Forest enterprise in Mexico attempts to present opportunities for Indigenous communities

Pine forests in San Sebastián Teponahuaxtlán. Image courtesy of Agustín Castillo.

In the state of Jalisco, northwest Mexico, the Wixárika community of San Sebastián Teponahuaxtlán is attempting to use the forest sustainably to create development opportunities for inhabitants.

The Sierra Madre Occidental in northwestern Mexico boasts vast forests that are home to Indigenous communities such as the Wixárika people (or Huichols). Across the largest forest reserves in Jalisco, just three communities are spread across an area of more than 400,000 hectares (988,421 acres), equivalent to one-fifth the size of El Salvador. But this natural wealth is not reflected in the residents’ living conditions. Now, several stakeholders are coming together to help change this narrative.

  • In the state of Jalisco, northwest Mexico, the Wixárika community of San Sebastián Teponahuaxtlán is attempting to use the forest sustainably to create development opportunities for inhabitants.
  • The state government and the National Forestry Commission (CONAFOR) are supporting projects that encourage forest conservation while providing income generating opportunities for the Indigenous Wixárika and O’dam communities.
  • The area is home to Jalisco’s largest forest reserves with some 680,000 hectares (1,680,300 acres) of temperate, dense and arid forest in the state’s ten northernmost municipalities.

Inspired by the Sierra Wixárika region community of Waut+a, or San Sebastián Teponahuaxtlán, a strategy is being developed to help create income-generating projects that encourage the sustainable use of forest resources. The Wuaut+a, or San Sebastián Teponahuaxtlán, are known for their fierce defense to recover the entire territory they were granted by the Spanish crown in 1718. The community’s farmers have been engaged in forest enterprise for many years, even before securing funding in 2019 from the Jalisco government and the Mexican National Forestry Commission (known by its Spanish language acronym, CONAFOR). This funding resulted in the construction of a fully operational sawmill along with a workshop to process the wood produced. The community enterprise supplies wood to the community’s villages, and sells cabin bases for ecotourism projects in the surrounding mountains, says its manager José Isabel Carrillo Martínez, a young community member.

The president of Wuaut+a’s communal lands, Óscar Hernández Hernández, tells us that the community’s practices and traditions have always focused on conservation. But when it came to introducing new opportunities to improve the economic health of Indigenous people, they looked to the successful and established community forestry enterprise projects taking place in Michoacán and Oaxaca. The Sierra Wixárika region’s forest enterprise strategy is an inter-institutional effort undertaken by the Jalisco Ministry of Environment and Territorial Development (SEMADET) and CONAFOR.

This is not the first time that attempts have been made to encourage forest enterprise in the area. Following a history of failure, today the strategy’s progress relies on the Indigenous peoples’ will, organizational capacity and time, says Karen Belén Rodríguez Moedano, Director of Natural Resources for the Jalisco government. Data from Jalisco’s strategic forestry program show that there are 680,000 hectares (1,680,300 acres) of forest in the state’s ten northernmost municipalities, of which almost 240,000 (593,000 acres) have high or medium production potential. Another 40,000 hectares (98,800 acres) is in a more arid environment, where the harvesting of non-timber products like Mexican oregano (Lippia graveolens, an aromatic plant widely used in Mexican cuisine) represents a significant economic prospect for the region.

Paradoxically, it is not the Indigenous forests belonging to the Wixárika and O’dam (or Tepehuan) communities that are being harvested efficiently, but smaller private land. The forest enterprise project, driven by the state government and CONAFOR, aims to turn these community resources into engines for development, which is especially important for a region that is home to three of the four most marginalized municipalities in Jalisco. Two of these, Mezquitic and Bolaños, are among the least developed in Mexico, explains Jalisco’s Secretary of Environment, Sergio Graf Montero.

Defending Wixárika territory

For centuries, Indigenous communities have inhabited the mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental, an area that was inaccessible until just three decades ago. But the mountains are surrounded by Mestizo communities with whom the Indigenous population has had conflict over land possession since at least the mid-nineteenth century. Any intervention by neighboring state governments (Nayarit, Zacatecas and Durango) tended to side with the settlers, legitimizing the Indigenous communities’ dispossession.

The Wixaritari (as they are known in their native Huichol language) see themselves as a part of Jalisco, but have had little support from the state government, leading to unresolved interstate boundary problems. The situation has perpetuated resentment among the area’s Indigenous population. In the largest of the Sierra’s communities, San Sebastián Teponahuaxtlán or Wuaut+a, residents attempted to block two consecutive elections in 2018 and 2021. The failure of development efforts coming from outside the sierra are, therefore, not so surprising.

José Manuel Arreguín served as a government planner under Adolfo López Mateos and Luis Echeverría Álvarez (1958-1976), and was tasked with carrying out the regional assessment that supported the Plan Huicot (Huichol, Cora and Tepehuan). “What we wanted was to boost the region’s development. Through that work, we gained the communities’ trust and talked to them. They told us that their priority was to recover their invaded lands. That was more than 40 years ago and remains their primary concern. “For example, they were suspicious of us giving them roads, even though we offered them – they believed it would lead to their land being invaded and their forests being destroyed,” says the now retired civil servant.

The project failed because those responsible for the federal government’s finances claimed that such a large investment in a sparsely inhabited region was unjustifiable. Short-term political interests under the Echeverría presidency prioritized flashy and disjointed works, such as a slaughterhouse in San Andrés Cohamiata or Tateikie, the northernmost Wixárika community in Jalisco. No cattle was ever slaughtered for the regional market, Arreguín adds. Arreguín believes that development planning without taking into account community needs, time and organization is the common denominator in the repeated failure of government initiatives.

New efforts underway

Any attempt to establish a new forest development program must take this sensitive and complex background into account. Jalisco’s Secretary of the Environment, Graf Montero, recognizes the need to rebuild trust among community members towards the Mexican government. He believes that a forest enterprise project template must be designed, but only with the permission of the communities in question, and with respect for their existing organizational models. “The area has the most significant timber potential in the entire state, but we cannot get it wrong again. This time there is no hurry, and the project will develop at the pace set by the communities themselves,” he says.

As if these concerns were not enough, the Indigenous region’s northern borders also form the backdrop to a bloody war between two of the most prominent criminal groups in the country (the Jalisco New Generation Cartel – the CJNG – and the Sinaloa Cartel), which can cause disrupted access to the area. Together with the COVID-19 pandemic, this prevented significant project progress throughout 2021, explains Karen Belén Rodríguez Moedano. “I hope that CONAFOR continues its support and that the poor investment in Mexico’s environmental sector does not cause major delays. We are taking this project very seriously,” adds Moedano. Attempts to secure an interview with CONAFOR representatives concerning their plans for the Jalisco forests were unsuccessful.

Work to date has involved forging relationships with three large Wixáritari communities: Tateikie and Wuaut+a, which account for around 330,000 hectares (815,440 acres), including some 140,000 hectares (345,940 acres) of temperate forest, as well as Tuapurie or Santa Catarina Cuexcomatitlán, where less progress has been made. There, dense forest covers more than 30,000 hectares (74,130 acres). Talks are also underway with small O’dam communities that have remained in the interior of Jalisco due to border adjustments, economic migration or to avoid social conflict: Tepizoac, San Juan de los Potreros, Tenzompa and San Lorenzo Azqueltán. An agreement was reached between CONAFOR and the Jalisco government in May 2020 and, since then, working groups focusing on forest management, protection, restoration and conservation have been established.

Wuaut+a leading the way

The Wuaut+a or San Sebastián Teponahuaxtlán is the largest community in this region of Jalisco, with around 260,000 hectares (642,470 acres) of temperate forest, deciduous forest, grasslands and riparian vegetation (growing alongside rivers). Its sawmill is located in the town of Bajío del Tule, in the upper part of the sierra next to the unfinished Bolaños-Huejuquilla regional highway, where there have been failed forest harvests in previous decades. The sawmill was opened in 2017 with an investment co-financed by CONAFOR, and is the only one currently operating in this mountainous area.

“There’s a lot to think about here at the factory. We need to take care of the wood supply for customers, cut the wood properly, ensure that the workers operate safely, but also make sure that the money that comes in is properly accounted for. Reinvestments must be made to maintain the sawmill, and the community assembly must be duly informed,” explains José Isabel Carrillo Martínez, the sawmill’s young manager at barely 20 years old. He says it is essential that the money is managed transparently, but also that those managing the site have the autonomy to identify reinvestments that will help develop the mill. The Barrancas del Tule sawmill has 26 team members, and there are plans to acquire more machinery, cranes and trucks, and to establish distribution routes managed directly by community members.

Members currently work with 25 to 30 cubic meters (82 to 98 feet) of wood per day, producing an average of 8,000 cubic meters (282,517 cubic feet) per year, totaling about 3,000 pine trees. But their production capacity could be greater. The timber boards produced are used for construction, carpentry, pallets, and furniture. The main buyers are members of the neighboring mestizo ejido of Los Amoles, who act as intermediaries to transport the wood to Colotlán, the state capital in northern Jalisco, and the cities of Tlaltenango and Zacatecas in the neighboring state. But the presence along the community’s border of CJNG members, who charge illegal fees for timber transportation, can lead to a drop in sales.

Carrillo Martínez says that their share of the factory’s financing has now been covered, meaning that a portion of the profits can be invested in social projects for the community, such as sanitation, water, and electrification in some of the hundreds of villages in the sierra. The installation of a water purification plant is also planned as part of the company’s diversification.

Over the past two years, the Waut+a have also hosted training workshops for women on topics such as planning and income-generation, including elements focused on climate change. The community has also received training and support to form forest fire brigades that have improved firefighting. This experience on the ground has meant that CONAFOR and the Jalisco Forestry Development Program Trust (FIPRODEFO), which allocates 30 percent of its funds to the area, have recognized the importance of adjusting how they usually operate. For example, CONAFOR has adapted its processes to “acknowledge Indigenous regulatory systems in specific calls for proposals, and may set alternative requirements”. The Jalisco government, in the first instance, will not require documents such as registration with the Tax Administration System (SAT) and proof of a bank account, but “these requirements will be mandatory for those who go on to be awarded financing.”

A process was also introduced that takes into account Indigenous practices and customs, intended to accommodate requests for “any support concepts allowed under the rules,” explains SEMADET’s Director of Natural Resources, Karen Belén Rodríguez Moedano. When it comes to projects in other Wixáritari communities, Moedano says that the Tateikie (or San Andrés Cohamiata) benefited from recruiting a technical advisor to help them with fire management training, and advice from FIPRODEFO helped them implement good practices for biodiversity protection and for the conservation of water sources in forests and jungles. The community is also in the process of developing a local payment for ecosystem services (PES) system through joint funding from CONAFOR and FIPRODEFO.

Tuaupurie (or Santa Catarina Cuexcomatitlán, home to sacred natural site Teakata) has a CONAFOR-financed payment for ecosystem services contract for 2,000 hectares (4,940 acres) that will support the creation of a sustainable forest enterprise, with a sawmill and a carpentry shop. The community has also set up a tree nursery for reforestation and protection of water sources.

O’dam (Tepehuan) communities also have valuable forests and their own culture that they are keen to preserve. Among the projects supported as part of the program are the planting of more than 87,000 oregano plants in San Lorenzo Azqueltán in the Villa Guerrero municipality, and payments for ecosystem services across 629 hectares (1,554 acres) of forest in Tenzompa, including financing for community firefighting brigades. Women in the Tepizoac community, in the municipality of Chimaltitán, have received training in their rights and in commercializing artisanal products.

Wuaut+a’s president of communal lands, Óscar Hernández Hernández, says that there are growing concerns around the loss of traditions brought about by external influences, especially when it comes to money. One of these is income from illegal sources such as drug cultivation, but “as that market has decreased (as in the case of poppy cultivation), it has helped us to maintain control of our lands. We certainly want progress but not at any cost, and this is something we are trying to assert through our work with government initiatives,” says Hernández. Hernández is also keen to reiterate that there is a tradition of protecting the forest. “It provides us with our livelihoods, and we know that our water sources are born there. We also need certain animals from the forest for traditional ceremonies and have always taken care of them, especially deer, but also eagles, pumas and wolves. Many visitors and scientists tell us that wolves are extinct in Mexico, but they are not seen because cars scare them. This has led them hiding further away, but there are still some out there,” he explains.

When work began on Plan Huicot in the 1960s, the Sierra was one of the most remote places in Mexico. Electrification, paved roads, hospitals and public educational centers simply did not exist. Now, some 55 years later, social inclusion has improved, but at a slower rate than the rest of the country. Houses in 1965 were lit by quinqueño stoves and lacked any form of luxury or communication. Today, the Atlas of Indigenous Peoples suggests that 51.8% of homes have a radio, 35.8% have television, 21.7% have a refrigerator and 2.9% have internet. The time has come for Indigenous communities to take the plunge and establish their own inclusive projects. The past has not always meant doom and gloom for Mexico’s Indigenous people – but they are keen to stop being the eternal victims of so-called progress.

English translation: Hayley Smith

Read the original article In Mongabay to see all the photographs illustrating this article.

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