- More than two decades ago, a group of teachers, farmers, homemakers, car mechanics and other residents of Juanacatlán, in the Mexican state of Jalisco, created a civil association called “El Roble,” which gave them more tools to guard the forests and mountains that surround their community.
- Nothing has impeded the mission of those who make up El Roble — not even threats, harassment, impunity or the ineffectiveness of authorities.
- Thanks to this association and its alliances with other associations, its members have managed to confront fires, poaching and illegal logging. They have also stopped the installation of megaprojects in their territory.
Thirty-five years ago on a sweltering April night, Enrique Cárdenas, a biology and natural sciences teacher, watched El Papantón burn. The mountain, which stands 1,939 meters (about 6,360 feet) tall, dominates the horizon of the Mexican community of Juanacatlán. Cárdenas gathered his co-workers, friends, neighbors and relatives to climb the mountain and put out the fire.
“Our disappointment was that while we were fighting the fire, in other areas they were provoking it. It was a never-ending story. The same ejidatarios [shared landholders, or members of an ejido] who had been dividing the parcels were burning them to … plant agave,” says Cárdenas.
This experience left an impression on Cárdenas. The teacher, now 72 years-old, says he decided to organize with his neighbors and fight to conserve the forests that surround their home of Juanacatlán on that night in 1988. Forty-five people have joined the fight. They have managed to protect 1,600 hectares (about 3,954 acres) of forest and stop the installation of a thermoelectric plant and a gas pipeline that would have further damaged the already-degraded ecosystem in the state of Jalisco located in western Mexico.
Extinguishing the fire to save the forest
Juanacatlán is located 30 kilometers (about 19 miles) from Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco. This small community of 30,855 residents is surrounded by mountains like El Papantón, El Molino, El Filo and El Cerro Grande. Temperate forests cover these mountains and arehome to species like the Pyrenean oak (Quercus pyrenaica), another oak known as the encino in Spanish (Quercus crassifolia), the peacock flower (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) and the European ash (Fraxinus excelsior). When walking through these mountains, one can also see the monkeypod tree (Pithecellobium dulce), the purple morning glory (Pharbitis purpurea), the mesquite tree (Prosopis spp.) and the sweet acacia (Acacia farnesiana).
Part of the Indigenous population of Juanacatlán has roots with the Coca Indigenous people, and historians believe that they may have mixed with the Nahuatl community. This would explain why the word “Juanacatlán” derives from the Nahuatl word Xoconoxtle or Xonacatlan, which refers to a “place where onions are abundant” or “place of onions.” The fields and mountains of this region are home to a plant resembling a small jicama or cebollita, which means “little onion” in Spanish.
Teacher Cárdenas says the environmental decline and the fires in Juanacatlán began in the late 1980s. The municipality is divided into six ejidos, or communal farmlands. Around this time, some members of the community burned their parcels in these ejidos to change the use of their land. They also sold or transferred some of their land to agave producers, who then burned the land to harvest this valuable plant, which is used to produce tequila.
Pedro de Anda, a 79-year-old farmer and friend of Cárdenas since childhood, recalled that at that time, they also extinguished fires inside pathways between crops that had been neglected by bean farmers who lived in the nearby community of El Platanal. They also reported mule drivers and loggers who took timber or set fire to the forest to later sell it as charcoal.
“We asked for support from the town council to conserve the forests, but we were constantly rejected,” says Cárdenas.
Defending the forest
On July 20, 2001, Cárdenas and other residents of Juanacatlán made a vital decision: During an assembly, they created a civil association called El Roble, or “The Oak.” They chose the name because the tree is representative of the region. “Our mission,” says Cárdenas, “was to defend the forests because our natural territory is mainly forested.”
The community of Juanacatlán comprises an area of 141 square kilometers (about 54 square miles), made up of 20.5% forest, 20.5% rainforest and wetlands and 54.7% agricultural land, especially corn, wheat, sorghum, oats, agave, alfalfa and chia, according to data from the Institute of Statistical and Geographical Information of Jalisco (Instituto de Información Estadística y Geográfica de Jalisco, or IIEG, in Spanish).
The El Roble civil association has 45 members, spanning from 23 to 79 years old. Among its active participants are teachers María Tiburcia Cárdenas and Angelina Cárdenas (the sisters of Enrique Cárdenas), brothers Remigio and Benito Gómez (retired teachers from the elementary school in Juanacatlán), Antonio Huerta (a car repair expert) and de Anda (the director of El Roble).
These environmental guardians saw that the forests of Juanacatlán were gradually, yet constantly, disappearing. In 2003, during the “agave rush,” they noticed their trees were being replaced by crops of Agave tequilana called “Weber Azul.” The reason for this land-use change was due to economics: A hectare of agave is worth three times more money than a hectare of corn.
Alma Mancilla, a 54-year-old homemaker and resident of Juanacatlán, says that as a result of the agave rush, she stopped going to the stream near the El Saucillo mountain, a natural space where she once enjoyed picnics with her family.
“Every year, during rainy times when the stream was high, we would go to eat, play and get into the water. I saw cans of pesticides floating in the stream and a gasoline-like substance dripping out, and I quickly took my children out [of the water]. The worst part is that cows continued to drink water from it,” says Mancilla.
Urban developers also entered the forests to build roads, cabins for tourists and vacation houses. At the same time, the amount of hunting in the area increased drastically.
“Hunting is something very disagreeable,” says de Anda, the director of El Roble, “because now in the mountains, you can no longer see deer, pumas or wild boars.”
Remigio Gómez, a 58-year-old retired teacher, explains that to mitigate the damage to forests, El Roble has organized groups to tour the forests and make a record of damages.
“We walk at least 50 km [about 31 mi] per month, and we record the damage left by the fires and logging. We find where the extraction of stones, sand and minerals was done and [where] the drilling of deep wells [was done]. We also make a note of where orchids and sweet potatoes are harvested. When there are fires, we go out at night to extinguish them, when the fire is less intense,” says Remigio Gómez.
Benito Gómez, his brother, adds: “We destroy the hunters’ shelters and the water dispensers that they leave as traps to kill animals. We clean the dams so that the wild animals can drink water.”
De Anda says they also plant endemic tree seeds and check germination rates after it rains.
Training as environmental guardians
After feeling abandoned by local authorities, the members of El Roble decided to file complaints before the Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA) beginning in 2001. This is the federal agency in charge of monitoring compliance with environmental laws.
In 2004, after receiving continual complaints from El Roble, officials from PROFEPA suggested that community members be trained by the Participatory Environmental Monitoring Committee (Comités de Vigilancia Ambiental Participativa, or CVAP, in Spanish) program. This program seeks to combat environmental crimes through community monitoring and protection.
“A person from PROFEPA came here to Juanacatlán and talked to us about rules, regulations and environmental laws; they focused on issues like forestry, environmental impacts and wildlife. They showed us how to fill out monthly reports, where we recorded the pastures visited, the location, the kilometers traveled, the crimes detected, the incidents and the damage to flora and fauna,” says teacher Remigio Gómez.
According to PROFEPA, Participatory Environmental Monitoring Committees are organized groups of people committed to the care and defense of the natural resources in their communities. They are eager to participate by monitoring the forests, preventing issues and filing complaints. Participants are accredited and trained by PROFEPA itself.
According to the most recent statistics, PROFEPA trained 1,129 people as part of the “Environmental Impact” program nationally in 2021. The “Forestry” program included 1,142 trainees, who learned about land-use changes and combating undocumented logging. The “Wildlife” program trained 2,095 people on topics like the hunting, trafficking and illegal sale of flora and fauna. This program also discussed a lack of respectful treatment toward wild animals, the introduction of exotic species and fragmentation of habitats due to disordered population growth.
In Juanacatlán, PROFEPA formally recognized 28 people from El Roble as environmental guardians, providing them with credentials. Throughout the state of Jalisco, PROFEPA trained 917 people between 2019 and March 2023.
Since 2004, when the members of El Roble were designated as environmental guardians, de Anda delivered monthly reports prepared by the group to PROFEPA annually. These reports contained information on poaching, ejidos and burned pastures, the coordinates where logging took place and the damaged flora and fauna. These reports allowed PROFEPA to review and, if necessary, proceed with fines, closure or 36-hour administrative detention.
In 2020, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,the PROFEPA offices closed. So, the 28 members of El Roble no longer submit descriptive reports on the environmental damage, benefit from training or receive recognition as environmental guardians. However, they have continued to file complaints.
Government abandonment and threats
Although PROFEPA is aware of the environmental degradation, it has not taken sufficient action to protect the environment, according to Enrique Cárdenas.
“It issues some legal warnings, or in other words, it reprimands people in a written manner, but those warnings have not definitively stopped the fires or the logging. We turned to them because of our need to report the deterioration that we see,” says Enrique Cárdenas.
One example is El Papantón mountain, or the Lugar de las Mariposas (“Place of the Butterflies”). According to Rubén López, a lawyer and arborist, El Papantón lost 12.1 km2 (about 4.7 mi2) of forest in 45 years. This is equivalent to about 1,466 soccer fields.
In 2016, as revenge for the complaints that de Anda, the director of El Roble, had filed, a group of poachers, loggers and people who plant illegal crops used agrochemicals to burn the parcel that he had loaned for corn. De Anda says this group also set fire to his beehives and shot at the door of his brother — and fellow member of El Roble — Miguel’s house. The next year, in 2017, the group attempted to run over Pedro de Anda with a car and threatened to kill him. In early March 2023, they poured oil onto his corn crops.
In 2021, when 30 members of El Roble traveled up to El Papantón to stop machinery that was cutting down dozens of trees, an ejidatario told them he would continue logging because he had money, lawyers and weapons.
Enrique Cárdenas, the teacher, also shares that they prefer not to report the crimes and threats suffered by the members of El Roble because of their distrust of the authorities and the impunity that prevails in the country.
“Sometimes, you lose hope,” says Remigio Gómez. “But our presence in these natural areas has managed to inhibit poaching, fires and logging. Those who are acting with evil intentions or damaging the environment should think twice because we are after them. The pressure that we exert also sometimes forces the authorities to go and act,” says Remigio Gómez.
Convincing people of the importance of conservation
“Our ancestors instilled in us the love of the land, so we are defending it. Our parents never thought about selling or dividing the parcels for profit, and we are following in their footsteps,” says Angelina Cárdenas, the 66-year-old retired teacher.
Angelina Cárdenas was born on March 18, 1957, in Ex-Hacienda de Zapotlanejo, which is the largest ejido in Juanacatlán. She grew up surrounded by forests, cornfields and the cows that her father, Ascensión, took care of with love. She was the first woman to be the commissioner of the ejido, which is home to 918 people and has 30 ejidatarios who participate in the assemblies.
During Angelina Cárdenas’ time as commissioner from June 2019 to June 2022, and with support from her siblings — María Tiburcia Cárdenas and Enrique Cárdenas — and the other members of El Roble, she convinced hunters, ranchers, loggers, coal sellers and other community members of the importance of conserving their natural resources. Several others, through signed letters, promised to respect the ejido.
The Ex-Hacienda de Zapotlanejo ejido has 900 ha (about 2,224 acres) of crops and 1,600 ha (about 3,954 acres) of common land. This common land is home to the El Taray forest and the La Peña y La Mina natural area. During Angelina Cárdenas’ three-year term as commissioner, there were no records of fires or felled trees in the 1,600 hectare forest. In 2020, there was an intentional fire to create charcoal, and in 2022 there was a fire that came from the municipality of Zapotlán del Rey.
Joining forces to stop the construction of a thermoelectric plant
In January 2020, El Roble managed to suspend the operation of the La Charrería thermoelectric plant that would have been installed on 25 ha (about 62 acres) of land in Juanacatlán and a gas pipeline 326 km (about 203 mi) long that would have fed this megaproject. This achievement was due to the partnership that they had formed with the civil organization Un Salto de Vida, which is a collective that works to defend the land in the municipality of El Salto, which is 2 km (about 1.2 mi) from Juanacatlán.
Un Salto de Vida was formed in December 2005. It now has 30 active members, who have been highlighted for their reports of environmental crimes committed in El Salto and Juanacatlán. These municipalities are linked by the Santiago River, the most polluted in Mexico. It flows through the streets of these two municipalities, giving off a nauseating odor and foaming with white bubbles as a result of the pollution
For more than a decade, Un Salto de Vida has demanded cleanup of the Santiago River, stoppage of the overexploitation of aquifers and penalties for the polluters.. The organization has demonstrated the ineffectiveness of current treatment plants, shown an increase in kidney disease in the population living close to the river and named several companies that pollute. Many members of Un Salto de Vida have also received threats and suffered harassment because of these actions.
Alan Carmona, an economist and graduate student in political ecology and alternatives to development — who has been a member of Un Salto de Vida for 10 years — says the fight to stop the installation of the thermoelectric plant began in January 2019.
The thermoelectric plant would have been installed in Juanacatlán, mainly on the San Luis Charolais private ranch. It would have also covered a small area of the La Guadalupe ejido and the Ex-Hacienda de Zapotlanejo ejido. High-voltage lines would pass through this land to connect the thermoelectric plant to the nation’s electrical system. Carmona adds that most of the gas pipeline would also go through the ejido of Juanacatlán.
Eight hundred million dollars was pledged for the project, which was sponsored by the Spanish company Fisterra Energy, with financing from Blackstone Energy Group, an American company.
Carmona recalled that in the first months of 2019, they were in charge of collecting information and asking for support from environmental specialists, health experts and lawyers to gain an in-depth understanding of the consequences of the installation of these megaprojects.
In July and August of that year, they visited each house, plaza and ranch in the ejidos of La Guadalupe, Juanacatlán and Ex-Hacienda de Zapotlanejo, as well as other nearby towns. They handed out brochures and shared information about potential environmental effects, since the operation of the thermoelectric plant would lead to land-use chanes, a local temperature increase and consumption of clean water. This clean water — which would be used to operate and cool the turbines — is lacking in the region.
Angelina Cárdenas, who was the commissioner of the Ex-Hacienda de Zapotlanejo ejido at the time, stood up to the pressure of some ejidatarios who wanted to force her to sign in favor of the installation of these projects.
“From the start, I visited the ejidatarios to tell them about the environmental problems, and some were concerned. Others were more interested in the 70,000 pesos [about $3,960] that the company had promised them. They had been told that once the thermoelectric plant was installed, it would be 800,000 pesos [about $45,250]. My stance was not to sign. I told them, ‘I am leaving my position if you want to damage the environment and our health.’ And in mid-2019, during the assembly, the majority rejected the project,” says Angelina Cárdenas.
In response, Fisterra Energy, which is in charge of the thermoelectric plant, made an appearance in the main plaza of Juanacatlán and offered free classes in English, dancing and computers.
Still, they submitted more than 3,000 signatures to the town council in opposition to the thermoelectric plant and the gas pipeline, according to Carmona. They also carried out three large mobilizations in the streets and main plaza of Juanacatlán and showed evidence to Fisterra Energy that the plant would only create 34 jobs. They inspired the creation of the Local Ecological Law Program (Programa de Ordenamiento Ecológico Local, or POEL, in Spanish) — which did not exist in Juanacatlán at the time — and managed to use a public consultation process to prohibit high-risk regional and industrial infrastructure, including thermoelectric plants and gas pipelines.
Recognition as an Indigenous community
In order to have a voice — and a vote — against authorities, the members of Un Salto de Vida and El Roble formed the Xonocatlán Indigenous Council (in Juanacatlán) in July 2019. They are now seeking legal certification as a Coca Indigenous community.
This certification is essential for the defense of their territories. The Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169) of the International Labor Organization established that Indigenous communities have the right to free-and-informed prior consultation about any megaprojects that may be installed on their territory in order to take action and influence any government’s decision.
In late 2022, they presented four complaints to various courts and named 25 authorities responsible for the approval of the thermoelectric plant that would affect their environment, territory, culture and identity as an Indigenous community. They were granted a suspension for the duration of the trial.
“At this time, the expert evidence that we submitted to the judge regarding environmental health, topography, anthropology and cartography is being shared,” says Carmona, who hopes that the megaprojects will be suspended definitively in 2023.
María Tiburcia Cárdenas and Antonio Huerta, two guardians of the forest in Juanacatlán, say that filing complaints, connecting with experts and uniting with other organizations has strengthened them. They add that their motivation is the love that their ancestors instilled in them and their hope that future generations will be able to enjoy the nature surrounding them.
Teacher Remigio Gómez, looking toward El Papantón mountain, says, “While I am alive, I will keep fighting as much as I can.”
Banner image: Two woman defenders of the forest in Juanacatlán. Image by María Tiburcia Cárdenas.