- Almost 44 years ago, the General Emiliano Zapata Union of Ejidos and Forest Communities (UNECOFAEZ) was founded in the Mexican state of Durango.
- UNECOFAEZ’s sustainable forest management has made profitable community development possible, benefiting 10,500 families in Durango, in addition to guaranteeing the conservation of nearly a million hectares of forest.
- A tree nursery, high school, credit union, workshops, infrastructure improvements, ecotourism projects and more have all been financed by the union’s community management of forests.
As July begins, the rains become an integral part of the landscape of Santiago Papasquiaro, in the northern Mexican state of Durango. For the residents of the region, this indicates that the annual reforestation work is about to start.
This year will be no exception but the work will not proceed as before: the nursery of the Union of Ejidos and Forest Communities General Emiliano Zapata (UNECOFAEZ) didn’t grow any trees for the 2020 season, and the 76 members of this organization will have to buy plants that they used to receive at virtually no cost from nurseries.
The UNECOFAEZ nursery, which at its height produced 1.5 million trees per year, did not receive the funds that Mexico’s National Forestry Commission (CONAFOR) used to grant it on a recurring basis, and was forced to suspend operations.
To Chea Soto, a forestry engineer who works at the Topia Integral Forest Conservation and Development Unit, one of the community companies that developed out of UNECOFAEZ, the situation, although difficult, is not insurmountable. For three decades in the region, measures have been implemented to conserve forestry resources, so he says he’s confident that there will be good natural regeneration of the forest, and they will only have to buy a minimal number of plants.
But to José Raquel Ramírez Nevárez, president of UNECOFAEZ, the problem at the nursery is a warning sign: if cuts in federal funds become a recurring practice, that will affect the sustainable management of almost a million hectares of forests owned by the 76 forest communities and ejidos — communities that manage collective land — that make up the union.
The alarm among members of UNECOFAEZ intensified in recent months, when the COVID-19 pandemic caused an 80% drop in sales of timber. Against this difficult backdrop, on Aug. 20, UNECOFAEZ celebrated 44 years since its inception.
In that time, it has established a forestry management model on which 10,500 families now depend — working as they do in manufacturing plywood, managing ecotourism projects, conserving roads or operating trout farms — and which has guaranteed the conservation of 970,000 hectares (2.4 million acres) of Durango’s forests.
The seed of an organization sprouts
How did UNECOFAEZ manage to create this complex network of profitable projects while ensuring sustainable management of its forests?
At 71, Andrés Carrera remembers precisely its origins and establishment, as his personal history is intertwined with it, having been the central figure of the union for 33 years.
The first intersection is marked by the year of his birth, 1949, when the federal government imposed a logging ban on 2 million hectares (4.9 million acres) of forests in northwest Durango, including areas belonging to the ejido where Carrera spent his childhood, Salto de Camellones.
Growing up in a region that was 87% covered by pine forests subject to a ban left him only two options for future work prospects: to work in the mines in the area or to go “over the wire” — crossing into the United States. At the age of 19, after trying his luck in mining, Andrés undertook the trip north in the company of a friend, Alejo Vizcarra Parra.
It was 1968. Just a few months earlier, on Nov. 11, 1967, a decree was published in the Official Gazette of the Federation that put an end to the ban on managing those forests, and created a decentralized public body, Productos Forestales Mexicanos (PROFORMEX), to which it allocated exclusive use of the forest’s resources.
After several setbacks, Carrera and Vizcarra settled in Los Angeles, where they were awakened by a huge earthquake on Feb. 9, 1971. Vizcarra decided to return to Mexico immediately, but Carrera would stay until 1972, working as a dishwasher.
Upon his return to Salto de Camellones, Carrera found Vizcarra had become president of the ejido and an active opponent of PROFORMEX’s activity. In five years of operation, the company established what Gonzalo Chapela, a forest activist and researcher, describes as a feudal regime: “It was a republic within a republic, the director lived in Mexico City and traveled to the area by private plane. The entire life of the region depended on him: the company controlled not only the use of the forest, but also roads, education, health services, even everyday supplies, not so much as a soft drink could enter without his authorization.”
The only option that ejido members and other co-owners had was to sell their timber at the price set by PROFORMEX or to refuse to do so and stop receiving an income, while watching how the neglect of the forest multiplied diseases and hastened the death of trees. “We just saw our pines going and we could not work, we could not cut down the trees, put a price on them and sell them,” Carrera recalls.
By 1972, however, a legal loophole, the training activity of the National Ejidal Development Fund in the area, and the efforts of Alejo Vizcarra succeeded in getting the state governor to agree to the setting up of a community sawmill in Salto de Camellones, on condition that it processed only poor-quality logs and was supervised by a PROFORMEX representative.
Managing that sawmill was the first forestry job that Andrés Carrera had: “I only had my sixth-grade primary school certificate, but there I learned to sort the logs, so that the person in charge from PROFORMEX could do the forestry documentation that authorized us to sell it.”
Salto de Camellones thus acquired a minimum of autonomy in the use of its resources, a sufficient achievement to arouse the interest of neighboring communities in an organizational process that culminated on Aug. 20, 1976, with the official registration of UNECOFAEZ, which then brought together 20 ejido members and other co-owners.
It was not an isolated process. PROFORMEX was one of a range of state-owned and private companies that had been awarded concessions to exploit the country’s forestry resources. In several states, especially Oaxaca, social movements demanded that the use and maintenance of the forests be in the hands of the ejido members and communities that were their legitimate owners.
A boost for community forestry
UNECOFAEZ’s creation in 1976 coincided with the arrival of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, an engineer for the Forest Undersecretariat of the Ministry of Agriculture and Hydraulic Resources, and that of another engineer, León Jorge Castaños (currently head of CONAFOR), at the General Directorate of Forest Development.
As Gonzalo Chapela says, this brought about the first trial of a community forestry policy that sought to promote the development of organizational and technical skills that required the creation of competitive community forestry enterprises.
So it was that the idea that only forests managed by their residents could expect to be conserved was born and began to gain strength, even within the Mexican state.
In 1980, Andrés Carrera’s performance in the sawmill led him to become community commissioner of Salto de Camellones, and from there to actively participate alongside his friend Alejo Vizcarra in UNECOFAEZ, of which he would become president in 1983.
From that position, Carrera managed to convince the ejidos that made up the union to contribute to the organization a percentage of the income they received from their sales of material to PROFORMEX.
UNECOFAEZ thereby began a practice that, according to Carrera, explains the organization’s continuity: the financing of its initiatives using resources generated by the projects promoted by the union itself.
Once officially informed of this agreement, PROFORMEX began to deposit the corresponding amounts into the union’s account, and to provide information on the sale of the timber. UNECOFAEZ had achieved its first great triumph.
The second achievement, one shared with other organizations, would occur on April 21, 1986, with the enactment of a new Forestry Law that terminated the concession regime and provided the opportunity for communities to take charge of technical services and the use of forests.
From ejido members to partners in forestry companies
With PROFORMEX already in the process of shutting down, the union became aware that the company owed ejidos and communities almost 158 million pesos ($7.3 million), and it demanded payment. On Aug. 12, 1986, after several failed negotiations, the union decided to block access to the industrial plant. Five days later, the company acknowledged the debt and agreed to pay 50 million pesos ($2.3 million) and to establish a schedule to cover the balance.
During the second half of the ’80s, UNECOFAEZ became well established, to a large extent due to its participation in the National Union of Autonomous Regional Peasant Organizations (UNORCA), a national network of 1,400 Mexican campesino and Indigenous farming organizations representing 200,000 producers in 27 states. It was at that time that the ejidos and community partners bought the timber processing plant that PROFORMEX previously managed, and formed Silvindustria General Emiliano Zapata, the Rural Association of Collective Interest, and Grupo Sezaric.
“Since then we have operated freely,” says Carrera, who in 1993 ended his second term as president of UNECOFAEZ. By regulation, the assembly could not reelect him, but it appointed him as president of the board of directors of Grupo Sezaric.
Carrera explains what has allowed them to continue operating: “What helped us was the decision to form an autonomous board of directors, almost from the moment we had the opportunity to acquire the company; to define a clear division of responsibilities and an independent organization.”
The Sezaric administration developed a business strategy that generated both profits for its 5,000 ejido members and associated co-owners, and resources to continue growing.
A fresh new start
The first step was to be true to their initial struggle and to give their members the freedom to sell timber to whomever they wanted, while offering to buy it at market price (and not cheaper), with an additional amount per cubic meter to benefit ejido members. The resources generated by this industry were clearly beginning to be transferred to the communities.
Thanks to technical advice they received from the beginning, UNECOFAEZ and Grupo Sezaric understood that if they did not develop infrastructure in the region, any progress at the industrial plant would have limited impact.
For this reason, they promoted a highway project, formed seven committees to maintain communication routes between the communities, promoted the installation and operation of 15 electricity lines in six municipalities, and strengthened the radio communication system between the communities.
Another strategic challenge that they decided to address immediately was that of technical forestry services. Aware, as Chapela puts it, “that the key to the forest is a logging permit,” and that this has to be managed by a forest engineer, they promoted the creation of five technical units for the management of forestry resources.
These units soon became independent companies, which ejidos and communities hire for the preparation of forestry plans, which have also been key to a process of training the communities in sustainable forest management.
Grupo Sezaric has continued developing projects that have added value to the timber, by creating Atym (Aserraderos Tableros y Molduras) to process secondary wood that the plywood factory cannot use, plus another company dedicated to the supply of logs. They also created a furniture factory called Mudi.
Today, the Grupo Sezaric industrial complex has the capacity to process 85,000 cubic meters (3 million cubic feet) of wood, and does this with a minimal environmental impact thanks to a continued investment in technology.
The economic crisis caused by COVID-19 revealed, however, what Chapela considers to be the major outstanding challenge to all this entrepreneurial drive: lack of a strategy to participate in the market in a more competitive and diverse way, with less dependence on big timber market intermediaries.
Community projects take pressure off the forests
If Andrés Carrera established the entrepreneurial dimension of the organization in 1993, the arrival of Roberto Vidaña as president of UNECOFAEZ that same year gave the organization momentum to diversify through its creation of economic and social value.
With the support of advisers, the group began developing projects such as the tree nursery, construction of a high school, formation of the credit union, workshops in sewing and the maintenance of construction machinery, ecotourism companies, fruit processors, and 16 trout farms. All this was done with the dual intention of creating employment while reducing pressure on the forests.
Vidaña made two study trips to the United States and returned to Durango with an idea that, at that time, was novel: promoting the certification of the sustainability of the management of its forests. “It is something I came across in Washington, at the offices of the Rainforest Alliance,” Vidaña recalls. “Here in Mexico it was not being talked about, and I came back very enthusiastic about the idea.”
Currently, most of the ejidos and member communities of UNECOFAEZ have an international certification for the sound management of their forests, awarded by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
Chapela says he’s skeptical about the benefits of certification, a process that he himself promoted at one stage. “Certification has had a very positive side: the preparation of the management and ordinance plans and the inventories management that are necessary to obtain and keep the international certification, has made the community personnel develop very valuable technical skills in achieving the management sustainable development of the forests,” he says. “But, nevertheless, it has not been possible to convert that investment into higher income for the communities.”
New challenges for forest management
On Jan. 12 this year, ejidos and community partners of UNECOFAEZ elected José Raquel Ramírez Nevárez as president of the union, a position he will hold for three years. However, due to the pandemic, Ramírez Nevárez had to postpone visits to ejidos and communities, as well as meetings with officials, to define the list of priorities for his tenure.
In addition, sports tournaments like the 5- and 10-kilometer races for Santiago Papasquiaro had to be canceled, as well as the 44th UNECOFAEZ anniversary.
What the ejidos and communities cannot suspend is the work to conserve forestry resources, such as actions to prevent disease and fire. Years of experience have taught them that maintaining the health of their forests guarantees the continuity of their economic model.
That continuity also depends on whether, in the near future, UNECOFAEZ — as well as other forestry organizations in the country — manage to overcome some of the challenges that COVID-19 has made visible. Among them is ensuring that the timber they produce earns a fair price, which reflects work done to conserve forests.
Gustavo García López, a Puerto Rican researcher who devoted his doctoral thesis to the Durango forest area, says satellite images offer indisputable evidence: four decades after the ejidos and communities took over the management of these territories, its forests are healthy.
“Mexicans should be very proud that the people of the ejidos have made a monumental effort to manage their forests well and to have a good life connected to the forest,” he says. “That’s something you don’t see very often elsewhere.”
Banner image: The 76 ejidos and communities that are part of UNECOFAEZ own nearly a million hectares of forest. Image by Carlos Zapata/UCDFI Topia, S.C.