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Democracy and the Trees: Environmental Governance in the Cloud Forests of Oaxaca's Sierra Juárez
by Ross Mitchell


A steep and winding climb north of Oaxaca City on Highway 175 takes the traveller from a subtropical valley floor to some of Mexico's most interesting mountains. About 20 kilometers from Oaxaca City and around 2,700 meters above sea level, you arrive at La Cumbre ('The Peak'), gateway to one of the world's richest pine and oak forest ecosystems. The southernmost stand of Douglas fir in North America can be found here!

Often shrouded in a blanket of clouds, La Cumbre belongs to the municipality of Santa Catarina Ixtepeji (1880 meters and a population of 2,532, Census 2000)

Ixtepeji is one of two research communities selected for my dissertation field research on ecological democracy. The other community is Santa María Yavesia (2000 meters and a population of 460, Census 2000), about 45 minutes from Ixtlán. Both belong to the Sierra Juárez.

What is "ecological democracy"? One way of looking at it is a model that tries to meet two needs. First, it attempts to incorporate all interested citizens into environmentally-related decision-making. Second, it strives for the equitable distribution of ecological amenities such as water, air, plants, trees, and even animals.


Yet both of these conditions are seriously lacking in most of today's democracies. Environment and rural communities usually take a backseat to the economic priorities of the day by decision-makers.

So how can we measure 'ecological democracy?' One way is to assess the degree to which perceptions of threats to local control over forest resources can politically motivate rural people. Could intense political involvement by rural people lead to increased access to (or control over) forest resources? Is it possible that high levels of local democratic participation in forest management can lead to improved forest protection?

My curiosity about these questions took me to the cloud forests of southern Mexico. My data collection was carried out from May through December during 2002 with financial support from Canada's International Development Research Centre and the Organization of American States.

Sustainable Forestry and Local Democracy in the Sierra Norte


The natural environment is an integral aspect of the daily life of communities such as Ixtepeji and Yavesia. Previously, most economic benefits obtained from Ixtepeji's almost 19,000-hectare forest went to Fábricas de Papel Tuxtepec, the parastatal company that had been granted a long-term timber harvesting concession until 1983.

Much of Ixtepeji's forests were selectively logged under the mistaken notion that remaining pine trees (smaller and often stunted) would adequately regenerate once the high quality large trees were removed. When Ixtepeji regained control of its forest resources, foresters used new silviculture methods favouring natural regeneration, in addition to planting different species of pine trees.

Today, logging and silvicultural operations are performed with relatively little ecological damage. Forest products include timber and non-timber products: ornamental wild plants, wild mushrooms, mineral spring water, pine resin and provision of ecotourism services. Local women participate and direct many activities. All of these are under the authorization and supervision of the federal Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT).

Carefully prepared plans have been produced with the assistance of community forest workers and a professional forester. Ixtepeji's forests were certified in 2001 by SmartWood/Rainforest Alliance on behalf of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

Still, many challenges remain. For example, illegal deer hunting has continued even under constant community vigilance, and over half of the timber harvested is sold as roundwood due to insufficient capacity in the community sawmill. Yet the community is cognizant of these issues and is working to improve its forest management practices.

Not far away to the east is an entirely different situation. Unlike Ixtepeji, the mountain community of Yavesia has persistently refused to commercially log its forests for at least 50 years. Most Yavesia residents convey their understanding of how their water, soils, and forests are inextricably linked, and must be preserved forever. As one resident explains, "There is an ecological tranquility here that you can't find in many parts of the country. Mexico is destroying its forest resources, but here in Yavesia we have always conserved our forests ever since our ancestors left us this natural heritage."

Yavesia shares the same 29,430-hectare land base as part of Pueblos Mancomunados, a cluster that includes two other municipalities, Amatlán and Lachatao, and five smaller towns. But Yavesia has never been comfortable with this shared land arrangement. Most residents justify their continued struggle to achieve autonomy and about one-third of the land base (9,140 hectares) as necessary to protect their forests.


They say they have no intention to engage in commercial logging but wish to focus instead on water production, ecotourism, forest preservation for biodiversity and watershed protection. Still, firewood collection, charcoal production, and small-scale logging by local carpenters all impact the local forests. Many trees are suffering from mountain pine beetle infestations, and at least two forest fires have occurred near Yavesia's town centre over the past 30 years due to human activities.

Ironically, perhaps, both Ixtepeji and Yavesia have earned regional, national, and international awards in the past two years. Most recently in November 2002, both communities were publicly awarded the prestigious World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) "Gift to the Earth" for good care of their forests.

But what about democracy? Democracy is part of everyone's daily lives in communities like Ixtepeji and Yavesia, not just doublespeak of politicians for election purposes. To participate in local leadership helps build community and maintain traditional practices. Yet many rural residents I spoke to expressed a high level of distrust in democracy. Others said Ixtepeji and Yavesia enjoy a pure form of democracy, although still with many challenges to face. One crucial limitation is that most women do not vote, do not participate in community assembly elections and do not take part in common resource decision-making. Still, many women are involved in key aspects of daily life such as health and education committees, bottling spring water, and mushroom cooperatives.

Lessons Learned

If we consider democracy as the freedom to participate in decisions regarding livelihood, not only lifestyles, then governance in Ixtepeji and Yavesia seems to be pointed in the right direction. Both communities are working toward more inclusive, ecological management. In both cases, deeply held concerns for the forests are being played out in unique ways.

So what does 'ecological democracy' look like in Ixtepeji and Yavesia?


  • These two mountain communities have a shared tradition of strong cooperative relationships, collective land ownership and management, and cultural patterns that reinforce long-held decision-making mechanisms.

  • Communities such as Ixtepeji and Yavesia have a strong forest conservation ethic. Many are acutely aware of their responsibility that the forest is for all to use, including visitors and future generations.

  • In Ixtepeji, modern scientific forestry techniques are being combined with new strategies for increased sales of forest products, both timber and non-timber. They are taking full advantage of technological advancements such as the Global Positioning System (GPS) for mapping purposes.
  • Diversification is key to the success of their forest enterprises. Certain organizations including the FSC and the WWF among others are supporting several of these communities; not only in their efforts to certify their forests, but perhaps to find niche markets for their products and services. Low-intensity logging and non-timber forest products provide opportunities for all community residents to get involved and earn extra income

Finally, I believe that my research will show that the key to forest use and protection rests with an empowered citizenry. Mountain communities are generally well placed to determine what is ultimately best for them and their environment. If democracy can be encouraged to flourish in forest-dependent mountain communities, then nature and people alike may have a good chance to thrive.


Ross Mitchell is an Environmental Sociologist with Golder Associates Ltd. He holds a Ph.D. in Rural Sociology and a B.Sc. in Forestry from the University of Alberta, Canada, and a M.Sc. in Rural Planning and Development (University of Guelph). He may be reached by email.

For those interested in the author's previous work with rural communities, please consult Green Ponchos and Inca Gold: Natural Links to the Past in Cajamarca, Peru and Community Tourism in Peru: Taquile, Lake Titicaca.


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Benito Juárez - Guelatao - Cuajimoloyas - Ixtlán de Juárez - Ixtepeji - Yavesia - Lachatao (Sierra Juárez)





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