Illicit wild orchid trade in a region with high biodiversity from Chiapas, Mexico
Commercialization of wild orchids for local trade is a common practice in regions with high biodiversity in Mexico. However, this conservation priority is often overlooked, including because very few studies have formally documented the scale of the challenge. We conducted market surveys and trader interviews to understand the orchid trade in Mexico's southeast Chiapas Province--a hotspot of more than 700 orchid species.
Sixty orchid species were registered on sale during our surveys in Chiapas, four of which are under an "at-risk" category and protected by Mexican government: Lycaste skinneri, Laelia superbiens, Cuitlauzina pulchella and Oncidium leucochilum. All species were extracted from forests, several of them from within a protected natural area, El Momón-Montebello National Park. This makes orchid trade difficult to monitor, and also highlights deficiencies in the protection and surveillance of the protected natural area. Despite the many species traded at these markets, most of the traders' earnings were based on only three species--Laelia superbiens, Cuitlauzina pulchella, and Epidendrum radicans--which are also the species with the greatest sales volume in the markets. Unfortunately, orchid trade also affects other species that are not considered at risk in Mexico, so if this practice continues, it could generate negative effects on their populations. Although orchids were commercialized during all the year, there are two high sales peaks, December-January and May-June, periods that coincide with important religious celebrations.
Our study, recently published in the journal Economic Botany, also considered the often-overlooked social and economic factors shaping orchid trade.
We found that orchid trade mainly involves adult women, who are inhabitants of indigenous communities, with low schooling levels, and who sell orchids temporarily to obtain additional incomes. Almost all specimens traded were extracted from the wild, and the vendors were the same people who collect orchids in the forests. This trade is informal because it is practiced outside the Mexican environmental regulation for management of non-timber forest products, which includes orchids.
Women selling orchids in the Juan Sabines Guerrero market, Las Margaritas municipality. Photo credit: Derio A. Jiménez-López.
Our study made some interesting observations about traders' earning patterns, which can help to inform orchid conservation. For example, we found a significant relationship between the species' showiness (evaluated in terms of its flower size) and its selling price; the showier the orchid, the higher its price, and the more actively extracted it was from its habitat. We also noted the relationship between a vendor's income and their total sales volume; whoever brought in a greater quantity of orchids, obtained a greater profit. This motivates a system that actively promotes higher extraction volumes. In addition, there were relationships between vendors' earnings and the inflorescence abundance and the species number that a vendor offers in the market. This suggests that harvesters and traders are incentivized to target more species, and to target them when they are in bloom, interrupting the reproductive cycle. This leads to concerns about its sustainability.
Stand for the sale of fruits and orchids in the November 22nd market, Comitán de Dominguez municipality. Photo credit: Derio A. Jiménez-López.
This illegal orchid trade is also significant because it represents an unfair competition for Mexico's legal trade, where time and resources have been invested in the propagation and cultivation of these plants. Mexican environmental laws allow the management of wild orchids within a legal framework that seeks to generate benefits for the communities that own the forests where these plants grow. Research suggests the orchid harvest using traditional extraction techniques, which involve cutting flowering pseudobulbs without removing the whole plant, can be sustainable. A sustainable strategy for wild orchid management needs to consider the economic needs of traders as well as species distribution, reproductive biology and demography. In Chiapas this will likely require training on how to use rustic cultivation methods and manage wild resources, as well as workshops with the vendors to discuss the possibility of bringing their activities into the legal framework.
Study area showing the markets studied in Chiapas, Mexico: November 22nd and Central de Abastos (Supply Center) in Comitán de Domínguez municipality, and Juan Sabines Guerrero in Las Margaritas municipality, as well as the location of Lagunas de Montebello National Park. Photo Credit: Derio A. Jiménez-López.
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Jiménez D.A., Solano R., Peralta C., Solórzano J.V., Chávez M.G. 2019. Species richness may determine the incomes from illicit wild orchid trading in traditional markets. Economic Botany 73(2): 171-186.
Ticktin T., D. Mondragón, L. López, D. Dutra, E. Aguirre, M. Hernández. 2020. Synthesis of wild orchid trade and demography provides new insight on conservation strategies. Conservation Letters 2020;e12697.