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Aurelio Santiago, president of communal property of La Trinidad, in the Northern Sierra of Oaxaca, walks quickly, his eyes fixed on the ground, on a path that crosses the cold an imposing forest that surrounds the village. He stops short in front of a huge pine tree that stands out among the much smaller, younger and more fragile pines, and points towards it with a big grin: “It thinks it’s famous now, because it managed to avoid the paper mills.”
The pine is 58 meters (approximately 190 feet) tall and 1,65 meters (5 feet) in diameter and is one of the ten specimens of its size and age that survived the methodic felling that went on for a good part of the twentieth century by the Tuxtepec paper mill, which possessed the exclusivity to exploit the forest in this remote region of the state of Oaxaca.
The extent of the destruction was such that in the mid 80´s four indigenous communities in the area formed the Union of Zapoteco and Chinanteco Producers of the Sierra Juarez (UZACHI), to being an almost impossible crusade against the central and state governments and various other economic and political interests in the region, with the purpose of taking control of the forest resources, that represent practically their only patrimony.
And they won. Now the Sierra Juarez, birthplace of Benito Juarez, Mexico’s only indigenous president, is a promising laboratory for the communal administration and conservation of natural resources, which allocates the responsibility, care, regeneration and exploitation of forests and jungles to the people that live in them.
Many experts consider this model as a solid option to deal with pressing global problems, such as extreme poverty, accelerated loss of biodiversity, deforestation and climate change.
Twenty years ago, the initiative of the communities in the Sierra Juarez was a desperate act of survival. Now, the combination of communal administration and conservation has allowed many communities, among which are the four associated in the UZACHI: Capulalpam, Santiago Comaltepec, Santiago Xiacui and La Trinidad; to stop and even to revert the deterioration of forest resources, as well as developing sustainable business initiatives that represent a mean to overcome poverty. At the same time, a very pernicious though common phenomenon in rural Mexico has been reduced: migration to Mexican cities and to the United States by the area’s youth.
The Zapoteco and Chinanteco communities that belong to the UZACHI operate a company that provides services in technical forestry, which at present represents their primary source of income.
Their activities include exploitation of the forests, which generate employment in saw mills and wood workshops, as well as activities unrelated to wood, such as the collection of mushrooms and bottling of water.
But the most relevant outcome of this organization is that in the last ten years, it has set in motion initiatives parallel to the exploitation of the forest, such as ecotourism; environmental services, like carbon capture; and the production of handicrafts, which is intended to become the main source of income for the four communities at medium term.
Benito Santiago who is also one of the leaders of the UZACHI explains that the organization is aware that their decisions on the economy of this region, inhabited by approximately eight thousand people, need to take into account long term objectives for the next two decades. The sole exploitation of the forest for wood “will begin to dwindle and we have to guarantee that we all have work when that happens”, he says.
For them “ecotourism” doesn’t only represent leasing cabins, camping areas and beautiful locations in which to practice extreme sports. It also represents an opportunity to transmit their knowledge on conservation and sustainable exploitation. Members of the community organize thematic tours for students and specialized scientists on subjects such as biodiversity and climate change.
“We already offer traditional services like cabins, mountain bicycles and horseback riding,” says Santiago, “but we want to go beyond that, in order to make a larger contribution.”
¿The exception that makes the rule?
According to the National Forestry Commission (CONAFOR) 80% of the forests in Mexico are owned by ejidos (community administered federal trust lands) and by indigenous communities with a sociocultural background that allows them to administrate their natural resources in the same exemplary fashion that the UZACHI has.
These are some of the facts that encouraged the creation of the COINBIO (Conservation of Biodiversity by Indigenous Communities) project for the conservation of biodiversity in indigenous communities in the States of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Michoacan financed through a US$7.5 million donation from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) channeled through the World Bank and administered by the National Development Banking Institution (Nafin).
COINBIO´s greater objective is to encourage communal initiatives for the conservation of biological diversity and, at the same time, to promote the economic development in ejidos and communal areas, like the ones administrated by the UZACHI. The project is coordinated by one national and three state administrations which supervise a chain of participation and decision making that involves communal authorities, non-government associations, academic institutions, the federal government and state authorities. Together these actors have decided that local projects should receive financing from the GEF donation.
As a result of the COINBIO, the participating communities and ejidos have succeeded in strengthening their organizational, technical and administrative capacities and making economic development sustainable in efforts such as the exploitation of the forests, workshops and other mechanisms that stress the importance of preserving natural resources.
2008 is the last year that the COINBIO will be financed by the GEF/World Bank and executed by Nafin. Now the CONAFOR will take up this experience and incorporate it to its Communal Forestry administration, so it will continue to receive federal and state support.
The communities of the UZACHI have applied for and received resources from COINBIO to support part of their initiatives in ecotourism, with different levels of advancement, depending on the population.
Los Molinos, the communal ecotourism company in Capulalpam, has been operating since 2003 and has five modules of cabins and a dining room. It is able to offertours on interpretive trails, cycling and horse back riding trails, as well as a trout farm. During vacationing periods like Holy Week they receive approximately 1, 200 visitors.
The company in Trinidad will begin to operate in the spring of 2008 with four cabins, a dining room and four interpretive trails.
“Our most important achievement has been the social organization and training the associations received to administrate, find resources and technical support for their initiatives”, states Adan Santos, COINBIO´s coordinator in Oaxaca, while making a balance of the project’s results.
Santos remarks that one of the greatest challenges for the COINBIO was to be able to respond to both the necessities of communities that had no conservational or organizational experience, and to sophisticated organizations such as UZACHI in the Sierra Juarez and Corenchi in the Chinantla Alta, also in Oaxaca.
Another advance was that all these communities, with such different organizational levels, contacted each other to share experiences and support one another.
The UZACHI as well as other organizations and Mexican indigenous communities offer services in technical assistance to less advanced groups on conservation and communal administration of forests. This has been achieved largely because the technical staff: forestry engineers, biologist and architects are young member of the same communities, who have a personal commitment to its well-being.
According to Santos, 70 communities in Oaxaca were given financing in order to undertake 150 projects through the COINBIO.
The new cooperation initiative South-South
Communal administration and conservation are new concepts, so a specific method to measure the results in reducing poverty and marginalization in participating communities does not exist.
During a conference on Communal Conservation in Oaxaca celebrated last December, Francisco Chapela, national coordinator of COINBIO stated that according to federal statistics the rate of marginalization stopped increasing in areas in Oaxaca, Guerrero and Michoacan where COINBIO was in effect and, in some cases, it actually dropped.
Juan Martinez, social specialist on indigenous communities of the World Bank and one of the responsible parties for CONIBIO explains that a methodology is being prepared to measure these key indicators in similar projects and should be ready to be applied in the first semester of 2008. “This tool”, he says, “will be crucial to encourage support for communal conservation initiatives of forests and jungles in Mexico and other countries.”
According to Martinez, the initiative has caught the attention of authorities and specialists in Central America where similar projects are already taking place, as well as in nations with equally challenging economic and environmental issues, such as India and China, which have sent government representatives to learn about communal administration of natural resources in order to replicate the experience.
This has turned communal administration and conservation into a new experience of “south-south cooperation” in which countries with emerging economies collaborate to find solutions to common global problems such as deforestation and climate change.
“We think Mexico has extensive experience to share”, says Martinez, “And we hope this model of cooperation will became a lot more frequent in the future.”
According to the Development Atlas of the World Bank, 49% of Mexican territory is covered by forest. Yet, with a loss of almost 320 thousand hectares annually of forests between 1990 and 2005, Mexico is one of the most serious cases of deforestation in the world, together with countries like China, Indonesia and Brazil.
The World Bank supports projects related to conservation and sustainable management of forests and jungles in Mexico with approximately US$120 million in donations and loans, which makes the environmental sector one of the most important in the relationship between the Bank and Mexico.
Some of the projects supported by the Bank are Communal Forestry (PROCyMAF), the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor; Non-wood products of Ritual Use (orchids, palms, etc.); the Environmental Services Project, and the Bio Carbon Fund in Tuxtla, Veracruz. All of these endeavors focus on bringing economic profit to the communities that own vast forest resources through schemes of conservation of ecosystem services, like water, and the upkeep of the carbon drains.
…a promising laboratory for communal administration and conservation of natural resources: giving the responsibility for the care, regeneration and exploitation of forests and jungles to the people that live in them.
As a result of the COINBIO, the participating communities and ejidos have succeeded in strengthening their organizational, technical and administrative capacities…
The communities of the UZACHI have applied for and received resources from COINBIO to support part of their initiatives in ecotourism...
…a novel experience in South to South cooperation in which countries with emerging economies collaborate to find solutions to common problems related to global problems, such as deforestation and climate change.