The Americas

AP PHOTOS: Mexican farmers using fireflies to save forest

  • In this July 21, 2016 photo, fireflies seeking mates light up in synchronized bursts as photographers take long-exposure pictures, inside Piedra Canteada, a tourist camp cooperatively owned by 42 local families, inside an old-growth forest near the town of Nanacamilpa, Tlaxcala state, Mexico. The families purchased the 1560-acre (630-hectare) tract of land from a private owner in 1990 and began offering camping and forest visits, while continuing to exploit the logging quota authorized by the government. Only in 2011, did they realize the potential draw of the local firefly population, and begin advertising nighttime viewing tours. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

    In this July 21, 2016 photo, fireflies seeking mates light up in synchronized bursts as photographers take long-exposure pictures, inside Piedra Canteada, a tourist camp cooperatively owned by 42 local families, inside an old-growth forest near the town of Nanacamilpa, Tlaxcala state, Mexico. The families purchased the 1560-acre (630-hectare) tract of land from a private owner in 1990 and began offering camping and forest visits, while continuing to exploit the logging quota authorized by the government. Only in 2011, did they realize the potential draw of the local firefly population, and begin advertising nighttime viewing tours. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)  (The Associated Press)

  • In this July 21, 2016 photo, tourists awaiting nightfall chase each other in a game, inside Piedra Canteada, near Nanacamilpa, Tlaxcala state, Mexico. The firefly viewing season lasts from mid-June to mid-August. In the five years since Piedra Canteada and two other centers began offering viewing tours, tourist demand and revenue have skyrocketed. More than a dozen other centers offering tours have opened in the surrounding area, and the neighboring state of Puebla announced the creation of an alternative "Firefly Route" in 2016. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

    In this July 21, 2016 photo, tourists awaiting nightfall chase each other in a game, inside Piedra Canteada, near Nanacamilpa, Tlaxcala state, Mexico. The firefly viewing season lasts from mid-June to mid-August. In the five years since Piedra Canteada and two other centers began offering viewing tours, tourist demand and revenue have skyrocketed. More than a dozen other centers offering tours have opened in the surrounding area, and the neighboring state of Puebla announced the creation of an alternative "Firefly Route" in 2016. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)  (The Associated Press)

  • In this July 21, 2016 photo, rules to protect the firefly habitat and mating process are posted inside Piedra Canteada, near Nanacamilpa, Tlaxcala state, Mexico. Among the list of banned activities are the use of camera flash or flashlights, smoking, making noise, or lighting campfires. To avoid interfering with the fireflies mating process, in which they communicate through their light patterns, power in the camp is shut off for two hours during the peak nighttime appearance of the fireflies, and cars are prohibited from entering or exiting. Certified guides lead groups of silent tourists along dark forest paths to get the best view of the fireflies. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

    In this July 21, 2016 photo, rules to protect the firefly habitat and mating process are posted inside Piedra Canteada, near Nanacamilpa, Tlaxcala state, Mexico. Among the list of banned activities are the use of camera flash or flashlights, smoking, making noise, or lighting campfires. To avoid interfering with the fireflies mating process, in which they communicate through their light patterns, power in the camp is shut off for two hours during the peak nighttime appearance of the fireflies, and cars are prohibited from entering or exiting. Certified guides lead groups of silent tourists along dark forest paths to get the best view of the fireflies. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)  (The Associated Press)

In the village of Nanacamilpa, tiny fireflies are helping save the towering pine and fir trees on the outskirts of the megalopolis of Mexico City.

Thousands of them light up a magical spectacle at dusk in the old-growth forests on reserves like the Piedra Canteada park, about 45 miles (75 kilometers) east of Mexico's sprawling capital city.

Piedra Canteada in Tlaxcala state isn't a government-run park, but a rural cooperative that has managed to emerge from poverty and dependence on logging with the help of the fireflies.

For years, economic forces, including low prices for farm produce, forced rural communities like Piedra Canteada to cut down trees and sell the logs. Then, in 1990, community leader Genaro Rueda Lopez got the idea that the forest could bring tourism revenue from campers.

Business was slow for years. Then in 2011, community members realized the millions of fireflies that appear between June and August could draw tourists from larger cities where few people have seen them in significant numbers. Indeed, around the world, deforestation and urban growth are threatening the over 2,000 species of fireflies with extinction.

Five years later, the park's cabins and camp spaces are sold out weeks in advance, with the attraction especially popular among families with young children and couples seeking a romantic setting.

"The amount of fireflies you see is impressive," said Carlos Landa, a Mexico City native who visited Piedra Canteada this week. "Something that I also find quite impressive is their synchronicity: To turn off and turn on, that is something really spectacular. It's like Christmas in the forest."

The cooperative of 42 families still cuts some trees, but has preserved over 1,560 acres (630 hectares).

"We log, we live from the forest, from cutting trees, but in an orderly way," said Rueda Lopez, one of the cooperative's founders. "It's like a garden, you have to remove the branches yourself, the dry parts, the parts with diseases to really grow." He said they have plans to plant over 50,000 pine trees in the areas they log each year.

The idea has spread to nearby places in largely rural Tlaxcala, like Granja Interactiva Salma, whose primary business is still crops like corn, wheat, broad beans and peas. But they say firefly tours are a much-needed source of extra income.

"We are trying to treat the whole area here with no herbicides, because it's logical if we have insecticides, that could affect the fireflies," said Hugo Brindis, a certified guide at Granja Salma. "We are talking to biologists and the people who make these chemicals to see which have less of an effect on fireflies and the forest."

He said their operation is a reservation-only ranch and they are trying to reduce the amount of people who visit the area, 250 maximum on the weekends, to maintain a sustainable space in the forest.

In Piedra Canteada, the co-op acquired a small sawmill in 1998 so it could sell higher-priced cut lumber instead of just logs. The sawmill gives residents jobs and income beyond the three-month firefly season.

But the fireflies are now the main source of income.

"We have reduced our wood production, you can say by 60 or 70 percent to preserve the forest and have better amount of tourism," said sawmill manager Salvador Morale.