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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.