What if I told you that a group of 260 people in Mexico sat on a winning lottery ticket for 40 years refusing to cash it in? In a way that is what happened in Jalapa del Valle, a town nestled in the mountains just west of the city of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. In this case the cash payout would have come from harvesting the valuable wood in the community-held forest. The community could have just cut the trees and sold the wood or charged outsiders to do it.
Jalapa del Valle is home to pine-oak forests that still stand today thanks to the actions of community leaders 45 years ago. In 1972 the assembly of the 260-member ejido, or community-owned and governed lands, prohibited the cutting or sale of timber that people had relied on for fire wood and charcoal. Up until then cutting down trees was uncontrolled and was depleting the forest. The community organized committees on flora and fauna, built observation posts and guard houses and set up patrols to prevent illegal logging, poaching and encroachment by settlers. The community grounded all of the work in the traditional concept of tequio, or volunteer community action. It also reached out for support to national programs and received financing for conservation and as payment for environmental services from a program run by Mexico’s Comisión Nacional Forestal.
The forest has now been in recovery for decades and has regenerated. Without continued planning and careful management however, the forest could be at risk once more. Blights and plagues such as borer beetles can spread easily if not monitored, and old and dead trees present risks for wildfires. This could jeopardize the community’s 45-year investment of time and effort to care for the forest, so it is now embarking on the beginning stages of community forest management.
Benefits of Community Forestry
Over nearly four decades, Mexican grassroots organizations have played a vital role in determining how the country’s forests have been used. In the 1980s, grassroots organizations mobilized to advocate for community-led resource management and, after watershed legislative reforms in 1986, began taking back management of their forests from outside interests that had received concessions to exploit them. Today about 70 percent of the country’s forest lands are in the hands of local communities. Former IAF representative David Bray first wrote about the unique case of Mexico’s forests in 1991 and in the IAF’s journal Grassroots Development.
The forests are common property managed by the people who live in them and whose efforts have environmental and social benefits. The World Resources Institute notes that forest communities and their enterprises help decrease deforestation, maintain biodiversity, reduce the incidence of fire, create employment opportunities and generate income for residents. The social and ecological benefits that spring from local administration of forests — and the way those benefits accrue to communities — offer a window into social capital creation. Its relevance to grassroots development and to the IAF’s work is clear.
Mapping Their Way Forward
Jalapa del Valle’s ejido is diligently planning its next steps. It secured an alliance with IAF grantee partner Estudios Rurales y Asesoría Campesina, A.C. (ERAC) to provide advice on best practices and planning. The group also collaborates with Asesoría Aplicada a Bosques e Investigación Especializada para la Silvicultura, A.C. to bring forestry technicians to help map the forest, inventory species and identify trees that need culling as well as areas for timber harvest. This effort goes beyond conservation and supports sustainable livelihoods and better incomes for rural Mexicans.
As in other communities, Jalapa del Valle is considering establishing forest enterprises to sustainably exploit its timber resources. ERAC is using its IAF grant to help them analyze options for viable enterprises and to network with grassroots organizations engaged in similar endeavors. In contrast to industrial forest management, which aims to produce raw materials and profit, forest management by communities and their associated forest enterprises generates social benefits such as local employment and the investment of profits into communities for better health, education and sanitation. To generate income from eco-tourism, the ejido has created hiking trails and receives visitors and schools groups. It plans to professionalize its operations, process wood and eventually hopes to sell products with added value such as furniture and flooring.
Since 1972 members of the Jalapa del Valle ejido have proven their patience and foresight. Today the ejido looks to demonstrate its organizational skills and business acumen to sustain its success and ensure that getting ahead economically goes hand in hand with an environmental and social bottom line.