Cuatrociénegas: Restoring the resilience of a unique ecosystem

Ana Elisa Peña Del Valle Isla
Published: 05 April 2017
Last edited: 01 October 2020
remove_red_eye 8028 Views


Cuatrociénegas is a unique desert-wetland protected area. It hosts agricultural and cattle-raising activities, which consume large amounts of water. In a climate change context of fluctuating precipitation patterns, it is crucial to develop adaptation alternatives. CONANP has spearheaded these efforts. It has set up alliances to substitute water-guzzling plant species, monitor water quantity and quality, and promote innovative farming practices.


North America
Scale of implementation
Desert ecosystems
Freshwater ecosystems
Hot desert
Wetland (swamp, marsh, peatland)
Local actors
Outreach & communications
Protected and conserved areas management planning
Sustainable livelihoods
Erratic rainfall
Changes in socio-cultural context
Sustainable development goals
SDG 13 – Climate action
SDG 15 – Life on land
Aichi targets
Target 1: Awareness of biodiversity increased
Target 4: Sustainable production and consumption
Target 5: Habitat loss halved or reduced
Target 9: Invasive alien species prevented and controlled
Target 10: Ecosystems vulnerable to climate change
Target 11: Protected and conserved areas
Target 12: Reducing risk of extinction
Target 14: Ecosystem services


Flora and Fauna Protection Area Cuatrociénegas, Coahuila, México


  • The wetlands in this desert region are not rain-fed, but they rely on water from local aquifers;
  • water is being diverted from local aquifers to be used in the production of alfafa and other fodder for cattle-raising;
  • invasive species of trees and reeds have been identified as major consumers of water in the reserve;
  • a significant segment of the local producers are resistant to change;
  • the reserve is affected by productive activities outside its borders.


  • Local human populations benefiting from the conservation of ecosystem services from the wetlands;
  • local wetland ecosystems, including native fish species and stromatolites;
  • producers;
  • cattle ranchers (nopal-based forrage).

How do the building blocks interact?

Building Blocks II (experimentation within the reserve, to shift from water-guzzling alfafa to nopal production) and III (developing a bio-digestor that can convert nopal to palatable fodder) provide the practical guidance and data needed to overcome fear of adaptation that bedevils the successful implementation of Building Block I (Multi-pronged, integrated, water demand management). Building Block II provides the nopal necessary for the use of the bio-digestor in Building Block III. The success of the bio-digestor in the latter building block will make it easier for the adoption of nopal production, and nopal-based fodder in the reserve, and outside it.


  • Reducing the demand for water has allowed a large number of waterbodies in the wetlands to recover healthy levels;
  • An increase in waterlevels in such bodies has supported the conservation of the “bizagra” turtle, as well as the famous stromatolites of this protected area (PA). Cuatrociénegas is one of only two places in the world in which these ancient creatures still dwell;
  • By shifting from the production of alfafa to the production of “nopal” (a type of cactus) for human consumption or cattle fodder, farmers have been able to save time, water and energy; d) the control of invasive species such as the “pinabete” tree, the desert pine and the “carrizo” reeds, which consume high levels of water, has reduced pressure on hydrological resources in the PA.
  • The aforementioned actions have contributed to maintain valuable ecosystem services that are fundamental to adapt to climate change impacts.


Ana Elisa Peña Del Valle Isla

Cuatrociénegas is a unique wetland in the desert. It hosts rare prehistoric microbial forms of life named stromatolites. The region, including the protected area (PA), is extensively used for agricultural and cattle-raising activities. Therefore, over the last century an increasing number of irrigation channels have been opened in this region. These channels draw water from the wetland water bodies (“pozas”) to productive land parcels, to such an extent that aquifers are rapidly dwindling, causing desiccation of the wetland and an increase of ecosystem degradation. These tendencies are exacerbated by climate change impacts including erratic rainfall patterns and water scarcity. Aware of the aforementioned challenges, the National Commission of Protected Areas (CONANP) has sought to reverse these trends by promoting the responsible use of water by agricultural and cattle-raising producers. CONANP is working with a coalition of stakeholders such as researchers, NGOs, local communities, schools, and young adults. The coalition is being built and operationalized through awareness-raising activities, special annual events, and capacity-development workshops. Moreover, the hydrological restoration of the wetland ecosystem is being carried out by a) removing invasive, water-guzzling tree and reed species; b) introducing a fishing and swimming exclusion zone in the “pozas”; c) improving community management of fire risks; d) removal of some irrigation channels, and d) setting up a monitoring system for water quantity and quality in the protected area. One of the short-term, tangible benefits has been the recuperation of local species of turtles and fishes. Another effort has been the promotion of different agricultural and cattle-raising practices, through migrating from alfafa production to nopal. The nopal needs a tenth of the water that alfafa requires to grow, and can be used for human consumption. Moreover, it can be a substitute forrage material for cattle. Experiments are taking place now adding up to six hectares of land, which translates into a saving of 200,000 m3 of water per year. In addition, students and teachers from a local high school (CBTa 22), coordinated by CONANP, are adapting an innovative bio-digestor (developed by Universidad Autónoma de Chapingo)  to convert nopal into high-grade fodder for the industrial cattle-raising and milk industries in the region.

Contributed by

CONANP's picture

CONANP Mexico National Commission of Natural Protected Areas

Other contributors

Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas CONANP