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Guardians of Mexico’s community forests confront climate change

  • Droughts, insect infestations, and fires are increasingly common in Mexico’s forests.
  • Communities whose residents manage these forests can develop strategies to protect their forests and ecosystems, which are critical in the fight against climate change.
  • The community forest management strategy can also provide livelihoods and boost economies, experts say.

In some Indigenous languages, two words are just not enough to convey everything encompassed by the phrase “climate change.”

Alejo López, who speaks one of the varieties of Chinantec that is spoken in Mexico’s Oaxaca state, told Mongabay Latam that he refers to climate change with a longer phrase: “Ni ka li seen ja lee ee lï´ mïï hui´.” In English, these words mean, “We conserve what we have, and we make good use of our forest, our water and our air.”

The Chinantec people living in the Sierra Juárez mountain range in Oaxaca refer to themselves as tsa ju jmí’, which means “people of the old word.” Their tonal language is mostly spoken, but a few years ago, López began to learn its written form.

Community organization and involvement are both keys to facing the infestations that affect trees. Image courtesy of the Union of Zapotec and Chinantec Forestry Communities (UZACHI) of the Sierra Juárez.

The Chinantec language is far from being López’s only area of expertise. Like many of his neighbors in Santiago Comaltepec, Oaxaca, he also knows about trees and community organization. He is the president of the administrative council of the Union of Zapotec and Chinantec Forestry Communities (UZACHI).

Years ago, according to López, rain was almost constant in the forest. “It used to rain for most of the year, but now a lot has changed. Just this year, already, it has almost been a month without rain. That is due to deforestation,” López said.

López’s perception of the change in rainfall coincides with scientists’ warnings of the effects of global climate change for some time. One of these effects is the increased intensity of droughts.

According to Julián Andrés Velasco Vinasco, who works with the Climate Change and Solar Radiation Group at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, there is still much to be learned about the specific effects of climate change in Mexico. It is thought that some groups of plants could disappear, “but we do not have detailed information about which species are most susceptible to this phenomenon,” Velasco Vinasco said.

Those who live around community forests, like López, have already observed some of the consequences of climate change.

The growth of infestations

In Chinantec, mo´ means “forest,” and ´mah means “tree.”

The forests in the Sierra Juárez mountain range in Oaxaca have also faced more insects recently, and some of them, like the round-headed pine beetle (Dendroctonus adjunctus) and the “defoliator” (Zdiprino spp.), are considered infestations because of the damage they cause to the trees.

“Before, the rainy season was more marked, and in low temperatures, these infestations declined [in terms of] their population; the forests maintained their vigor,” said Salvador Anta Fonseca, a member of the Mexican Civil Council for Sustainable Forestry (CCMSS) and the senior adviser on forest policy for the organization Environmental Policy and Legislation. Now, with more prolonged periods of high temperatures and droughts, the infestations have a greater capacity for growth and, obviously, for affecting the forests.”

Manuel Herrera Santiago, technical director of UZACHI, said climate change fosters the growth of the infestations.

“The cycles of the round-headed pine beetle have shifted; that is very noticeable,” he said. “It is an infestation that we already have, but right now, with the changes in temperature, the months of incidence of this insect are not as marked as before.”

The season to be able to effectively combat the insect in its larval stage used to be from January to June, “but now, in those months, there are already adults, or the larvae appear later. The situation is being assessed since it is possible that there is another species of Dendroctonus,” said Laura Jiménez Bautista, technical subdirector of UZACHI.

The communities in the Sierra Juárez region of Oaxaca have been fighting against the round-headed pine beetle (Dendroctonus adjunctus) infestation. The insect attacks pine trees, which are the basis of the local forestry economy. Image courtesy of the Union of Zapotec and Chinantec Forestry Communities (UZACHI) of the Sierra Juárez.

In addition, an infestation by a different insect has begun to appear in Oaxaca: the defoliator. “It first appeared in a community, and there are already going to be 20,000 affected hectares [nearly 50,000 acres],” Anta Fonseca said.

Herrera Santiago said the mountainous forests, which had temperate environments in the past, are now facing higher temperatures. The warmer conditions have facilitated these infestations. “The defoliators did not used to exceed 2,200 meters [about 7,200 feet] above sea level, and now we have them at up to 2,800 meters [about 9,200 feet] above sea level. It is something extraordinary, and communities are not prepared to confront an infestation that will appear overnight. This is something that strikes very strongly,” Herrera Santiago said.

The insecticides used to attack the defoliator are made with fungal spores and are dispersed using helicopters above the trees. From the ground, people also scatter them to disrupt the insect’s larval phase.

For the communities that own these forests and make sustainable use of them, these threats come with new costs and processes.

“Those insecticides stick in the bodies of the [defoliator] caterpillars. They penetrate tissues and kill them. They are not chemical insecticides, because in those forests there are springs, and people drink water from there,” Anta Fonseca, who collaborates closely with these communities, said.

The defoliator (Zdiprino haudeni) is an insect that eats pine needles. Image courtesy of the Union of Zapotec and Chinantec Forestry Communities (UZACHI) of the Sierra Juárez.

Constant vigilance, monitoring and combating the insect — by authorities and experts — are some strategies being used to confront the infestations.

Herrera Santiago said the communities are also innovating in their fight against the infestations by using alternative tactics. These include the application of mechanical treatments, like the purification of forested areas, controlled burns, and killing the insects manually.

The multiplication of forest fires

Since mid-April and early May, smoke from the forest fires in the Sierra Juárez has saturated the air, or gih, as the Chinantec call it.

“A theme that is affecting the country, and strongly [affecting] Oaxaca, is forest fires. Right now, we have forest fires, one after the other. We are starting to have 40 fires at the state level simultaneously,” Herrera Santiago said.

Enrique Jardel, a researcher and professor at the Department of Ecology and Natural Resources at the University of Guadalajara, said that 2019 had some of the hottest temperatures ever recorded, which has fostered a higher incidence of fires in Mexico.

According to Jardel, “The climate is the top factor that controls fire regimes, and what is being observed on a global scale are changes in seasonality. For example, [there are] longer drought seasons, and this boosts the propagation of fires. In many cases, extreme droughts for several years create the conditions for the propagation of very severe fires.”

Herrera Santiago said community forest management, which involves the planned, sustainable use of timber and non-timber forest resources, includes three main areas of action: ecological, economic and social.

“Forest fires strike in these three areas,” Herrera Santiago said. He added that in terms of ecology, a fire could affect reforestation areas for up to 20 years. On the economic front, he said, the resources that are invested are lost “because burned timber does not have the same value as good timber.” One of the main social effects is the risk involved in fighting a fire. Additionally, “if the forest is lost, what’s also lost is employment, and that impacts people and the economy.”

Controlling a fire in a forested area of Oaxaca. Image courtesy of the National Forestry Commission of Mexico (CONAFOR) in Oaxaca.

‘Planting’ forest management

In another part of the country, in the state of Jalisco, Eduardo Sánchez Guizar has sought to learn sustainable ways to manage the forest that he began to take care of five years ago.

“It is like a small forest; everything around is planted with corn, and it’s the only place where there are more trees. You can see birds’ nests and deer tracks because they take refuge there,” said Sánchez Guizar, who owns 8 hectares (about 20 acres) in the municipality of Atoyac, Jalisco, which is in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range in Mexico.

Eduardo Sánchez Guizar walks among the trees that he planted. Image courtesy of the National Forestry Commission of Mexico (CONAFOR).

Sánchez Guizar, 57, reforested his property with 5,000 trees belonging to a local species known in Spanish as rosa panal (Viguiera quinqueradiata). In Mexico, the wood from this tree is often used to make furniture. The reforestation was part of a program by the National Forestry Commission of Mexico (CONAFOR) called the “Special Program for the Restoration of the Micro-basins in the Lerma-Chapala Priority Zones.” Sánchez Guizar’s case was one of the most successful in the program, as 80% of the trees that he planted survived.

Sánchez Guizar’s land is part of an ejido, which is a form of collective property that came about during the Mexican Revolution. Ejidos were established for agricultural workers without their own land. Currently, about 70% of Mexico’s forests are the property of ejidos and communities.

At the age of 18, Sánchez Guizar migrated to the United States to work on almond and peach plantations near Sacramento, California. From then on, he dreamed of a land filled with trees. “I love seeing very large trees; my friends from the ejido say that it is very pretty. Everyone should plant lots of trees. If we all do great things, we could make big changes if we set our minds to it,” Sánchez Guizar said.

He says he is conscious of the fact that climate change is already affecting ecosystems. “If we plant more trees, they will attract water. We cannot decide everything about the climate, but we can help a little bit. Saying that there are 4,000 trees is very different from saying that there are none. Maybe there are just a few, but hour by hour, they help in some way,” he said.

When a V. quinqueradiata tree is at least five years old, its trunk is wide enough to be used to build comfortable, rustic armchairs. That is why Sánchez Guizar now has plans to begin to reap some of the benefits of his forest. Of course, he says, he will take care to make sure that his forest lives on.

Forests counter climate change

E mianaa ih mo´ kii naa” is how the Chinantec people say “forest management.”

More than 30 years ago in the Sierra Juárez, the government told communities that it would not grant concessions to private companies to exploit the timber from forests in their territories. Since then, the inhabitants of these communities began to organize around the idea of community forest management.

Jiménez Bautista, technical subdirector of UZACHI, said the region’s communities already acknowledge that forests provide more than just timber. They also provide environmental services, and proper forest management can contribute to slowing climate change.

Jiménez Bautista added that the communities that form parts of the UZACHI are part of the Dedicated Grant Mechanism for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (DGM), a global initiative to support Indigenous populations who conserve forests and carry out activities that mitigate climate change.

The DGM is financed by a donation from the Forest Investment Program, and in Mexico is administered under the supervision of the World Bank, according to Ricardo Ramírez Domínguez, the national manager of the Mexican branch of the Rainforest Alliance.

The DGM, according to Ramírez Domínguez, provides funding to 97 subprojects, including activities related to sustainable forest management, agroforestry systems, ecotourism, and climatically intelligent agriculture. The projects are currently in the states of Jalisco, Campeche, Quintana Roo, Oaxaca and Yucatán.

The infestations are combated from the sky and from the ground. Image courtesy of the Union of Zapotec and Chinantec Forestry Communities (UZACHI) of the Sierra Juárez.

In November 2010, the CCMSS published a study in Spanish, titled, “Sustainable forest management as a strategy to combat climate change: Communities show us the way.” The study notes that in areas where community forest management is common, forests are often conserved and can even expand.

The study also says that “at its most developed level, community forest management effectively protects forests in an estimated area of 81,000 square kilometers (31,300 square miles) that have management plans and conservation measures similar, or superior, to those reported in [Mexico’s] Protected Natural Areas.”

The study emphasized that community forest management is useful because it promotes the development of local communities while simultaneously conserving biodiversity and capturing carbon.

“Forests do not only generate benefits for their owners; they also produce ecosystemic services for the rest of society. They capture water and carbon dioxide, and they provide goods that are very important for the economy,” Anta Fonseca said.

He said communities in forests allocate a part of their forest for the sustainable production of timber. The inhabitants, he said, are the first ones who are interested in conserving the forest. For this reason, in areas where community forest management is done, “We can see that, historically, the use of the land does not change; [the areas] are maintained as forests and rainforests,” Anta Fonseca said.

He added that, of the 640,000 km2 (247,000 mi2) of forests and rainforests in Mexico, timber-yielding forest production methods are carried out in only 55,000 km2 (21,200 mi2).

The CCMSS has proposed the reorientation of public policies toward strengthening community forest management, which has been shown to reduce the deforestation and degradation of forests.

The forests of Durango, Mexico, where community forest management has been practiced for four decades. Image courtesy of the Comprehensive Unit for Forest Conservation and Development (UCDFI Topia, S.C.).

Jardel, an expert on the ecology of fires, also recognizes that community forests face a series of problems, including the economic crisis and the presence of organized crime in the illegal logging industry.

Still, “Community forest management is something that we can be proud of in Mexico,” he said. “It has brought good results.”

Banner image: According to the Mexican Civil Council for Sustainable Forestry (CCMSS), putting a stop to deforestation and forest degradation is one of the main global challenges in the fight against climate change. Image courtesy of the Union of Zapotec and Chinantec Forestry Communities (UZACHI) of the Sierra Juárez.


This article was first published by Mongabay Latam on May 22, 2020.