Ixtlán de Juárez is a Zapotec community nestled in the Sierra Norte de Oaxaca that has managed to establish a connection with the land to conserve and use its wealth of natural resources. The main square in this town of 3,000 inhabitants is a large, well-tended area with manicured flower beds and a picturesque bandstand in the center. But Ixtlán extends beyond its streets. It comprises 19,310 hectares, 15,749 of which consist of a forest the villagers have learned to protect, monitor and commercially exploit.
One chilly December morning, accompanied by a small team employed by the community’s timber company, we made our way to the pine and oak forest to watch the first stage of the logging process: cutting the tree. Lumberjack Antonio Ramírez stood to one side and at the base of the trunk of a 48-year-old Douglas fir (Pinus douglasiana) with a height of approximately 28 meters and a 40 cm diameter. While Antonio surveyed the terrain, the tree and its environment, the forestry engineer in charge of the operation, Elías Santiago, ran his eye up and down the fir, estimating that it would produce at least four meters of roundwood that could fetch 6,000 pesos.
Immediately afterwards, 23-year-old cable-handler Daniel Hernández donned thick gloves and pulling the cable attached to a crane parked up the road, walked up to the tree trunk and secured it with a slip knot. Then operator Cornelio Bautista started the crane, the cable went taut, and the tree began to inch uphill until it reached the country road where the other logs had been stacked.
Most people are not aware that forests need human intervention to be healthy. Felling sick, old trees can prevent the spread of pests and fires, and these resources can sometimes be used, as in this case.
Proper organization of the territory allows some areas to be used for logging and others for conservation because, as forestry engineer Miguel Ángel Soto pointed out, decisions are made from a community perspective that takes the whole territory, not just an ecosystem, into account. Without proper management, forests deteriorate and become fire-prone, and trees are weakened by disease and pests.
In states such as Durango or Chihuahua, with a 100-year tradition of forestry, people are familiar with forest management techniques. Conversely, when someone in Oaxaca sees a logging truck loaded with wood, they automatically assume that the area is being clear felled and deforested. But as forest organization consultant Salvador Anta explains, responsible forestry can actually increase forest cover.
This happens when local residents obtain an income from selling timber from their forests, either as roundwood or as a value-added product, such as a piece of furniture. Once they can earn a livelihood from forestry, they no longer need other sources of income such as livestock farming. Thus, agricultural areas are reconverted to forest.
It is worth pointing out that forest management is not the same as illegal logging. To give some idea of the scope of this problem, it is estimated that 30 percent of Mexico’s domestic consumption is illegally harvested timber, and that less than one percent of the potential volume of timber from its woods and forests has SEMARNAT authorization, according to a study by Reforestamos México and the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO). In just 30 years, Oaxaca has lost over half its primary forest, with Mexico ranking 15th among countries with the greatest tree cover loss, according to Global Forest Watch.
At the same time, abundant scientific and empirical evidence [link] shows that ejidos (communally farmed land) and communities that make active use of their forests enhance forest cover and environmental attributes, including biodiversity, water infiltration and carbon sequestration. Given that an estimated 60 percent of the country’s forests are owned by people organized into ejidos and agrarian communities, supporting and replicating sustainable forest management should be a priority.
In Ixtlán, for example, some areas have doubled the density of their forests from 300 to 600 trees per hectare.
There are several ways of achieving this, all directly linked to forest management. Before the rainy season, common land owners reforest the area using seeds from the community. These seeds are taken from the best trees; in other words, those that are the most pest-resistant and contain the best genetic material, in order to gradually strengthen the forest.
Forest technicians from Ixtlán use two systems for harvesting timber: selective cutting and cutting in strips or clear cutting. In the first method, they select the trees with the greatest diameter and best quality, leaving the other fir trees untouched. In the second, all the trees within a specific strip are removed and the soil is prepared to regenerate this part of the forest.
But beyond purely environmental aspects, good forest management can help reinforce the social fabric and give communities greater control over their territory. According to Salvador Anta, when communities have social capital, a traditional community structure and a fully functioning system of cargos (rotating positions held for a short time within the community) they are able to achieve strong local governance and defend themselves from any initiative attempting to take over their territory.
Several stakeholders may have an interest in appropriating a particular area: mining, tourism, infrastructure works for urban and industrial uses, organized crime and illegal loggers.
But in Ixtlán de Juárez, where for decades, villagers have organized to manage their territory and obtained international certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an atmosphere of safety and well-being reigns.
Thanks to forestry, everyone is employed and economically active, the key being community organization. As Elías says: “We all look after the forest because it belongs to the whole community, to all of us. Here no one has any more rights than anyone else over natural resources”.