Are rare species useful species? Obstacles to the conservation of tree diversity in the dry forest zone agro-ecosystems of Mesoamerica


James E. Gordon, Department of Geography, University of Durham, Science Site, Durham DH1 3LE, U.K. E-mail:


Aim To test the potential to conserve rare dry forest tree and shrub species circa situm.

Location Oaxaca, Mexico and Southern Honduras.

Methods Local uses (timber, posts and firewood) of species were determined principally through semistructured interviews with 20 rural householders in each of four communities in Honduras and four in Oaxaca. Tree and shrub diversity inventories were carried out in a total of 227 forest patches and parcels of farmland in those eight communities. Species’ conservation priorities were determined using the star system of Hawthorne (1996) and IUCN listings.

Results Despite a large number of useful species, remarkably few were also conservation priorities. Useful species were found to be substitutable as is illustrated by Bombacopsis quinata, Cordia alliodora, Guaiacum sanctum and G. coulteri.

Conclusions In these areas, circa situm conservation is inhibited by the lack of species that are both rare and useful. Usefulness must be interpreted as a function of substitutability. Natural regeneration provides an abundance of diversity, farmers are unlikely to invest in the management of a species when suitable substitutes are freely available. The key to conserving rare species may be in maintaining or enhancing the value of the landscape elements in which they are found.