One of the largest remaining tropical rainforests in the Americas stretches across the Mexican states of Yucatan, Quintana Roo and Campeche, and reaches down into Guatemala and Belize. The forests are home to an innumerable number of species, from jaguars and mahogany trees, to plants, insects and animals still yet to be named and classified by modern science. In some places, the landscape is dotted with cenotes, caves hollowed out from limestone, that fill with dazzlingly aqua waters. People living in this region have been stewards of the forest for generations.

But when she was younger, Alma Delia Salgado didn’t think she could stay in her small hometown, Nueva Vida, in the state of Campeche. She planned to move away to find work, perhaps to a big city or maybe the United States.

Alma Delia Salgado, 18, is a student who participated in “Our Future, Our Forests” and plans to work in forest conservation. Source: Maggie Badore

This is a common dilemma facing young people around the world, who find few opportunities in rural regions. But for the forest communities of the Yucatan Peninsula, the departure of an entire generation could spell disaster for an ecosystem — and global climate change.

Eighty percent of Mexico’s forests are divided up into a system of communidades agrarias and ejidos, land concessions that are communally owned and managed. As in many other forested regions of the world, giving land rights to the community that lives in the forest has slowed the rate of deforestation. According to Global Forest Watch, between 2000 and 2015, Mexico lost just 5.3 percent of its forested areas, compared to 7.9 percent in Brazil and 12.8 percent in Indonesia during the same time period.

For some ejidos, protecting the forests is a great source of pride and identity. For example, Ejido Caobas in the state of Quintana Roo has been sustainably harvesting lumber with Forest Stewardship Council certification for the past 25 years. Nearly half of the community’s 67,781 hectares of land is set aside for protection, where no logging activities take place. The community sells its lumber to sustainably-minded brands such as Gibson Guitars.

However, a major challenge facing the ejido system is a social structure based on patrilineal inheritance. Only the head of the family is allowed a vote in the ejido’s government, and ejido rights are passed down from father to eldest son. There are a few exceptions. If a man without sons dies, his wife or daughter may inherit his place. It is also possible to buy one’s way into an ejido, but the costs are prohibitively high for most people living in the region and the new member must also be accepted by a community vote.

Students play a board game that emulates forest succession as part of the “Our Forests, Our Future” program. Source: Maggie Badore

This system has left many younger people living in the community feeling disenfranchised, particularly young women. Feeling that the forest offers them few employment opportunities, young people move away. Luis Alfonso Guzmán Sanchez, a 26-year-old from an ejido called Nuevo Bécal, said that about half of his peers have moved away.

Although travel and migration are essential for cultural exchange and personal growth in an increasingly globalized world, rampant out-migration from forest regions could become a tipping point for such ecologically important places. If ejidos lose too much of their youth population, there’s not only a loss of important local and traditional knowledge, but an aging workforce means less productivity for the community. With fewer knowledgeable people living and working in the forest, there’s a higher risk of deforestation.

The generational divide, however, is not as wide as it may seem. Educational institutions and nonprofit environmental groups are working to bridge the gap, not only by creating new job opportunities but also by empowering younger members to see their role in forest conservation and become more active members of their communities.

The Institúto Tecnológico Zona Maya offers college-level technical training to students in forestry management, product development and marketing. These new skills translate into new jobs, including women.

Edgar Gonzalez Godoy, the Mexico City-based Director General for Rainforest Alliance, explained that these programs have the co-benefit of lowering emissions. The effort is creating local production for goods used in the region. Some of the lumber and other raw forest materials harvested from this region are shipped to Mexico City or Guadalajara to be made into furniture, which is then shipped back to markets in Yucatan.

Rainforest Alliance conducted an assessment of three ejidos in Campeche and found that older community members felt that young people were disinterested in local forest management. Meanwhile, young people expressed “sincere interest, but perceived a lack of opportunities and support from elders.”

High school students participate in “Our Forests, Our Future,” an extra-curricular program run by the Rainforest Alliance to help students learn about forest conservation and develop job skills. Source: Maggie Badore

An extra-curricular program called “Our Forests, Our Future” is helping to address this kind of issue. This after-school program, run by the Rainforest Alliance, is offered to students at a technical high school in Zoh Laguna. Students at the school are already following a curriculum that emphasizes forestry and biology, but the “Our Forests” program helps students learn how to communicate their skills to an older generation.

The program has created apprenticeships for young people, and in turn the students bring new tools — like using cell phones and internet resources — back to their communities. And the students are also given opportunities to go on field trips to learn about the forests beyond their ejidos, something many community members cannot afford the travel to reach.

Now at the age of 18, Alma Delia Salgado sees a place for herself in the region’s forests. By participating in “Our Forests, Our Future,” she not only learned more about the importance of the forests surrounding her home, but also came to see them as a place she wanted to stay. She wants to work in ecotourism, and show others the beauty and importance of the forests.

“I had the same idea as some of the youth in my community, to migrate to other places and look for other opportunities,” she said. “Now I’ve realized that, yes, my community does have a lot of potential.”

Not only does she know the importance of protecting forests for fighting climate change, but she feels she can further help people in her area reduce their own emissions and other impacts they have on the local environment — like ending the practice of burning trash. She also hopes her community can help reforest areas that have already suffered from tree loss.

“I feel that my community is one of the most beautiful places,” Salgado says with a broad smile. “But it needs to be cared for more and people need to be given the knowledge of the importance of the place where we live.”

Maggie Badore is an environment reporter and Web Director for The YEARS Project. You can follow her @mbadore.