In Brief

Today more than ever, bottom-up conservation approaches are highlighted as a strategy to support the protection of highly biodiverse areas and thus achieve global commitments targets. In Mexico, Protected Areas (PAs) have been established by governmental decrees (top-down) for more than a century, but since 2008 a bottom-up strategy was legally recognized, Voluntary Conservation Areas (VCAs). VCAs are certified by government after owners (private or communal) propose their lands, through an application process, for biological conservation purposes. The objective of this article is to highlight the importance of the still poorly known VCA conservation strategy in mega-biodiverse Mexico. A systematic review of the literature and official data was carried out and semi-structured interviews with key informants from government agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were conducted. Currently, the 354 VCAs comprise 551,206 ha, and complement the protection of 21.4 million hectares of terrestrial territory. In VCAs the main allies for preserving habitat and endangered species are local and indigenous communities, encouraging them to use their territories in more sustainable activities. As a conservation strategy, VCAs offer significant opportunities for involving more communities in conservation. However, this novel public policy still needs strengthening because communities, although rich in natural capital, are commonly located in poverty-stricken areas. We highlight three recommendations: i) greater institutional attention, ii) provide an annual operative budget and more incentives for owners in order to improve management practices, and iii) systematically evaluate their ecological and social performance.

Key Concepts

  • Currently, the biodiversity crisis figures among the main environmental concerns in the world, especially in Latin America that harbors 60% global biodiversity.
  • Community-based conservation and other strategies with more social inclusion has been recognized among the new prospects for conservation for the XXI century.
  • Mexico is among the mega-biodiverse countries globally and in its territory species and habitat overlap with inhabited zones own of local and indigenous communities.
  • With the recognition of social participation for conservation at 1996 and the integration of Voluntary Conservation Areas as a Protected Area category at 2008, Mexico strongly adopted the bottom-up conservation strategy.
  • Mexican bottom-up VCAs are being accepted in rural regions with high biodiversity, where before communities had rejected the establishment of PAs by decrees.
  • The 354 Voluntary Conservation Areas in Mexico represent seeds for the future, because they show how nature and people can coexist, and provide opportunities for local and indigenous communities to be conservation allies.


The loss of biodiversity, almost everywhere, is among the five-major global environmental-social problems, along with desertification, food security, water crises and climate change.1 In 2005, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, warned of the consequences of biodiversity loss, including impacts on ecosystem services key for human well-being. Mexico, like many other mega-biodiverse countries around the world, displays an overlap between biodiversity hotspots and human settlements.2,3 At the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992, The Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) was created, a legally binding international treaty, dedicated to promoting sustainable development, based on biodiversity conservation and principles of justice and equality. CBD established as a target for 2010, the effective protection of 10% of the terrestrial surface of the planet and having achieved that, a new goal of 17% was proposed in 2020.4 Despite the achievement of the target for protected areas (PAs) globally, the bad news is that species extinction rates and habitat degradation have persisted at alarming rates, particularly in countries that harbor the highest biodiversity such as Mexico.5

Environmental problems generate great concern and therefore the world continues in the search for effective mechanisms to protect our natural heritage. Mexico, as an original CBD signatory, has been working on the commitments and currently has a legal framework (General Law of Ecological Equilibrium and Environmental Protection – LGEEPA / Regulation Regarding Natural Protected Areas – RMANP) and a federal agency (the National Commission for Natural Protected Areas-CONANP) dedicated to administrating PAs, under two federal conservation strategies: top-down represented by PAs by decree and bottom-up represented by VCAs certified. The first strategy with 182 federal PAs covers almost 11% (21.4 million hectares) of the national terrestrial surface and 69.4 million hectares of marine zones, while the second strategy complements the terrestrial protection with 354 initiatives that cover 551,206 ha.6

Mexico still needs to prioritize more efforts to conservation of its natural resources and biodiversity and consolidating their PAs system under the principles of inclusion and equity.Because VCAs are still poorly known, they don’t receive as much recognition as PAs from conservationists, scholars and the environmental staff of governments, who still commonly consider biodiversity outside of governmental PAs as unprotected.8,9 Thus, we carried out a systematic review of official data, literature and 15 semi-structured interviews with key informants. We provide herein a general diagnosis of the current situation of this strategy and analyze the main opportunities and challenges.

Short history and defining characteristics of VCAs in relation to PAs

The protection of Mexico’s natural heritage through Protected Areas has a century of history and has been marked by periods of ups and downs (Figure 1). The first decree -inspired by the Yellowstone model- was the Desierto de los Leones National Park in 1917. The ideology of strict conservation through a top-down strategy was first supported by politicians until 1952 with decrees of territories of great scenic beauty, uniqueness and remoteness. After 1970, academics (biologists and ecologists) and conservationists were the main promoters of the decrees of emblematic sites of importance for the protection of species/ecosystems and ecological integrity in accordance with national and international agreements.

Figure 1  

Although the environmental policy in Mexico was promulgated in 1988, it had important amendments for improving the attention of PAs until the first decade of the 21st century. With the creation of CONANP in 2000, the design and implementation of institutional plans began subsequently. Currently, legislation supports a national network of 182 PAs operating mostly through advisory boards, staff, infrastructure, annual budgets, management programs, annual operational plans, and an updated protocol to assess their management effectiveness (Table 1).10,11 Mexican society recognizes the efforts and resources invested in PAs because they could be considered as a success for protecting flora and wildlife. However, for the present day, the goal for increase the protection of terrestrial PAs by decree is confronted by social opposition almost everywhere.

In contrast to PAs by decree, the VCA strategy was included formally in environmental policy at 2008 (LGEEPA article 77 BIS), although the recognition of social involvement in conservation was proposed since 1996. VCAs operate under the premise that the local people and communities can be the most important allies for biodiversity conservation in their territories.12 The strategy is present in twenty-four states (Figure 2), including the three most biodiverse: Chiapas, Guerrero and Oaxaca, and covers both urban areas and remote rural regions. Their extension is variable, from 0.42 ha to 50,000 ha, from dry to humid ecosystems and from urban and fragmented areas to continuous vegetation. Thus, since 2002, the ADVCs have been increasing in number and extent (Figure 3), and currently the common properties represent 66.6% (367,536 ha) of total area.6

Figure 2
Figure 3

Legal recognition of VCAs involves a certification process. The owner (s) may use certification to apply for CONANP subsidy programs, concurring funds of other governmental agencies and financing funds/ technical support of international organizations, academic institutions, foundations and entities of the private sector.13

VCAs are under the responsibility of their owner (s) or legal representative (s) (Table 1). In community initiatives, the role is led by designated authorities through assemblies, and there may be conservation committees based on the traditional system of “cargos” or agreements with NGOs to support management through technical advice, explorative studies, implementation of productive projects, among others. Finally, CONANP has not yet develop an institutional methodology to evaluate the effectiveness of the management of the VCAs. The comparison between the PA and the VCAs on history and the defining characteristics is summarized in Table 1, while aspects of legal recognition and administrative processes are presented in Table 2.

Processes for more social inclusion in VCAs

With the XXI century, new approaches and a new conservation paradigm have emerged which have influenced the bottom-up strategies: i) Mexico made the commitment to promote greater recognition of local and indigenous communities in conservation, as part of the agreements emanating in Durban, South Africa in 2003, ii) the CBD and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have recognized that top-down approaches to conservation are insufficient to achieve international objectives of conservation, in addition to the fact that many wilderness areas of the world are increasingly influenced by human presence. The foregoing led to the readjustment of the international classification system for PAs in 1994, remaining in addition to the conventional categories (Ia: Strict Nature, Ib: Wilderness, II: National Park and III: Natural Monument), the following: IV: Habitat/ Species Management Area; V: Protected Landscape/ Seascape/ Area and VI: Protected Area with Sustainable Use of Natural Resources.14 Recently, Private Protected Areas have also been proposed, which takes into account the common and private properties in Mexico and the global tendency to devolve property rights to local and indigenous communities.15

It is estimated that around 92,756 persons live in VCA territories and they include sixteen indigenous groups (Amuzgo, Chinanteco, Chol, Chontal, Maya, Mazateco, Mixe, Mixteco, Nahuatl, Tlapaneco, Tojolabal, Totonaca, Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Zapoteco and Zoque).16 By its nature, conservation in VCAs is an inclusive and participatory strategy and an adaptive model, particularly in common properties where their performance is permanently monitored in community assemblies and analyzed to insure those decisions are leading to the desired results.17,18 Actions that the assemblies and committees take include imposing hunting bans, regulations on fire use, restrictions on land uses and regulating harvest of wild products.

Landowners express varied motives for seeking VCA certification: cultural values (including the legacy for future generations); wildlife or forest cover recovery; obtaining professional advice; implementing ecotourism; to have eco-brands for local products (like coffee, honey, cacao, among others); looking for governmental protection for their natural resources (sanctions for illegal hunting and narcotrafficing); protecting lands from infrastructure development (highways, hydroelectric dams); protecting lands for extractive activities (mainly oil, fracking or mineral extraction); and, the expectation for incentives and institutional advice.16

VCA opportunities

VCAs represent an opportunity in common property territories with high biodiversity, where PAs have difficulties in being implemented (Table 3). It is a strategy that emphasizes the importance of biocultural landscapes, as it promotes sustainable economic development through the protection and enhancement of nature and local culture.19 VCAs also offer the possibility of establishing bridges with government agencies and conservationists for participatory collaboration. Communities commonly distrust government and outsiders for fear of losing their lands or control over territorial decision-making. But the VCA certification process allows barriers to be broken and people to begin to have greater trust in government. As communities have become certified, this has encouraged others, primarily from indigenous peoples located in regions of high biodiversity, to explore the option of VCAs.18

Today, hundreds of communities have engaged in social learning about technical language, ecological and legal topics, and different organizational practices such as community surveillance brigades and ecotourism guides. However, communities also contribute with traditional conservation practices (informal or formal), such as community agreements and assembly rules which protect habitat and species, including hunting bans on endangered wildlife or plants. The promotion of these agreements highlights the importance of participatory biological monitoring (often coordinated by a specialized technician) to know the state of the ecosystem and the species populations and thereby make decisions for their management. As well, community forest management plans and community land zoning may prohibit land use/cover change and regulate extraction of forest products.12,20

Conservation in VCAs is conducted by the community, and social inclusion is the norm, but what other activities are carried out in these territories? As an alternative to obtain income, some communities and private owners are promoting services related to rural and nature-based tourism. In particular cases, progress has been made in the formation of working groups to offer better services.21 Other activities are related to traditional sustainable productive systems such as milpa, home gardens, and other subsistence production but also the commercialization of products that may or may not have added value such as cocoa, resin, wood, honey, vanilla, coffee, timber and non-timber resources and derived products from sustainable livestock.16 Finally, according to CONANP’s institutional vision, the VCAs favor the connectivity of natural ecosystems and the maintenance of environmental services that allow communities to increase their adaptive capacity to face climate change.22

Through VCAs, biodiversity conservation costs can be dramatically reduced, since owners provide the most labor and many in-kind contributions (Table 2). There are important conservation gains when local people are leaders because, particularly in indigenous regions, local people know their territories well (including geography, weather, flora and wildlife and traditional ecological knowledge). Additionally, they have locally-grounded beliefs and skills, and their motivations include a sense of inter-generational value. Also, community conservation committees have exhibited a capacity to conduct scientific biological monitoring, including of jaguars, pumas and other felines.23

VCA Challenges

The VCA strategy with 18 years in practice can be considered in the maturation-consolidation phase. However, it is recognized that the strategy is undervalued and, until recently, it does not figure prominently in the strategic lines of the National Development Plan. It is expected that in the coming years the construction of a policy based on principles of equity and justice is considered the central axis for the continuity of this conservation model.24

Based on the literature review, and the information obtained from the interviews, we identified three main challenges (Table 3):

a) Greater attention from CONANP. CONANP is still in the process of consolidating the VCA strategy. All the interviewees suggest more governmental attention for the strategy to work efficiently. In both the central and regional offices, attention to the VCAs is absent or extremely limited, including infrastructure, staff, and budget. In this way, giving the responsibility for biological conservation to the owner (s), without a clear government commitment to train and to incentivize, can perpetuate environmental injustice.25

Second, in experience exchange forums it has become clear that VCA owner(s) demand that CONANP further disseminate the benefits of certification to potential prospects for their incorporation into the strategy. Likewise, greater articulation is required with key actors, such as government authorities, civil organizations, societies, among others to further promote the instrument and establish commitments to obtain technical support or material and financial resources.

b) Allocation of operational budget and development of an incentive scheme. LGEEPA only emphasizes the administrative support and technical guidance from CONANP to follow up on procedures and projects. In this sense, the commitment acquired by the agency’s staff to encourage and guide communities and private owners to participate in subsidy programs stands out.

The promotion of conservation by bottom-up strategies represents an opportunity for the state in its objective of strengthening ties with society to achieve greater environmental co-responsibility, and one of its duties should be to allocate an adequate budget for program operation. First, a budget item for the VCAs should be considered to support the owners in the expenses generated by the procedures for the certification and the technical advice for the elaboration of the management strategy, with the intention to design an adequate master plan that allows its review/updating in practice.17 Second, it is necessary to allocate a set of resources to support the VCAs with equipment for monitoring wildlife, surveillance, construction of trails and fire breaks, among others. VCAs also need better technical and administrative advice, and both government and NGOs are important, since VCAs commonly are located in poverty-stricken regions where people have low formal education and little technical capacity.

VCAs impose a high cost on the local population for providing a large part of inputs for its operation such as human resources, infrastructure, governance and a large part of the funds. Therefore, it is important that the CONANP certification area coordinates, together with the staff of the administrative regions of the country, the design and implementation of incentive schemes in accordance with the particular characteristics of the VCAs. The scheme could include governmental, non-governmental funds, and those of international organizations, to ensure a greater scope in the distribution of subsidies and their continuity.

The constant budget erosion to CONANP put the permanence of the VCAs in question, because the owners have the expectation that in the near future they will be able to count on a budget and economic incentives for conservation activities. In this context, in the period from 2014 to 2019 only 69 VCAs (19% of the total) benefited from subsidy programs, and the total annual amount allocated for these (USD$ 1,525,415; exchange rate of the Mexican peso as of August 31, 2020) varied from 174,703 to 394,406 USD$ / year, which corresponded to 1.2 – 2.2% of the total annual expenditure made by the PAs by decree for their operation (unpublished data).

c) Performance monitoring and evaluation. As with any other management intervention, it is necessary to understand whether the VCAs are meeting their stated objectives. The goal is that government and the owner(s) work together as equal partners in co-management agreements, to carry out technical evaluations of the effectiveness of VCAs, in an integrated way, including individual and collective approval by the community. The evaluation should be considered as a multilateral process in which all those involved in the strategy can determine: a) how management activities could better respond to the needs of each VCA, b) the social impact of the implementation of government and non-government projects and c) the collective and individual satisfaction of those involved in the strategy. Because the evaluation requires a continuous monitoring process, it would be valuable if relevant VCA owners were trained to track and record information from a set of collectively designed criteria and indicators.26-28

Participation of the academy is fundamental for the VCAs in the sense that the results of the investigations could be integrated into the systematic evaluation. Although progress has been made with some studies on the operation of the strategy in some VCAs, in reality much remains to be investigated into the interrelation of the processes that define a VCA from an Social-Ecological Systems (SES) perspective. In the particular case of the Chinantla Region – which is characterized by its high diversity and where a group of six VCAs protect 26,770 ha of continuous forests in a good state of conservation – research topics have been diversified, in light of contributing to SES knowledge. In consideration of the challenges that VCAs represent, still there are solid bases in the country to promote or improve them, which is why it is essential to include them as a central element in the conservation of biodiversity and its services.29

General Outline

The 21st century is now starting its third decade and human beings and have still not found a friendly coexistence with the other living beings that inhabit our planet. Nonetheless, the VCA strategy in Mexico has made important contributions to the co-existence of human communities and biodiversity, and its acceptance has been growing.  At least twelve achievements of the VCAs can be clearly identified:

1. Community appropriation of the concepts and practices of biological conservation.

2. Integration of different productive systems (e.g. agroforestry, traditional milpa and sustainable harvesting of timber and non-timber products) with conservation targets such as red list species are advantages of VCAs.

3. Community appropriation of inventory techniques and flora and fauna monitoring (participatory monitoring).

4. Emergence of new economic opportunities related to conservation (e.g. ecotourism and ecological products).

5. Participatory protection of stable populations of endangered and endemic species: e. g. wild felines (Leopardus pardalisPanthera onca), monkeys (Alouatta palliataA. pigraAteles geoffroyi), tapir (Tapirus bardii), among others.

6. More socially conscious conservation of threat and high valuable ecosystems (e.g. tropical humid, semi-humid and dry forests, mangroves, xerophytic shrublands and montane cloud forests).

7. More socially conscious protection of key microhabitats (e.g. canyons, vegetation remnants, micro-basins for water collection, springs and riparian corridors, among others).

8. Participatory dissemination of conservation efforts, through local and regional eco-fairs and experience exchanges among VCA people.

9. The formation of regional organizations for conservation that help strengthen social capital and social learnings.

10. Inclusion of cultural and traditional ecological knowledge in biological conservation discourse.

11. Technical training for youth and children in VCAs.

12. Wider local involvement in conservation issues in communities, including women, children, youths and elders.

Although there is a need for a better understanding of the VCAs, the evidence shows that local people can be the best allies of biological conservation. Thus, it is fundamental that owners perceive positive changes and recognize benefits (material and non-material) related to certification as VCAs in order to gain their interest and cooperation.30 Mexican VCAs as a participatory conservation strategy are not an isolated phenomenon. Since 2003, as a result of the Durban meeting, various models of bottom-up local conservation have been embraced globally. Regionally in Latin-America, megadiverse countries like Mexico had adopted similar strategies decades earlier in both indigenous and non-indigenous regions, including Private Reserves of Natural Heritage and Extractive Reserves in Brazil; Natural Reserves of Civil Society and Indigenous Resguardos in Colombia and Communal Reserves and Private Protection Areas in Peru. Thus, a synthesis and wider dissemination of the different participatory strategies and institutional arrangements would benefit this array of bottom-up models. This could help them receive more attention, recognition, budgets and public support. However, the effective integration of stakeholders is a prerequisite to assure processes that are democratic, legitimate and equitable and that can improve and expand their social and ecological achievements in the future.31

Table 1Characteristics of Voluntary Conservation Areas and Protected Areas in Mexico.

 *LGEEPA= Mexico’s General Law of Ecological Equilibrium and Environmental Protection

2Legal recognition and operative process in Voluntary Conservation Areas and Protected Areas.

*For VCAs in social properties; ** Voluntary no-payment work

Table 3. Opportunities and challenges in Voluntary Conservation Areas and Protected Areas.


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