By ELISABETH MALKIN
Published: November 22, 2010
IXTLÁN de JUÁREZ, Mexico — As an unforgiving midday sun bore down on the pine-forested mountains here, a half-dozen men perched across a steep hillside wrestled back mounds of weeds to uncover wisps of knee-high seedlings.
Freeing the tiny pines that were planted last year is only one step of many the town takes to nurture the trees until they grow tall, ready for harvesting in half a century. But the people of Ixtlán take the long view.
“We’re the owners of this land and we have tried to conserve this forest for our children, for our descendants,” Alejandro Vargas said, leaning on his machete as he took a break. “Because we have lived from this for many years.”
Three decades ago the Zapotec Indians here in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico fought for and won the right to communally manage the forest. Before that, state-owned companies had exploited it as they pleased under federal government concessions.
They slowly built their own lumber business and, at the same time, began studying how to protect the forest. Now, the town’s enterprises employ 300 people who harvest timber, produce wooden furniture and care for the woodlands, and Ixtlán has grown to become the gold standard of community forest ownership and management, international forestry experts say.
Mexico’s community forest enterprises now range from the mahogany forests of the Yucatán Peninsula to the pine-oak forests of the western Sierra Madre. About 60 businesses, including Ixtlán, are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council in Germany, which evaluates sustainable forestry practices. Between 60 and 80 percent of Mexico’s remaining forests are under community control, according to Sergio Madrid of the Mexican Civic Council for Sustainable Forestry.
“It’s astounding what’s going on in Mexico,” said David Barton Bray, an expert on community forestry at Florida International University who has studied Ixtlán.
The Mexican government plans to showcase its success in community forestry at the global climate talks in Cancún next week. Despite fractious negotiations over reducing carbon emissions, talks on paying developing countries to protect their forests have moved further ahead than most other issues.
In developing countries, where the rule of law is weak and enforcement spotty, simply declaring a forest off-limits does little to prevent illegal logging or clearing land for agriculture or development. “Unless local communities are committed to conserving and protecting forests it’s not going to happen,” said David Kaimowitz, a former director of the Center for International Forestry Research, or Cifor, who is now at the Ford Foundation. “Government can’t do it for them.”
A recent Cifor study reported that more than a quarter of the forests in developing countries are now being managed by local communities. The trend is worldwide — from China to Brazil.
In Ixtlán, under Zapotec traditions, all decisions about the forest and its related businesses are made by a (mostly male) general assembly of 390 townspeople. These “comuneros” are required to contribute their labor as needed to the forest and its enterprises.
“You can see the harmony,” said Francisco Luna, the secretary of the committee in charge of the forest and its businesses. “For us to live in peace, we have to respect all the rules.”
Many of the problems that beset other forests in Mexico, like illegal logging and deforestation, rate barely a shrug here. Pedro Vidal García, a longtime forester in Ixtlán who now works for the Rainforest Alliance, laughed when he was asked about illegal logging in the 48,000 acres of forest the community owns.
“Anybody who tries their own illegal business is harshly judged,” he said. “The assembly is very tough.” A comunero who dares to work as a guide to illegal loggers or hunters is branded a traitor and could lose all property rights.
Rule by an assembly of equals based on ancestral customs can make running a business unwieldy. “It takes a long time to agree,” said Mr. García, whose father was one of the generation that sold their livestock to set up the community’s first sawmill. “The assembly can turn emotional, or technical.”
Last year, the community’s businesses made a profit of about $230,000. Of that, 30 percent went back into the business, another 30 percent went into forest preservation and the final 40 percent went back to the workers and the community where it pays for things like pensions, a low-interest credit union and housing for students studying in the state capital. Most of the enterprise’s foresters and managers are the university-educated sons and daughters of the older comuneros.
It is an odd business mixture, acknowledged Alberto Belmonte, who is in charge of finding new markets for the furniture and lumber that Ixtlán and two neighboring towns produce. “Pure simple socialism, which is what the communities have, and an idea of capitalism, where we say, ‘You know what? We have to be profitable.’”
Many of Ixtlán’s plain pine pieces are sold to the state government, and the factory is busy filling an order to furnish a children’s home with bunk beds and lockers. Mr. Belmonte has plans to jazz up design and crack the Mexico City market.
Julio García Gómez, 31, a sawmill worker, came back to Ixtlán five years ago from New Jersey, where he was working illegally, to raise his young family. The pay here has gone up since he returned, he said, “because of the equipment, because of the training.”
While a self-sustaining business, Ixtlán is still a work in progress. Nongovernment organizations, as well as the Mexican government, all provide financing and advice. And even the strongest advocates of community forestry acknowledge that it is not the answer to protecting forests everywhere. It works best in areas that produce quality timber, Mr. Bray said.
But it is a huge improvement on what came before.
“Things are working,” said Francisco Chapela, an agronomist who first came to Oaxaca 30 years ago and now works for the Rainforest Alliance in Mexico. “Forest management is a big success,” he continued. “If you look at old aerial photographs and compare it with what is now, the forest is increasing here.
“A lot of jobs have been created and a lot of money has come to the communities.”