Mexico parks explained

Calakmul (photo: GIS project)

Calakmul (photo: GIS project)

By Ron Mader

When is a national park a national park and a biosphere reserve a biosphere reserve? There are some big difference among parks and reserves in Mexico, and it is important to review how Mexico classifies these protected areas.

In Mexico there are 93 protected areas cover 11.7 million hectares or 6 percent of the national territory.
There are nine different types of natural protected areas in the National System of Natural Protected Areas (Sinap):

Biosphere Reserves
Special Biosphere Reserves
National Parks
Natural Monuments
National Marine Parks
Natural Resource Protected Areas which include Forestry Reserves
Flora And Fauna Protected Areas
Urban Parks
Ecological Conservation Zones

The federal government has jurisdiction over the first seven types of parks, while the urban parks and ecological conservation zones are managed by state and municipal governments.

National Parks
National parks, biosphere reserves, ecological reserves, and marine underwater parks are part of the System of Natural Protected Areas in Mexico (La Sistema Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas or Sinap). These areas are managed by the National Ecology Institute (Instituto Nacional de Ecologia or INE).

National parks are often not the most biologically diverse areas in Mexico, but they are noteworthy for historical or aesthetic reasons. The volcanoes are national parks. So are many of the archaeological sites. National Parks may be created because of the scientific or historical value, or simply for they are appropriate for tourism development.

The majority of national parks were created in the 1930s under the administration of Lazaro Cardenas, who created the Department of Forestry, Fish and Game, which supervised the designation of forty parks, based on scenic beauty, recreational potential and ecological value. Designed by Quevedo, the park system emphasized Mexico’s highland forests.

at Camp Tecolote. El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere in Sonora (photo: Jack Dykinga)

at Camp Tecolote. El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere in Sonora (photo: Jack Dykinga)

Biosphere Reserves
The biosphere reserves are areas of genuine biological diversity. To qualify, the reserves just have an area greater than 10,000 hectares with at least one ecosystem not significantly altered by human activity. These parks are also inhabited by species that are considered to be endemic, threatened or in danger of extinction. Special Biosphere Reserves are almost identical, except the size of the park does not need to be as large. All biosphere reserves have a nucleus zone as well as a managed use zone around the periphery. New population centers in the biosphere and special biosphere reserves are strictly prohibited.

In the beginning of the century, Miguel Angel de Quevedo argued that tourism in the national parks was beneficial to both rural Mexicans and international visitors. He believed that international tourism could promote cooperation among Mexico and other countries and argued that by creating the national parks Mexico was becoming “a civilized country.”

El Cielo Biosphere Reserve

El Cielo Biosphere Reserve

Mexico also has almost a dozen reserves with special designation from the Man and the Biosphere Program (MAB) network. This program was organized in 1970 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to unite national and international research, conservation and training activities. Not all of Mexico’s biosphere reserves are part of MAB. Those that are included are Calakmul, El Cielo, El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar, El Triunfo, El Vizcaino, Mapimi, Michilia, La Monte Azules, Sian Ka’an and Sierra de Manantlan

Regardless of their designation, parks are not always protected. The Lagunas de Chacahua on the coast of Oaxaca lost 40 percent of its forest. Parque Nacional El Nevado de Toluca, a volcano is now 75 percent deforested. Mexico often lacks the needed levels of park guards and environmental education that will keep these areas green.

Biosphere reserves have three goals: conservation, training, and sustainable human development compatible with conservation. Unlike national parks, biosphere reserves allow people to continue to live in protected natural areas. In addition to biological surveys and ecological studies, research is encouraged on sustainable resource use in order to encourage the local community to participate in protection of the wildlife. Residents hope to benefit from “sustainable development” including ecotourism.

In the biosphere reserves, Mexico has pioneered the use of a zoning system that allows use of parks for tourism and economic productivity and other areas off limits except for scientific study. The idea was proposed by Mexican scientist Enrique Beltran at the First World Conference on National Parks held in Seattle in 1962.

Montes Azules (photo:

Montes Azules (photo:

Recent Environmental Policies
Under SEMARNAP’s 1995-2000 Environmental Program, conservation will receive more protection. The government is also calling for economic subsidization of protected areas, including the use of ecotourism in the protection of these areas. There are continued discussions of privatization or park concessions, but ownership is a sticky issue. Of the 732,000 hectares (?) of national parks, only 15 percent is owned by the federal government. The owners of parks are private individuals, ejidos or cities. For example, Parque Nacional Cumbres de Monterrey is part the city of Monterrey. This contrasts with the United States, where national parks have been declared on federal property or the government has had the resources to purchase the land from private owners.

The World Bank has targeted the U.S. border region by supplying credits to pay salaries and build centers at Upper California Gulf and the Colorado Delta, Sonora’s Pinacate, and Santa Elena and Sierra del Carmen, both across the Rio Grande from Big Bend

El Pinacate

El Pinacate volcanic field is a roughly 55x60 km area containing numerous maars, tuff rings and cinder cones NW Mexico near the head of the Gulf of California (photo: Richard Waitt, United States Geological Survey)

Mexico negotiated a grant with the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), program which from 1992-1995 assigned $25 million to 10 of Mexico’s 18 biosphere reserves, but only $4 million was allocated to projects. Reserves targeted for funding are El Triunfo, Mariposa Monarca, Calakmul, Sian Ka’an, Rio Lagartos, Montes Azules, El Vizcaino, Islas del Golfo, Sierra de Manantlan and Isla Contoy.

Parks are continually created. In 1996 SEMARNAP announced four additions to its Protected Natural Areas program: Bahia de Loreto, in Baja California, dry subtropical forest in the Sierra del los Alamos in Sonora, and two areas of coral reefs in Quintana Roo have been designated as protected natural areas. Other areas that are under consideration for park status include the Copper Canyon.

Tips for Travelers
Mexico’s parks run the gamut of remote and barely visited reserves to urban recreation centers. The more remote parks offer few amenities, so come prepared.

Ron Mader is the ecotourism and responsible travel correspondent for Transitions Abroad and host of the award-winning website.

El Cielo Biosphere (photo:

El Cielo Biosphere (photo:

This entry was posted in Biosphere, Ecology, Natural Reserves and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.