-compliance with air emissions standards (El Centinela del Desierto, July 1996, 5). This time, however, people mistakenly blamed the plant's closure on the declaration of the Natural Protected Area. While talking to people about the closure of Proyeso, again and again I heard the same account: Eighty workers and their families--three hundred people in total--were starving because the government decided that the survival of the valley's endangered species was more important than the survival of its human beings. Wives and children of the out-of-work miners carried placards, and for the first time since the Revolution protesters were evicted from the steps of city hall (El Centinela del Desierto, July 1996, 4).


The town of Cuatro Ciénegas de Carranza makes up thirteen percent of the area of the municipality of Cuatro Ciénegas and currently has a population of about 10,000 people (Davila 1996). The population of the municipality, according to the 1990 census, was 12,298, with roughly two-thirds of that population living in town (Secretaria de Programaci--n y Desarrollo 1991). Twenty-four percent of the land in the valley is in the hands of private land owners, and seventy-five percent is owned by the ejidos (TNC, unpublished document). The ejido system was established after the Mexican revolution of 1910, with the purpose of redistributing land to peasant communities in the form of holdings on which residents managed and used resources collectively. In 1994, Mexican President Carlos Salinas established a law which gave ejidatarios, those living on ejidos, legal rights to their land and, consequently, the option of selling their property, an act which was previously forbidden. This law has the potential to change land tenure in the valley considerably. If conservation groups decide that some ejido holdings are a priority for conservation, and if these groups have access to sufficient funding, they could potentially buy land from ejidatarios, significantly altering the cultural landscape of the valley.


The Cuatro Ciénegas valley has received limited federal protection as a recreational area since 1987 (Contreras-Balderas 1991:193). It was not until 1994, however, that the valley was formally declared an NPA. On 4 November 1994, during the final days of his presidency, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari declared the region of Cuatro Ciénegas, Coahuila, México, as a Natural Protected Area, with the character of an Area of Protection of Flora and Fauna. The protected area encompasses 84,347 hectares, the extent of which is precisely delimited in the decree (Diario Oficial 1994:5) and corresponds roughly the land south of the town of Cuatro Ciénegas between the mountains (see Map 2).

The purpose of México's national system of Natural Protected Areas is to establish, in the areas so designated, conservation of the biotic resources and to provide resident people opportunities in sustainable development. More specifically, the official purpose of the NPA is to:

realize the economic potential, conserve the genetic and ecological heritage, protect resources for the current and future residents of México and the world, and provide for the preservation and rational use of the natural and cultural resources of the land (SEDUE 1983b:12, translation mine).

The various categories within the Natural Protected Areas system include national parks, national monuments, ecological reserves, biosphere reserves, and urban parks (SEDUE 1983b:16-17). The Cuatro Ciénegas valley is protected as an ecological reserve with the following purposes:

to preserve the natural habitats and the most fragile ecosystems of the region; to secure the continued processes of evolutionary ecology; to promote the rational and sustainable use of natural resources; to safeguard the genetic diversity of the species, especially the endemics and those threatened with or in danger of extinction; and to establish a field station for scientific investigation (Diario Oficial 1994:6, translation mine).

The declaration, while omitting specific rules for land use, establishes that the management of the protected area is to be integrated with that of the ejido territories and private land. The decree clearly states that the people who are living within the protected area--largely ejidatarios and ranchers--are to be informed of the declaration of the protected area. Once informed, the resident people are obligated to adhere to the rules of land use as mandated by the management plan. The declaration states that the management plan, which will provide the framework for operations within the protected area, is to be written within a year of the decree, though it does not designate who should write the plan (Diario Oficial 1994:10).

Today, two years after the establishment of the preserve, the management plan has yet to be written. According to conservationists and scientists with whom I spoke,



After Grall 1995.

Map of the Cuatrociénegas Protected Area

Protección de la Fauna Mexicana A. C. (PROFAUNA), a 17-year-old non governmental organization (NGO) working out of Saltillo, Coahuila, is expected to write the plan, though they have not yet received the contract due to a lack of coordination between the federal and state governments which are financing the project and fighting over authority.

Although there are no authoritative guidelines for the development of operations within the NPA, there is a document which offers guidelines for land use within the protected area. The municipality, working with the federal environmental agency, Secretaria del Medio Ambiente, Recursos Naturales y Pesca (SEMARNAP), and the federal department of ecology, Instituto Nacional de Ecologia (INE), is at work on a final draft of a zoning plan (plan de ordenamiento) which offers guidelines for sustainable development within the valley. The zoning plan includes a map which divides the NPA into a number of regions established according to soil characteristics and other physical properties. Each area is assigned a corresponding list of actual, alternative, conditional, and incompatible land uses. The goals of the zoning plan are to contribute proposals that will raise the quality of life for the inhabitants of the valley by promoting sustainable and productive activities and protecting the biodiversity of the valley and its ecosystems (SEMARNAP and INE, unpublished document). Unlike the management plan, which will be written by experts without the input of local citizens, the zoning plan is being written with contributions from some of the valley's residents.

An early draft of the zoning plan proposes an industrial zone for low-impact industries such as maquiladoras which consume little water and have low emission levels. It also establishes guidelines for the types of crops allowed in saline soils, the limits of ranching and urban expansion, and the type of facilities necessary for the treatment of sewage. The document makes the following land management suggestions: revegetation in areas of gypsum extraction, semi-intensive logging of mesquite for charcoal and firewood, complete protection of rare plants, restriction of plant and wood collecting to personal use only, and improvement of roads. It calls for the prohibition of the following activities: the extraction of construction materials, the burning of fields to promote new growth for domesticated animals, the construction (except as necessary) of palapas, toilets and garbage cans, the addition of new canals, the introduction of exotic aquatic species, the use of pools for potable water, and the expansion of agriculture. It specifies that water for industry must come from the closest available well, and must not deplete the level of the aquifer. (SEMARNAP and INE, unpublished document).

These guidelines, while not yet enforced, offer a preview of how land use regulations might be implemented and demonstrate an effort on the part of the SEMARNAP, INE, and the municipality of Cuatro Ciénegas to make land use amenable to individual needs. Unfortunately, most residents with whom I spoke had heard nothing concerning the details of this plan. Although the local newspaper published a multiple-page story describing the ceremony in which the zoning plan was formally presented to the municipality and quoting local dignitaries about the importance of the document, the article gave no details about the actual contents of the zoning plan, or any information as to how people could get access to the document (El Centinela del Desierto, January 1996, 1). The only land use restrictions or recommendations with which people are familiar are the bans on fishing and grass fires and the closure of most pools to bathing, which were enacted by SEMARNAP and their predecessor SEDUE.

As of yet, there are no official employees of the NPA involved in managing or policing the protected area, though SEMARNAP is expected to appoint an administrator, a technical coordinator, and a chief of security. In the interim, PROFAUNA and the municipal government are paying the salary of one employee, José Davila, who works as the municipal director of ecology. Davila lives in Cuatro Ciénegas and is responsible for establishing environmental education and outreach programs throughout the valley. Davila is effectively, if not officially, in charge of the management of the protected area. Though he lacks an official position within the NPA, Davila works with local volunteers patrolling the protected area for fishermen and arsonists, and guiding any visitors who want to enter the protected area.


In part, the conservation of the Cuatro Ciénegas valley began due to chance. According to Hendrickson and Minckley (1984:131), Ciénegas, a term Spanish explorers used to describe riparian marshlands, have all but vanished throughout the southwestern United States and northern México due to environmental change brought about through overgrazing of livestock and reclamation of water for irrigation. The Cuatro Ciénegas valley, however, has maintained many of its wetland habitats due to a combination of plentiful ground water of relatively poor quality (from a human perspective) and a remote location. Though the hydrology within the valley is not completely understood, it appears that the aquifer creating the surface waters is recharged by water collected from an extensive remote watershed (Minckley 1996). Much of the valley's water is too highly mineralized to be utilized for human consumption, ranching (except in the case of horses, which are able to drink the water), or large-scale agriculture. The only sources of fresh water in the valley are a small spring above ejido La Vega, and Río Cañon, a river which, until a couple of years ago, ran south into town next to the road to Ocampo. According to most accounts, the drying up of this river is most likely due to the expansion of irrigated agriculture in the valley north of Cuatro Ciénegas. Because its water is being diverted for irrigation, Río Cañon no longer provides the Cuatro Ciénegas valley with fresh water.

In recent years, the factors which protected the biota of the valley for so long have been losing their effectiveness. Since the extension of Highway 30 between Monclova and Torre--n in the early 1970s, the valley has been more accessible; consequently, visitation has increased, as has the market for its agricultural products. Furthermore, the salinity of the water has ceased to protect it from exploitation; during the past thirty years, water use has increased significantly, and the habitats are beginning to show effects. The water of the valley is being used to irrigate salt-tolerant crops such as alfalfa and melon, and to support the operation of a steel-processing plant in Monclova. Water use is virtually unregulated in the area; anyone who can pay for a pump is allowed to draw water from the aquifer. Despite the survival of most of its biota thus far, Contreras-Balderas (1996) believes that parts of the Cuatro Ciénegas ecosystem are endangered in the longer term by current land use practices.

The history of conservation in the Cuatro Ciénegas valley is closely related to the history of scientific research, which began with the biological survey of the valley in 1939 and its recognition as a center of aquatic and semi-aquatic endemism in 1940 (Taylor and Minckley 1966:18; Contreras-Balderas 1994:39). For many scientists, the declaration of the valley as a Natural Protected Area in 1994 marked the success of many years of lobbying. Since 1959, W. L. Minckley has played a major role in publicizing the biological importance and evolutionary significance of Cuatro Ciénegas. A number of symposia--including one in 1983 and another in 1993 sponsored by the Desert Fishes Council (DFC), a group of biologists who study the desert fishes of North America and their associated ecosystems--have been dedicated to discussing the importance of the valley's biota. The results of these meetings were published in order to demonstrate the importance of the region to federal, state, and local policy makers (Johnson 1984:89) and formed the basis for more popular accounts of the valley intended to generate public support (Marsh 1984:1). In 1983, Delgadillo and colleagues proposed a management plan for one of the largest and most threatened pools in the basin, Poza La Becerra, which was adopted by the federal government (SEDUE 1983a; Contreras-Balderas 1994:39). In 1984, Contreras-Balderas and Almada-Villela proposed that the valley be declared a national park, and in 1985 and 1986, presented their proposal to the former federal environmental agency, Secretaria de Desarrollo Urbano y Ecologia (SEDUE). Contreras-Balderas has published extensively on the biota and habitats of the valley and has played a major role in bringing the valley to the attention of the Mexican government.

Spurred by the scientific discoveries, conservation groups began sponsoring many projects to conserve the habitats of the basin. The most active non governmental organization (NGO) in Cuatro Ciénegas is PROFAUNA, one of México's strongest conservation groups. Protection of the Cuatro Ciénegas valley is this group's number one priority (TNC, unpublished document). Besides co-sponsoring the position of the municipal director of ecology, PROFAUNA has been active in numerous projects in the valley. PROFAUNA and SEMARNAP recently co-sponsored a course in the management of protected areas and used the Cuatro Ciénegas valley as a case study. The results of this exercise, after being reviewed and edited by PROFAUNA's staff, will provide both the municipal director of ecology and the future managers of the protected area with an emergency management plan for the valley until the official version is ready.

International conservation groups with interest in the basin include The Nature Conservancy (TNC), World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, among others. TNC is working with PROFAUNA and a new, local NGO, and assisting them with the following objectives:

1. establishing and sustaining on-site protection of the NPA;

2. establishing a learning center to teach new skills and extend experiences to local communities, other organizations, and other conservation areas; and

3. developing technical and financial self-sufficiency (Savage 1996).

Though still in their early stages, TNC's efforts have already helped these two organizations to secure funding for a number of projects (Savage 1996).

The municipality under mayor Susana Moncada, who leaves office at the end of 1996, has been active in encouraging local awareness of environmental issues. In a highly successful project coordinated with HEB grocery stores, the municipality sponsored a program which encouraged people to pick up trash by offering food in exchange for plastic bags. The municipality's environmental education and outreach program includes workshops for schoolchildren, field trips for local businesses, informational visits to the ejidos, and funding for the activities of the Guardianes de Nuestro Valle [Guardians of the Valley].

The Guardians of the Valley (GDV) are a group of young volunteers, generally in their teens or early twenties, whose activities include picking up trash, leading tourists and school children on field trips, and watching over the valley for infractions such as fishing, trespassing, and lighting fires. The group came about in 1989 through the work of two biologists associated with PROFAUNA who saw the need to conserve and develop the natural riches of the valley ([Flores] 1996). The group consists of thirteen active members, though in the course of its existence over fifty people have worked as Guardians ([Flores] 1996). Recently, SEMARNAP offered three scholarships to the GDV in order to support the development of local environmental education programs.

In the most recent conservation action, the citizens of the valley established a non-profit foundation, Fundaci--n Desarrollo Sustenable del Valle de Cuatro Ciénegas [Foundation for Sustainable Development of the Valley of Cuatro Ciénegas], whose purpose is to guarantee the integrity of the ecosystems and the biodiversity of the valley through the protection, conservation, and sustainable use of natural resources (Fundaci--n Desarrollo Sustenable del Valle de Cuatro Ciénegas , 1996). The group is made up of local citizens, Mexican and foreign scientists, educators, and members of other NGOs. The group recently elected their new director and has established a list of objectives which include every aspect of conservation imaginable, with priority given to coordinating public and private efforts and encouraging research into the restoration of the ecosystem (Fundaci--n Desarrollo Sustenable del Valle de Cuatro Ciénegas , 1996).

These developments make clear the dedication of the municipal government and the support of certain members of the community to the protection of the natural habitats and biotic resources of the Cuatro Ciénegas valley. They do not, however, substitute for a lack of support for conservation at the more basic level.


Conservation in the Cuatro Ciénegas valley is still in its early stages. Scientists have played a critical role thus far in delineating the species and habitats of the valley and in establishing its federal protection. Now, it is time to turn to management experts to fashion a plan which sets up an infrastructure for the protected area. When it is completed, the management plan for the protected area will draw out a framework for administration, an infrastructure with which to manage tourism, a system of vigilance, programs for environmental education and community outreach with which to involve local residents and visitors in the natural history of the ecosystem, the monitoring of research, and annual evaluations within the protected area. When I asked Eglantina Canales, director of PROFAUNA, how she proposed writing the management plan, her response was, "con mucho cuidado" [very carefully]. Her intention is to involve experts in a number of fields, including ranching, agriculture, desert resources, hydrology, and environmental education.

Today, many of the conservation strategies with which to manage the basin exist only on paper and in the minds of conservation's proponents. The actual environmental management of the valley thus far includes the implementation of a few mandates by SEMARNAP: the installation of signs stating that the valley is a "zona ecologica"[ecological zone] and that fishing throughout the valley and swimming in many pools is restricted. Aside from the position of a municipal director of ecology, there is no paid staff to carry out these regulations. As it stands right now, the municipality is dependent upon




the activities of the Guardians of the Valley, the emerging environmental consciousness of the citizens, and the activities of a few private landowners to carry out the protection of the valley.

In the absence of the management plan and any official protected area managers from SEMARNAP, the municipality itself is taking steps to design an infrastructure for the protected area. The municipality is in the process of purchasing land from a private individual for use as a visitor's center. La Poza Azul, a piece of land south of town which consists of a small artificial pond full of box turtles, a spring-fed travertine pool known as Mojarral West, and a small, poorly equipped structure currently used by the Guardians of the Valley as a make-shift interpretation center, will soon be the first official headquarters within the protected area. Conservationists working with the municipality are also discussing the possibility of establishing four visitors centers; the other three might include one at Rancho Orozco, one in the ejido San Juan, and another within the town itself. Though the purchase of land from the ejidos is a possibility, according to Julio Carrera, Coahuila's state representative of SEMARNAP, this type of purchase is unlikely due to the limited federal and state funds available for conservation and the tendency for land prices to become inflated with speculation (Carrera 1996).


There is a long history of environmental concern in the valley; early on it came from people outside the valley who took an interest in its biota and consequently undertook efforts to protect it. Over time, some community leaders have adopted and pursued this environmental ethic. Conservation has faced a less receptive audience among the majority of the valley's inhabitants. While everyone in town knows of the declaration of the protected area, few people know exactly what its boundaries are because there are no public maps and no signs on the ground telling people when they are entering the NPA. Most of the people in the valley are unfamiliar with the concept of a protected area because they have no models in the vicinity from which to draw parallels, and no information explaining exactly what kind of restrictions generally follow the declaration of an NPA. While a few local people were involved in the writing of the zoning plan, most citizens know nothing about it. That is not to say the residents of the valley are disinterested in the natural history and conservation of their valley. They simply approach the issue with different information and see it from a very different point of view than that of scientists and conservationists. The following chapter explores the reactions of Cuatro Ciénegas' citizens to the lifestyle changes they are facing and the fears they have about the future due to governmentally mandated conservation efforts.

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