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Saving Forests with a Sense of Place

While visiting Oaxaca's forestry cooperatives, Kristian Beadle considers the link between remembering the dead and managing living resources — including new climate policies to reduce deforestation.

I was in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca during one of Mexico's best-known traditions, the Day of the Dead.

The somber Panteon General, Oaxaca City's largest cemetery, had been transformed into a carnival. A mariachi band played next to walls covered in candles reflecting the dead; yellow marigold flowers called cempasúchil decorated grave sites and adorned the altars that sprung up around the city. Offerings of food and drink for ancestors, who appeared in fading black-and-white photographs, were everywhere.

Although part of the Catholic All Saints and All Souls days, the creativity of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) arises from indigenous traditions. "Similar to Halloween," noted an American friend, watching the costume parade heading to the cemetery, "but with more heart, less sex and candy." Indeed, the intention of the ceremony is to invite the spirit of relatives past to celebrate with the living. The taboos surrounding mortality emerge from the dusty closet ... "Just as our relatives died, so will we." It can be an oddly relaxing thought.

I considered the social implications of this collective mentality. With heightened awareness of past and future generations, might people's reason for living go beyond themselves and today? Are they more motivated to care for their community to ensure the well-being of the future?

Meanwhile, I had sat under a tree of epic proportions just 20 minutes from Oaxaca City. The Arbol de Tule, at least 1,500 years old, is the most ancient living being I've ever seen. Reportedly the widest tree in the world (its diameter is 38 feet, with a circumference of 119 feet), this particular Montezuma cypress, or Taxodium mucronatum, makes human lifespans seem like blips.

With all this in mind after the early November holiday, I drove into the mountains above the valley of Oaxaca, where several forestry cooperatives are becoming famous for their conservation of forests and balanced community development.

"About 60 percent of Mexico's forests are community-owned, and Mexico is now a world leader in sustainable forest management," explained Luis Ubiñas, the president of the Ford Foundation, addressing one of the main themes of the Cancun conference on climate change. "These forests aren't guarded by signs that prohibit use, but rather by giving local communities rights to the property and its management."

The mountain villages of Sierra Madre in the state of Oaxaca are amidst some of the most biodiverse pine-oak forests in the world. According to World Wildlife Fund, the area contains nearly 40 percent of endemic vertebrates of Mesoamerica, the bio-cultural region stretching from central Mexico to northern Costa Rica. This diversity comes from radical topography and climatic differences: the rugged terrain climbs from 3,000 feet to a peak of 11,000 feet, while rainfall varies from 28 inches to 80 to 160 inches a year.

Click here for more posts from the Voyage of Kiri.

Click here for more posts from the Voyage of Kiri.

Communities here rely on corn, cattle and forestry — creating an inherent tension over deforestation and survival. Although a lack of access helps keep the forests relatively well preserved, there is also a conscious philosophy of conservation.

In these mountains sits the tidy town of Ixtlán de Juarez, which international forestry experts say has "become the gold standard of community forest ownership and management," as The New York Times has written. I met the general manager of the town's forestry cooperative, the well-spoken Jesus Paz. He showed me their factory on a Saturday morning, which was quiet except for the wind howling outside. Paz explained that when the state-run company's concession expired in 1983, the community regained autonomy of a nearly 50,000-acre forest.

Now they have one of the most advanced wood processing plants in Mexico, and both the logging operation and on-site furniture factory are certified with the Forestry Stewardship Council, the highest industry standard for sustainability. "The certification cost is high, but it has improved our efficiency with erosion control, tree-planting and safety," Paz said. "Plus, it was the right thing to do."

Their efficiency allows them to preserve the vast majority of their forest: a reserve of nearly 40,000 acres. Although certified wood doesn't fetch a higher price in Mexico, the government agency that contracts them to build school furniture was sold on the idea and now requires certification for new contracts — a new competitive advantage.

The cooperative is run by an assembly of 384 comuneros, or communal owners, who elect managers and make decisions democratically; they are drawn from the indigenous Zapotec people. The majority of the comuneros  also work for the company, which has now expanded into seven businesses, including a furniture store, ecotourism resort and a high-tech nursery. The comuneros are the original owners or owner-heirs of the forest land, based on post-Mexican Revolution (1912-1918) land reforms that began granting land ownership to millions of peasants.

This apparently has created a private incentive for stewardship. As cited in a 2010 report to the United Nations Forum on Forests, "151 communities are protecting over a half million hectares of forests, almost half of which are in Oaxaca."

Beyond the town square and church was the road leading to Ecotur-Ixtlán, the cooperative's ecotourism center. The mountain air was cutting through my double layer of sweatshirts, the sky piercing blue through the canopy of pine trees. One of the guides, Rodrigo, told me about his work: taking tourists on hikes to the Mesophyllic Forest, an area of near-permanent humidity in a nearby summit containing unique species.

"I used to work in logging, but I like this better," Rodrigo told me from beneath a frayed beanie. "I learned the trade by sneaking into presentations by ecologists staying at our lodge. For sure, it has changed how I think, and my decisions in the assembly. We want to do what's best for future generations, but sometimes we don't know how." Being a comunero himself, Rodrigo soon excused himself. The assembly meeting was at 5 p.m., and I was left to ponder his meanings under the trees.

Although it has become trite in some circles, the Great Law of the Iroquois still holds weight: "In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation ... even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine." The multi-generational philosophy of indigenous people, it is said, makes them better stewards of the land for the benefit of all. Yet, how much of that statement is true, and how much is based on the romantic ideology of the "noble savage"?

The forestry comuneros I spoke to constantly mentioned their desire to preserve the forest for future generations. "It was the right thing to do," Paz said about certifying their operation with the Forest Stewardship Council. That essential philosophy is shared by other cooperatives in the Sierra, collectively called the Alianza EcoForce.

Genuine empathy for multiple generations is present in many cultures, and may not be reducible to indigenous ethics. The fishing cooperatives I visited in Baja's Vizcaíno Peninsula, for example, also showed a remarkable vision of resource conservation.

By virtue of their community orientation and legal status, the fishing and forestry cooperatives share a common sense of long-term ownership of their resources. They have an incentive to sustainably manage their region's marine life and forest life because they feel secure about retaining rights to zone into the future. Another element that helps build multi-generational thinking is the length of time people plan to spend in a community. The indigenous worldview that sees interconnections in natural processes also helps this thinking; but in itself it may not be sufficient to foster long-term stewardship.

REDD and Financing Forests

Enter the international discussion on forestry and climate change, strongly present in the ongoing U.N. Climate Change Conference in Cancun. Early in September, Oaxaca City was host to a forestry workshop for Latin America and the Caribbean, serving as a preliminary to the Cancun conference. The workshop focused on climate policies of REDD, the emerging system for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, which is basically a way to value and finance forest preservation.

Burning forests accounts for roughly 12-17 percent of yearly global greenhouse gas emissions, almost as much as the transportation sector (a 2009 study published in the journal Nature indicates the contribution is about 15 percent when peatland degradation is included). The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — the body running the Cancun conference — considers it the most viable climate mitigation option in the short term.

REDD seeks to value the carbon stocks of forests to make them more profitable alive than dead — that is, not cleared for a palm oil plantation or cattle farming. To be successful, carbon prices need to infuse more dollars per acre (measured in carbon tons) to be paid to locals for keeping forests standing, instead of being chopped for agricultural uses. This approach doesn't count the biodiversity effects of preserving forests, which would be a tremendous collateral benefit.

One concern is finding a common language between multinational financiers and forest dwellers, so that equitable benefits go to locals and foreigners. Another concern is whether the price of carbon is sufficiently stable, achievable under a regulated market, but less likely in today's voluntary carbon market. Despite these speed bumps, the market is taking notice of forest conservation. As described in Yale e360, Merrill Lynch has invested $9 million one Sumatra project, and Brazil is creating mechanisms to raise $21 billion by 2021.

Forestry workshop participants in Oaxaca visited and were likewise impressed by the cooperatives in the Sierra but wondered if their successes can translate to other places. After all, the unique communal ownership that emerged from Mexico's particular agrarian reforms (despite its flaws and limitations) plays a key role in these cooperatives' business structure, and may not be replicable.

Nevertheless, the elusive concept of "forestry governance" may boil down to some down-to-earth principles: As outlined above, when a sense of long-term ownership is combined with sound organizational structure, the basic incentives for resource stewardship are in place.

A 2009 study analyzed 80 forests in Asia, Africa and Latin America and concluded that when local communities manage and own forests (which they call "rule-making autonomy and ownership"), there is more carbon sequestration and forest protection. That approach may be just as effective as managed protected areas, but with fewer costs. The study helped dispell the myth that local communities are unable to manage their resources (i.e. are dependent on outside companies and "experts"). I believe this is part of a shift in thinking toward more local control of natural resources.

The cooperatives' long-term well-being requires the conservation of their forests.

This lesson can be applied beyond forestry and discussions of REDD. I drove the long, windy road back to the coast, wondering if the principles from Mexico's cooperatives — long-term ownership and local management — might influence the future of forests globally.

Perhaps the principles that unite stewardship with community values can work in elsewhere. Like the meanings of the Day of Dead, even if they are not universal, they are at least inspirational, and may help us see through the "smokescreen" of forest management.