Throughout Mexico, there are several instances of forestry enterprises being formed with the aid and funding of the National Forestry Commission (CONAFOR). The hope for these enterprises is to utilize the natural resource to bring in a sustainable form of income. However, this form of thinking that forests are only truly utilized by turning it into economic benefits is not as helpful as it may seem, especially when it is applied to Indigenous-owned land. There are many aspects that are overlooked and under acknowledged about bringing such a project to the community, such as an increase in illegal logging or a change in the natural dynamic of the forest. Rather than taking the forest from the land to be used as a commodity, a Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) program should be considered. This program would give the people an income for protecting the forest as it is rather than cutting it down for sellable profit.
Hello, my name is Sierra Ashenfelter and welcome to this podcast about environmental geopolitics. Today’s episode is called “The Case of the Fallen Trees: Forestry Enterprises on Indigenous Land”
In this episode, we will be exploring a story regarding Mexico’s National Forestry Commission, also known as CONAFOR, and their plans to establish forestry enterprises in various Indigenous communities in Jalisco, Mexico.
I will be using an environmental geopolitics framework established by Dr. Shannon O’Lear. This framework poses three questions that we will use to examine our story: What is the role of “the environment”? How is human agency present? And what is the spatial focus of the claim?
Using these three questions, we will now dig into our story and discover whether the establishment of forestry enterprises is truly the best option for the local people, or if it is simply another way for outsiders to gain access to Indigenous land and resources.
To begin, let’s look at the claim that CONAFOR is making in this story. In an article posted on the Mongabay news site, CONAFOR has expressed that it is “supporting projects that encourage forest conservation while providing income generating opportunities for the Indigenous Wixárika and O’dam communities.”
CONAFOR is presenting this idea as wholly positive for the local people. They believe that this is the best way to combat poverty while also encouraging sustainable practices in the area.
This story has an underlying element regarding environmental security. They find that the forest is being underutilized by the people and is not being “properly” used by them. Thus, the forestry commission must come in to secure the resource in order to combat the supposed resulting economic downfall that has befallen the people residing in the area.
With this in mind, we will now look at our claim using the first question in our framework.
What is the role of the environment?
In this story, the environment is defined as the forest surrounding the communities and in particular the trees that grow within the forest. The article details that “The area is home to Jalisco’s largest forest reserves with some 680,000 hectares of temperate, dense and arid forest in the state’s ten northernmost municipalities.”
The role that the forest serves in this story is to be a source of logging material to be gathered.
While it is true that the trees are the only element that is of interest to CONAFOR, there are several other factors that still play into the story but is not addressed at all in their claim.
The forestry commission is overlooking the fact that a forest is made up of several different components that create a balanced ecosystem. If just one of these elements is put off balance, it could cause terrible impacts on the rest of the system.
In an article written by Jan Schipper, it is stated that there are almost 1,200 different species of plants, with 16% being endemic to the region, and approximately 300 bird species in the area, including some migratory birds from the United States and Canada. There are also several mammal species that are crucial to the area due to the fact that there are no invertebrate pollinators in the region. The Jalisco Dry Forests is also home to endangered species, such as the Magdalena woodrat. If proper care isn’t taken, these species, along with these many other flora and fauna, will experience devastating effects as a result of the logging.
Next, we will look at the role of human agency in our story.
CONAFOR is an environmental organization that was formed by the Mexican government in order to pursue sustainable practices throughout the country. The group also attempts to work with Indigenous communities in order to both achieve their environmental goals of sustainable practices and to repair the relationship between the Indigenous people and the Mexican government.
In this particular claim, they are planning to help establish and maintain forestry enterprises in the Indigenous community of San Sebastián and other surrounding villages. They have indicated that their goal is to provide income to the local people while also focusing on the sustainable use of the forest. There is a lot of emphasis on how the communities currently live and how their lives would be improved by bringing this logging project to the area. The article places significant focus on the fact that the area has high poverty rates and that bringing a project like this will also bring other amenities like roads, electricity, water treatment, and technology.
CONAFOR has also repeatedly stated that the communities will be heavily involved with the process. They will decide when the project will start and how it will proceed.
The Indigenous people will obviously be the most affected by this project. Anything that occurs afterwards will certainly have an impact on the people, whether it’s positive or negative.
What’s not detailed as much in this story is the fact that the federal and local governments are the main source of funding for CONAFOR and other environmental organizations in Mexico. This funding is often inconsistent and changes frequently due to various political and social influences. This could lead to unfinished projects, such as the forestry enterprises and sawmills.
In an article by Andrew Mathews, a case is shown where a director of CONAFOR resigned from his position, due to public backlash regarding the low success rate of planting saplings. The public response also caused the federal government to pull interest away from conservation due to the sapling project making President Felipe Calderón look bad for being involved with the planting. With the director’s resignation, it led to a period of uncertainty for the future of the forestry commission. This type of wavering support is something to keep in mind when constructing such a long-term investment that has many impacts.
There’s also the fact that the relationship between the government and the Indigenous people is very strained due to the history of oppression. It is impossible to ignore this aspect of the story due to the groups involved with the project. Indigenous people throughout Mexico have faced repeated conflict regarding their land rights and their cultural practices. This is definitely something that must be kept in mind as their project or any other project regarding Indigenous land is involved.
Another aspect not addressed is the presence of outsiders, such as gangs and other organized crime. There is frequent illegal logging and intimidation that already occurs on Indigenous land, and the fact that CONAFOR wants to construct a maintained road will make it even easier for outsiders to reach the community’s land.
Carlos García-Jiménez et al write about this issue and how there is a significant correlation between organized crime and deforestation. These gangs use violence, intimidation, and bribery in order to continue their operations and to stop the local people from speaking out against them. A major consequence of this illegal presence on Indigenous land has caused a decrease in these community forestry enterprises and an increase in illegal logging. This issue is something that desperately needs to be addressed before more forestry enterprises can even be considered.
Lastly, the fact that forestry enterprises are the main focus to begin with is also questionable. There is very little mention of PES, or Payment for Ecosystem Services programs. These PES programs have many more options regarding environmental conversation and economic benefit. Using one of these programs can allow the local people to make an income without having to sell off the forest as a commodity.
In a study by Carlos Ramirez-Reyes et al, they investigated whether PES programs really helped reduce deforestation, forest degradation, and fragmentation. Their results found that areas with high enrollment in these PES programs did, in fact, have a positive impact on protecting forestland. The paper also mentions how these Payment for Ecosystem Services are widely implemented around the country, so it brings up the question why wouldn’t this come to the Indigenous communities first? Why should the first project be one that removes the forest from its homeland when the people could be paid for its stewardship of the land instead? This could be answered by posing our final question from our geopolitical framework.
The spatial focus of this story is also important. It focuses primarily on San Sebastián Teponahuaxtlán and the other surrounding communities. There is also some minor focus on the entire state of Jalisco. This area is the focal point because much of Jalisco, and these communities in particular, have more dry forest than many other areas of the country. As mentioned before, Jalisco has about 680,000 hectares of forest, which makes it a prime area of interest for the logging industry.
However, there are three spatial aspects that are not addressed in the story. The first is that the changes are occurring in the community. With the introduction of things like sawmills and roads, it will cause a significant physical change to the layout of the community. It isn’t discussed where these constructions will take place or how the negative aspects will be mitigated, such as the case with the maintained roads. This physical planning is a key aspect of this project, and it is very important that it is well addressed before construction has begun, otherwise these issues and other unforeseen circumstances could occur.
The next spatial aspect that isn’t put in focus is the national involvement and influence. Mexico as a whole is involved with this project, not only because most of the funding is coming from the federal government, but also other people from around Mexico, and perhaps even other countries, will benefit from the lumber harvested from this region. They will be able to utilize this wood and make their own profit from it after it has been taken from the Indigenous communities.
Lastly, the international scale is not mentioned in this story either. While international organizations, such as the United Nations, aren’t directly involved with this project, they have been pushing for more projects like this all around the world. They have created programs like REDD+ and other programs that focus on environmental issues and the involvement of Indigenous people. This can be both positive and negative because while the Indigenous communities are getting an active role in the international community, it is often the case that the global community places all the responsibility on the Indigenous people, even though most of the issues aren’t even caused by them.
In an article published in Conservation Biology, Florent Kohler et al discuss how Indigenous communities have taken on an increased amount of responsibility for conservation, but frequently don’t have their own needs met by those expecting this responsibility. While it is very empowering to give a voice and role to the Indigenous people of Latin America, it is also important that they are not treated like a means to an end rather than people trying to live their own lives as well. When outsiders expect Indigenous people to be environmentalist by tradition and thus don’t need any assistance, it creates frustration for everyone involved. It is particularly frustrating when most of the issues, like deforestation and carbon emission, aren’t even caused by these local communities, but the other members of the international community. To create better collaboration between Indigenous people and the global community, there must be good communication and the expectation that the local people will fix it all needs to be eliminated.
As you can see, by using O’Lear’s geopolitical framework, we can see that the story that CONAFOR has presented is much more complicated and perhaps not as beneficial as the organization claims it to be.
I believe that CONAFOR has good intentions with working closely with the Indigenous communities and has sustainability and climate control in mind but is overlooking many other factors that could bring about undesirable outcomes. In the broader context, it just shows how complex these projects truly are, but how very little planning goes into them. When deciding on a program like this, there needs to be extensive research and collaboration to ensure that this is truly what is needed, or if there is a better alternative, such as a PES program. This would give payment to the community and will keep the forest standing and in better conditions than simply bringing a forestry enterprise to the area that will only benefit outsiders.
I hope that CONAFOR and the Wixárika and O’dam communities can come to a mutual agreement that will not only aid the people, but also keep Indigenous land in Indigenous hands.
There is so much more that could be said about this story, but for now we will call it case closed for this episode. I’ve been your host, Sierra Ashenfelter, and this has been “The Case of the Fallen Trees: Forestry Enterprises on Indigenous Land.”
Del Castillo, Agustín. 2022. “Forest Enterprise in Mexico Attempts to Present Opportunities for Indigenous Communities.” Mongabay. December 2, 2022. https://news.mongabay.com/2022/03/forest-enterprise-in-mexico-attempts-to-present-opportunities-for-indigenous-communities/.
García-Jiménez, Carlos Ignacio, and Yalma L. Vargas-Rodriguez. 2021. “Passive Government, Organized Crime, and Massive Deforestation: The Case of Western Mexico.” Conservation Science and Practice 3 (12). https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/csp2.562.
Hernández-López, Leticia. 2021. “Threatened and endemic flora and Mycobiota in the municipality San Sebastián del Oeste, Jalisco, Mexico.” Acta Botánica Mexicana 128 (1771). https://www.scielo.org.mx/scielo.php?pid=S0187-71512021000100107&script=sci_abstract&tlng=en.
Kernan, Bruce et al. 2013. “Mexico Tropical Forest and Biodiversity Assessment” December 2, 2022. https://usaidgems.org/Documents/FAA&Regs/FAA118119LAC/Mexico%20FAA%20118%20119%20FB%20Assessment%20April%202013.pdf.
Kohler, Florent, and Eduardo S. Brondizio. 2017. “Considering the Needs of Indigenous and Local Populations in Conservation Programs.” Conservation Biology 31 (2): 245-251. https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.12843.
Mathews, Andrew S. 2014. “Scandals, Audits, and Fictions: Linking Climate Change to Mexican Forests.” Social Studies of Science 44 (1): 82-108. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43284221.
O’Lear, Shannon. 2018. Environmental Geopolitics. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.
Ramirez-Reyes, Carlos, Katharine R. E. Sims, Peter Potapov, and Volker C. Radeloff. 2018. “Payments for Ecosystem Services in Mexico Reduce Forest Fragmentation.” Ecological Applications 28 (8): 1982-1997. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26623291.
Schipper, Jan. 2018. “Jalisco Dry Forests.” One Earth. December 2, 2022. https://www.oneearth.org/ecoregions/jalisco-dry-forests/