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A community in Mexico reforests its land against the advance of illegal logging

  • A community in rural Mexico has for the past 15 years led the conservation of the forest on its communally managed land, or ejido, in a region wracked by illegal logging.
  • The Nueva Vaquería forestry program near Pico de Orizaba National Park has seen the community reforest nearly 500 hectares (more than 1,200 acres), in stark contrast to the deforestation unfolding inside the park and neighboring communities.
  • The ejido members are doing this with barely any government support, and have called on the authorities to do more to help, including cracking down on illegal logging in the region.
  • “We try not to demolish the forest,” says a community member, “but I feel that the government does not see this; it does not help us to further conserve the forest, to give an example to our people.”

Jorge Zavaleta points out the pine trees that line the path we’re walking on and pauses to tell his story. “Before, all of this was potato crops. Now it is forest,” Zavaleta says.

Hundreds of pines and oyamel fir trees (Abies religiosa) surround this area; most were planted 15 years ago. Temperate forests once abounded here in the municipality of Calcahualco, in Mexico’s eastern Veracruz state, but much of it was cleared to plant potatoes. Then, 15 years ago, the residents of Nueva Vaquería, one of the towns that make up the municipality, decided to turn their history around by simultaneously recovering, conserving, and living through their forest.

“Before, when we were dedicated solely to potatoes, the drought became more pronounced, the streets became dusty. Then, we saw that the forest is better. The water currents are conserved more,” Zavaleta says.

The temperate forest that the residents of Nueva Vaquería are working to conserve. Image by Óscar Martínez.

The forest that the Nueva Vaquería inhabitants are protecting is adjacent to Pico de Orizaba National Park, which was declared a protected area in 1937 and spans 19,750 hectares (48,800 acres). The park is home to the highest peak in Mexico, the dormant volcano of Pico de Orizaba, also known as Citlaltépetl.

In recent years, illegal logging and the establishment of illegal sawmills have hacked away at the forests in and around the national park.

Nueva Vaquería sits in the middle of it all. Of its fewer than 800 residents, 87 are members of the local ejido, a system of communally managed farm. And it’s through this system that the community has achieved what once seemed impossible: restoring their forest and sustainably managing their forested land.

Jorge Zavaleta walks along the trails near the youngest section of forest, which the community replanted. Image by Óscar Martínez.

Growing pine trees instead of potatoes

It’s a Monday in October, and the ejidatarios, the ejido members, are meeting in the Nueva Vaquería assembly hall to hash out agreements, divide tasks, finalize a sale of timber, and talk to Mongabay Latam about how they manage their forest.

Respect for the forest goes back generations here, they say. At the same time, it wasn’t always easy to conserve the forest and forgo the income that could come from farming the land. So for years the community dedicated itself to growing potatoes on a massive scale, cutting deeper into the forest for more land. Eventually, a near-constant frost began to affect their potato crops, leading to financial losses.

“There were lots of potatoes; I remember that my father got about 30 tons per year,” says Federico Vázquez, one of the ejidatarios. “But later, they were filled with maggots. Then, all that was reforested.”

The ejidatarios began to restore their forest. To ensure success, they commissioned a forestry expert to design a forest management program. The Mexican Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) approved the plan in 2015.

Antonio Camarillo, the superintendent of the Nueva Vaquería ejido, says the forest use permit they have allows them to harvest 1,200 to 1,500 cubic meters (42,400 to 53,000 cubic feet) of timber per year. The forestry expert helps them choose which trees to cut down.

“Before, when cutting down [trees], we would choose the leafiest tree — the prettiest tree,” Zavaleta says. “The expert taught us that we should first cut down those with diseases, the ugly ones, and then see which trees have already completed their cycles and should be cut down to allow the new ones to grow.”

The ejidatarios sell timber to nearby municipalities. In Puebla, they use the leftover timber to make wooden packing boxes. Image by Óscar Martínez.

The ejidatarios carry out four timber harvests per year, each one falling on a key date for the community. They take place in April (ahead of Holy Week), June (when the community organizes its patron saint’s festival), October (for All Saints’ Day), and December.

They sell the timber cut and milled to nearby municipalities in Veracruz and neighboring Puebla state. With the leftover timber they make guacales, wooden crates used for transporting fruit and vegetables. Some of the ejidatarios have small workshops to process the timber.

As part of their forest management program, the community has a designated area for conservation and environmental services, which spans about 100 hectares (250 acres). Another of their rules is that they must reforest the areas from where they’ve cut trees, the aim being to not let the forest die.

As part of their forest management program, the community conserves about 100 hectares (250 acres) for environmental services. Image by Óscar Martínez.

The forest doesn’t lie

One of the achievements that the ejidatarios take pride in is their community-run tree nursery, where they grow 60,000 pine seedlings a year from heirloom seeds, also known as creole seeds. They set up the nursery 18 years ago to provide the seedlings for their reforestation program, and share the tasks involved in running it.

“The seed comes from parent trees that are over 50 years old,” Camarillo says. “We call the plants that grow ‘creole trees’ [because] they are native to here and they have a greater possibility of surviving at more than 3,000 meters [9,900 feet] in altitude.”

Thanks to the nursery, the ejidatarios say they’ve managed to reforest nearly 500 hectares (more than 1,200 acres) in the past few years. “We cut down two trees and we plant 10,” says Anastacio Blas Vázquez, one of the ejidatarios. “We keep taking care [of the forest] because we have more family [members], and they are going to grow. If we put an end to everything, what will they eat? Knowing that no beans, corn — nothing — is grown here, we need to leave something to our children.”

“The forest doesn’t let us lie; we have conserved it,” says Miguel Hernández, a fellow ejidatario. It’s easy to see this: on a trip through Nueva Vaquería, oyamel firs flank the paths, and the smell of pine fills the entrance to the forest. The pristine beauty of this area contrasts with other places around the volcano, where the deforestation is evident.

Ejidatarios from Nueva Vaquería show their nursery, where they grow pine seedlings for their reforestation program. Image by Óscar Martínez.

A community achievement with little government support

The ejidatarios credit the conservation of their forest to the united efforts of the community. They say they received barely any support from the government. Camarillo says they recently submitted a request to CONAFOR, the national forestry commission, for funds to buy pots for planting the saplings. “But they told us outright that this year it could no longer be done,” he says.

Nueva Vaquería sits at an altitude where frost kills most crops. This, combined with their conservation of the forest, means the community is ineligible for the government’s Sembrando Vida (“Sowing Life”) program. Under this flagship social initiative, the government grants 5,000 pesos ($245) per month to rural residents who agree to maintain about 2.5 hectares (6 acres) of their land free to develop agroforestry systems.

Anastacio Blas Vázquez says the community lacks the space required to be part of this program. This is because, unlike many other communities, residents here don’t want to cut down their trees for land. “I wish those resources were used to protect the forest,” Blas Vázquez says.

The ejidatarios select the most appropriate seeds to plant in the community nursery. Image by Óscar Martínez.

The communally managed land in Nueva Vaquería spans 847 hectares (2,093 acres), and is parceled out into lots. There are no provisions for such an arrangement under Mexico’s Agrarian Law, but this method has allowed the community to take better care of the land and respect the proximity of the national park. “It is an internal agreement of the assembly; there are no papers for this, but every person respects the space,” Camarillo says.

Half of the families in Nueva Vaquería make their living producing the wooden crates that they sell at a large market in Puebla. Some of the wood for the crates comes from their forest, and the rest is low-quality timber that they buy from neighboring municipalities. “Here, if somebody goes to cut down a tree without permission, the wood is confiscated, [the person receives] a fine and [goes] to the town jail,” Camarillo says.

The ejidatarios also have a timber collection center. People pay to use the center, and the money raised has gone to build roads, repair the church’s towers, and buy a cargo truck to transport timber.

The church in Nueva Vaquería. Image by Óscar Martínez.

The work of conserving the forest continues all year long: people work in the nursery, build pots for replanting, prune trees, build firewalls, and repair roads. There aren’t enough people to do all the work, nor is there enough money to hire help. In Nueva Vaquería, as in many rural areas, migration out of the community is common.

“We try not to demolish the forest,” Blas Vázquez says. “We keep water from here for the lower communities, but I feel that the government does not see this; it does not help us to further conserve the forest, to give an example to our people.”

Pine trees that were first grown in the community’s nursery. Image by Óscar Martínez.

Taking care of the forest in a critical area

Pico de Orizaba National Park is about a 40-minute walk from Nueva Vaquería. The entrance to the national park is marked by barbed wire, which the ejidatarios installed for protection, and rocks with markings to show where the protected area begins.

The forest maintained by the Nueva Vaquería ejido contrasts sharply with the rest of this area, where illegal logging, livestock grazing and crop farming have transformed the landscape. Where trees once stood, there are now wide patches of crops and the sound of chainsaws.

In Calcahualco, one of the five municipalities that the national park straddles, the park lost 474 hectares (1,171 acres) of forest cover between 2001 and 2020, according to data from Global Forest Watch (GFW). One of the most critical years in that period was 2018, when it lost 104 hectares (257 acres).

For the ejidatarios of Nueva Vaquería, protecting their forest has been a difficult task. The ejido faces pressure from other communities of people who make their living from illegal logging. Some residents of these other communities have attempted to enter their territory and log their trees. In response, the Nueva Vaquería residents have organized patrols to monitor their land.

The community has to do this on its own because there are no permanent park rangers in the adjacent national park. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, there was no enforcement operation of any kind in the park.

In June 2020, the Nueva Vaquería ejidatarios met with members of the ejido in nearby Nuevo Jacal, about 15 minutes away by foot, to stop armed men from another community from cutting down their trees.

“We had to stop them, and that is something that should have been done by the government, because it is a national park,” Federico Vázquez says. “We had to close off one part of the park with barbed wire so that it wouldn’t be so easy [to enter].”

Between 2017 and 2021, the office of the Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA) conducted raids on illegal logging within the national park. The National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (CONANP), which manages Mexico’s national parks, has filed nine complaints about illegal activity in Pico de Orizaba, but none of them have reached the Public Ministry for investigation, according to information obtained by Mongabay Latam.

Mongabay sent an interview requested and a list of questions to PROFEPA, but did not receive a response.

The community’s forest is in an area where illegal sawmills abound. Image by Óscar Martínez.

Learning from the forest

Carmen Gómez, one of the four women ejidatarias in Nueva Vaquería, says that 30 years ago, she inherited land that her husband had owned. Since then, she has tried to conserve the forested area on her 3 hectares (7 acres). Although the forestry expert working with the community has marked out the trees that she can harvest, she rarely logs them. One such instance was when she recently began building a second story for her home.

“I’ve really enjoyed taking care of it. I am opposed to cutting down the forest; my trees are pretty huge,” Gómez says.

She and 10 other individuals formed a collective five years ago called “The Golden Pine of Vaquería.” It’s dedicated to creating handicrafts using pine needles. “We make several things: bread baskets, tortilla holders, and vases that we plan to sell at markets,” Gómez says.

Carmen Gómez is one of the four women ejidatarias in Nueva Vaquería. Image by Óscar Martínez.

The collective began as part of an initiative called “Social articulation for the conservation of the Upper Jamapa River Basin.” The initiative itself came about through the Conservation of Coastal Watersheds in the Context of Climate Change Project (C6), funded by the World Bank from 2014 to 2018.

The project included nine localities in Calcahualco. Biologist María de los Ángeles León Chávez, who led the efforts in Nueva Vaquería, says the objective was to improve the relationship between the community and the forest, the water, and the land.

During the first year, they worked with the ejidatarios and other community members to familiarize them with concepts like drainage basins, the function of trees, climate change, and environmental services. “These terms seem disconnected from their lives, but no — they are part of their everyday lives. It was necessary to reconfigure the image of their territory and look for new forms of management,” León Chávez says.

She adds she found she was working with a community that had a history of caring for its forest: “Their great-grandparents were already taking care of it, and in the 1990s, agreements were established for the use of the forest as a collective property, which allowed it to be used without destroying it.”

Keeping the forest also allows community members to create handicrafts, opening up another source of income. Image by Óscar Martínez.

León Chávez is part of the Network for Territorial Management of Sustainable Rural Development and has worked in Nueva Vaquería since the 1990s. She says that in the past four years, a new plan for the forest has been configured, but many challenges remain. “It is necessary for state and federal authorities to get involved in forest use and to work on integrating a multidisciplinary social and environmental team, because they have trouble by themselves,” León Chávez says. “It is necessary to help them to see that, collectively, they can do more than they can individually.”

Several communities in other parts of Calcahualco have attempted to replicate the example set by Nueva Vaquería, but they haven’t achieved their goal yet. Nuevo Jacal, for example, had a forest permit at one point, but lost it due to lack of good management. The Nuevo Jacal ejido is visible from the Nueva Vaquería; it stands out for being bare of trees.

José Abelardo Hoyos Ramírez, from the Rural Development and Environmental Planning Consultancy (CEDRO), says sustainable forest management “is a solution to unregistered logging.” He says this is why CEDRO has attempted to promote projects in the area along these lines, but finalizing them has proved very difficult.

In 2006, Hoyos Ramírez says, they promoted environmental management programs for communities in Calcahualco, but SEMARNAT, the secretariat of the environment, didn’t approve them, nor were there authorities who could follow up on the projects.

The forest that Carmen Gómez, as an ejidataria, helps to conserve. Image by Óscar Martínez.

Hoyos Ramírez added that issues like a general lack of security, a poor road network, the division of the land into a patchwork of small plots, and the lack of certified sawmills are among the factors that impede organization in the municipality of Calcahualco.

Although the Nueva Vaquería ejido has managed to navigate through these obstacles, biologist León Chávez says the future will present yet another challenge as production of the wooden crates ramps up. “It is a threat to the collective, because it is an activity that leads to individualism. Another challenge is to succeed in getting young people, the new generations, to be involved in this way of looking at the forest,” León Chávez says.

Zavaleta, who has been an ejidatario since he was 18 years old, says he sees the future in a different light. He says the forest “accepts” — and has responded to — the care that the community has given it all these years.

“We have to be honest: this is our source of work, it is our life. Ever since I can remember, this has been what has provided for us,” Zavaleta says. “We have survived using the forest. That is why we have to conserve it, and we will keep going even if we are alone.”

The community’s forest is located close to Pico de Orizaba National Park. Image by Óscar Martínez.

Banner image: Some of the ejidatarios from Nueva Vaquería, a community that has managed to maintain a forest management program, enabling it to conserve its forest. Image by Óscar Martínez.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on Nov. 3, 2021.