Mexico's community-owned forests under threat from gangs, loggers, and the death of a collective spirit

  • Julia Christian
  • Thursday 20 April : 11:04

A farm worker looks for avocados in San Isidro orchard in Uruapan, in Michoacan state, Mexico, January 31, 2017. Picture taken on January 31, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Mexico's community-owned forests have long been seen as a model for progressive policy. But now they’re under threat, says as Fern’s Julia Christian

Michoacán’s indigenous communities’ greatest resource is their forests. And they defend them with their lives.

Michoacán, a mountainous region west of Mexico City where much of the forest is owned by indigenous communities, is stunningly beautiful, but blighted by poverty and some of the world’s most violent drug cartels.

These twin menaces are closely linked to illegal deforestation. 

Drug cartels in Michoacán are heavily involved in illegal logging and avocado farming.  This is threatening the trees and farmlands local people need to survive.  It’s also endangering a nearby UNESCO World Heritage Site: a forest where hundreds of millions of butterflies from all over North America come to spend the winter.

The cartels shoot and kidnap local people who try to resist the invasion of their forests.

Help from the authorities is rare.

The local government in Michoacán – like those in many other rural poor areas of Mexico – is at best ineffectual and at worst complicit in the problem.

So communities have learned to fight the illegal loggers themselves.

This resistance was immortalised in the recent Oscar-nominated documentary Cartel Land.  One Michoacán community threatened by illegal loggers formed themselves into vigilante patrols and took turns to guard their forest night and day, physically blocking the roads to stop their timber from being stolen.

MEXICAN COMMUNITIES: A HISTORY OF RESISTANCE

The Michoacán resistance is just the latest episode in Mexican communities’ long history of fighting to control their natural resources.  It’s a story which demonstrates how communities with strong land rights are the most effective guardians of forests; and how once those rights are eroded, the threats to the forests intensify.  

The most dramatic point in this history so far was the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), when campesinos armed themselves to successfully wrest back control of rural land from a narrow class of wealthy families. 

Thanks to their struggle, today Mexican communities own just over half of Mexico’s land, including 50 million of the country’s 63 million hectares of forest. 

Their pioneer status cannot be understated: until the 1980s, Mexico was one of the only countries in the world to legally recognise community property.

But gaining land ownership on paper was only the first step to Mexican communities being able to manage the forests themselves. 

Even after the revolution, the government continued to impose logging companies on their land without their permission, leading to widespread depletion of forests in many parts of the country. 

Mexican communities fought against this for decades. 

Like their counterparts in Michoacán today, indigenous people in Oaxaca formed a grassroots movement to resist the government-imposed loggers throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s, blocking logging roads, refusing to sign contracts, and holding production strikes. 

In 1986, communities finally won the rights to manage forests themselves. 

Today, many have developed highly successful forest enterprises, controlling all aspects of the production chain from timber extraction to making and selling furniture.  I was fortunate to see some of these enterprises in operation during the six months I recently spent in Mexico, hosted by the Mexican NGO Reforestamos.

The profits from these activities have been invested back into the community enterprises, as well as essential community services such as schools, running water, Wi-Fi, scholarships, and even a local university.  Because the forests are seen as the community’s long-term source of income, communities have sophisticated systems in place to protect them: forest management plans, replanting schemes and surveillance systems to protect against intruders, fires and disease. 

“The forest is like a garden,” one community forester in southern Mexico told me, “it needs humans to take care of it.”

A GLOBAL EXEMPLAR UNDER THREAT

But Mexico’s community forests are under threat—and not just from illegal logging and drug gangs.

Younger community members are increasingly leaving home for life in the city or north of the border.  In part this is because a growing number are being left out of their community’s collective land right, and are therefore unable to draw benefits from the community enterprises or participate in decision-making.   

This has coincided with a collapse in government support to community forests over recent years, which in the past has been vital to helping communities scale up their enterprises.

In some places I visited, the collective dynamic has started to break down, and the community enterprises have regressed to only producing raw materials. 

Some communities have stopped working together collectively at all, and their use of the forest has become ad hoc and unregulated. 

Moreover, because this trend decreases the profits communities can make from the forest, clearing land for agriculture or cattle-raising has become much more attractive. 

THE IMPORTANCE OF SHARED INTEREST

I asked many people in Mexico what lessons can be learned from these struggles to keep Mexican community forests alive.

One recurring answer came back: for community forests to work, it is key that community members continue to see an interest in working together. 

If the collective spirit dies, and the forest is used in an unregulated and individualistic way, the trees quickly start to disappear. 

This is why governments must recognise collective land rights, rather than trying to divide them into individual property rights if this does not reflect how the forest is actually used.  Unfortunately, this is still fairly rare across the world. 

It is also vital that communities have agreed collective rules about how to use their forests, which they are able to enforce.  It is important to have good transparency systems, to ensure the community’s money is being spent the way they want it to be. 

GLOBAL FOREST DEFENDERS

Mexican communities are just one example of people across the world who are defending their forests.  This matters not just for their own survival, but for the planet’s.  A growing body of evidence, including 2014 research by the World Resources Institute, showed that forests – so vital for life on earth—are protected best when they are owned and managed by the communities that depend on them. 

Governments across the world have a big role in supporting community forest management. 

They must recognise community land rights, and support communities to organise themselves and develop enterprises. 

If governments and donors are truly serious about keeping forests standing, this is one of the best investments they can make.

Julia Christian is a forest governance campaigner focussing on West Africa for the forests and rights NGO Fern.

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