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Carlos collecting Quercus ×alentejana (Q. faginea × Q. pyrenaica) in northeastern Portugal for his PhD thesis © Carlos Vila-Viçosa
An interview with Portuguese oak conservationist Dr. Carlos...
Amy Byrne | Apr 19, 2024
Roderick Cameron | Apr 13, 2024
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It was a great pleasure for me to be able to write about my...
Gert Fortgens | Feb 15, 2024

Plant Focus

Quercus crassipes acorns with inrolled cupule margin
One of the more well-known Mexican oaks in cultivation.

A Life Dedicated to Oak Conservation: Maricela Rodríguez

Maricela Rodríguez is currently the Global Conservation Consortium for Oak (GCCO) Coordinator for Mexico and Central America. In this role she leads a multidisciplinary group of professionals and amateurs interested in the study of oaks and their conservation. “Our main objective,” she says, “is to protect all the priority Quercus species that are in a threatened category according to the IUCN, promoting activities and collaborations between the different Institutions which are part of the Consortium.” Maricela has led the GCCO work in Mexico and Central America for the past four years, and she has initiated and supported many oak-focused projects that have greatly advanced the fields of oak collection, propagation, stewardship, and research. Also, she has connected with and supported numerous local communities to train them to become oak conservationists themselves. Some of the bigger achievements in the GCCO so far are:

  1. developing an international network of people interested and committed to the study of oaks and their conservation,
  2. increasing the interest of botanists to collect and cultivate more oaks,
  3. building capacity around oak propagation and cultivation in different forum settings, reaching numerous local partners, and
  4. developing a living metacollection of priority oaks in Mexican and Latin American botanic gardens.
Maricela Rodríguez
Maricela Rodríguez, GCCO Mexico and Central America Coordinator, in Antigua, Guatemala

Prior to this role, however, Maricela has worn many hats in the field of oak conservation; she says that she has been passionate about this work since she was a child. She recalls having many happy memories playing in the 600-hectare family-owned forest and in the meadows full of wildflowers. Maricela comes from a family of foresters, and with first-hand experience she has had the opportunity to know, since she was little, the importance of the forest for peoples’ livelihoods. She soon realized how important it was for them to protect and keep a healthy forest to sustainably harvest timber, but also protect the forest for conservation purposes. She emphasizes: “To achieve the balance between productivity and beauty is a challenge to which I always felt attracted”. In having these experiences, her professional interest in forest conservation grew over time. Although her family was largely focused on sustainable timber harvest on their land, she was more interested in planting trees.

Allen Coombes and Maricela collecting samples
Identifying oaks and monitoring the growth of related plants in a cloud forest near
Teziutlán, Puebla, Mexico. From left to right: Allen Coombes, Maricela Rodríguez, and Armando Zavala

A large part of what Maricela works on within the GCCO is focused on the collection and propagation of oaks, to eventually plant out in garden or restoration settings, but she also focuses on numerous other projects. She is continuously working to expand and strengthen oak scientific knowledge to provide to local communities in an accessible way. In doing this, Maricela and partners are leading the Species Steward Training Program entitled Programa de acreditación para administradores de especies “Guardianes de Quercus” (program for accreditation of species stewards “Quercus Guardians”). The program is already in action, but they are working to expand it, hosting more workshops throughout Mexico and Central America. Additionally, Maricela and GCCO partners have other projects spanning several states in Mexico. For example, there is an ongoing project: Quercus rubramenta in Guerrero State, a Giant Understudied Tree, which is focused on empowering the local people to work with this threatened species. This project was selected in 2023 to receive a grant from the IOS Oak Conservation and Research Fund.

Quercus seedlings in nursery
Propagation of Quercus cortesii in a collaborating nursery that is a part of the Safeguarding
Threatened Tropical Montane Cloud Forest Oaks
project in Mesoamerica

Also, there is a workshop being planned (co-hosted by the GCCO, the Autonomous University of Baja California, and San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance) in Baja California at the end of September, where GCCO partners in the U.S. (southern California) and Mexico and Central America (Baja California) will come together to share information and discuss ongoing and future actions that can be taken for the priority threatened oaks in the Baja California region. In addition, the workshop will have a strong focus on the culturally significant oak species, i.e., species that have been used in the past and continue to be used today by local Indigenous communities, incorporating this critically important Traditional Ecological Knowledge in future oak conservation action planning. Following the workshop will be a targeted collecting trip for Quercus cedrosensis and Q. dumosa. Finally, there have been longstanding research projects such as Safeguarding Threatened Tropical Montane Cloud Forest Oaks in Mesoamerica. The objective is to work on a larger scale in cloud forests protecting four IUCN Red List Endangered species. Another project is focused on Community-Based Conservation of Oak Ecosystems in Mexico in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.

Maricela RodrÍguez (GCCO Coordinator) and Allen Coombes (GCCO Consortium Steering Committee Member), posing with Species Steward Training Program participants.
Maricela RodrÍguez (GCCO Coordinator) and Allen Coombes (GCCO Consortium Steering Committee Member), posing with Agroforestry Students at the Guardianes de Quercus workshop at Zacapoaxtla
Superior Technological Institute in Puebla, Mexico

Over her many years in working on oaks and oak conservation, Maricela details the most important areas we need to focus on right now and in the future to conserve them successfully. “I think we need to carry on urgently reinforcing our work in training local people on the collection, propagation, cultivation, and planting of oaks,” she says. “It takes time to build a good working group, and we need to work more intensively on it. Also, in the near future I think we need to work more on oak forest restoration, as it takes a long time to do it and to see the successful results, but it is very important for people; they need to see their work giving fruits, just like the trees. I plan to follow the Ten Golden Rules for Reforestation…. (Di Sacco et al. 2021) and will teach people about forest restoration; there is a lot of interest around this work, but some people don’t know where to start, so following these golden rules will be useful. Finally, incorporating Traditional Ecological Knowledge in this work is really important to me, and funding this work is critically important.”

Maricela Rodríguez (GCCO Coordinator) and Maura Quezada (GCCO Member), hosting an oak propagation workshop at the University of Guatemala
Oak Propagation workshop in Guatemala given to a diverse group of people interested in oaks and their conservation. The workshop was a collaboration between GCCO, BUAP
Botanic Garden
, the Herbarium of the University of San Carlos, Guatemala, and ArbNet.

Maricela wanted to end the interview with some advice: “If you are just getting started in the field of oak conservation, I would say that the work with oaks needs a lot of enthusiasm, commitment, and patience. Working with oaks takes time and dedication and if you are lucky, maybe you can find a new species, so do not disappear; oak experts are critically needed!”

To summarize, Maricela Rodriguez has been a true leader in the field of tree conservation, and the GCCO could not be luckier to have her as the Coordinator for Mexico and Central America, spearheading the conservation and research efforts for such a biodiverse region for oaks. To reiterate Maricela’s advice, this work, now more than ever, is urgently needed! We are very thankful for everything Maricela has done and continues to do for conserving oaks and educating people, globally, to become oak conservationists and stewards themselves. It is a true inspiration.