How Mexican Communities are Helping to Save a Fir Forest

by Agustín del Castillo / translated by Sarah Engel / Mongabay

A fir forest around the Nevado de Colima volcano in Jalisco. Image by Agustín del Castillo.

  • The future of an endemic tree and the ecosystem where it’s found depends, to a large extent, on stopping illegal logging and the expansion of avocado crops in southern Jalisco.
  • The Colima fir tree (Abies colimensis) is listed as an endangered species by Mexican authorities that can reach 60 meters (196 feet) in height and 2 meters (6.5 feet) in diameter.
  • Its survival has been threatened by logging and, more recently, by fires to clear the land and the avocado orchards that follow.
  • But community-driven efforts are finding ways to leave the forest standing while still generating livelihoods and developing the local economy.

For 20 years, the Colima fir tree (Abies colimensis) has been at the heart of many disputes to conserve the temperate forests of southern Jalisco, a state in central Mexico. Today, the future of this tree rests upon whether the area’s avocado crops will advance further and whether neighboring communities will unite to protect it.

The Colima fir tree’s distribution has been reduced to the area surrounding the Nevado de Colima volcano. In November 2019, Mexican authorities included the tree on a list of endangered species.

The Nevado de Colima volcano stands 4,260 meters (13,976 feet) above sea level. Image by Agustín del Castillo.

According to biologist José Villa Castillo, the director of Nevado de Colima National Park and Nevado de Colima Cloud Forest State Park, it is imperative to stop the commercialization of the tree’s timber and to create policies that conserve the forests in which it lives. Villa Castillo also supported the inclusion of the tree on the endangered species list.

Villa Castillo acknowledged the enormous challenge of conserving this tree, and he said the pressure to exploit its timber without sustainable management is far from the only problem. The expansion of the nearby avocado industry also threatens its survival.

When allowed to grow, the Colima fir tree can become monumental: It can reach 60 meters (196 feet) in height and 2 m (6.5 ft) in diameter. To protect this giant, specialists and communities often promote ecotourism and conservation projects inside the national and state parks that surround the Nevado de Colima volcano.

Fires that clear land for avocado crops

In 2012, a group of researchers from the University of Guadalajara proposed to the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) the recognition of the A. colimensis as a unique species to differentiate it from the sacred fir (A. religiosa), which is the dominant fir tree in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, a collection of volcanoes in central Mexico.

The Colima fir tree “has extremely low genetic diversity; it has the lowest known genetic diversity among all the species in the Abies genus in Mesoamerica and one of the lowest among all the species of trees on the planet,” according to the authors of the proposal to recognize the tree as an endangered species. The area it occupies “is very limited”: just 15,002 hectares (37,071 acres), or 0.007% of the territory of Mexico.

The Nevado de Colima volcano, which stands 4,260 meters (13,976 feet) above sea level, is one of only eight peaks that exceed 4,000 m (13,123 ft) in Mexico. It is only 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Pacific Ocean and is considered an “evolutionary island” because the ecosystems in its high-altitude areas drive unique adaptations in species and are cut off from other ecosystems by hundreds of kilometers. The Colima fir tree is an example of the area’s biological differentiation, according to Libertad Arredondo, a researcher and expert on the ecology of high mountains.

The fir forests are mainly located in the middle of slopes or in ravines. Image by Agustín del Castillo.

Even though the tree has remained on that “evolutionary island,” its situation has become increasingly complicated by the impact of deforestation, which was propelled by the issuance of permits for forest exploitation. Fires, started to convert the land to agriculture or other uses, also present a threat to the ecosystem, according to the experts who suggested the tree should be considered endangered.

The researchers said the tree’s future prospects are further complicated by its slow growth rate, its high degree of genetic erosion, the effects of climate change, and the movement of clouds to higher altitudes. The position of clouds is crucial because they act as an essential source of moisture for fir trees.

Villa Castillo, an expert in pine genetics and reproduction, said the Colima fir tree has never been successfully reproduced in nurseries, which would likely make it impossible to conduct reforestation efforts to help repopulate the species.

The forests that contain the Colima fir tree are in cold, humid climates, with very little light reaching the understory, and they’re mainly located in the middle of slopes or in ravines. The species thrives when surrounded by oak trees, coniferous trees and other types of vegetation common in mountainous cloud forests. The tree also requires a primary habitat with little disturbance from humans.

According to Villa Castillo, fire kills most Colima fir tree seedlings, as it kills seedlings of other species in the Abies genus. In recent years, more fires have been started in the forest to clear the way for avocado trees.

A tree and other vegetation in the cloud forest surrounding the Nevado de Colima volcano. Image by Agustín del Castillo.

Sonia Navarro Pérez, a researcher from the University of Guadalajara who has monitored and conducted biological inventories in the area, has seen firsthand how the growth of the avocado industry has led to the loss of important forested areas.

She described the case of the indigenous community of San José del Carmen, which is in the municipality of Zapotitlán de Vadillo, near one of the patches of forest.

“We were working with them to establish productive alternatives that are good for nature,” Navarro Pérez said. “But when the avocado came, it overwhelmed us completely.”

Since 2013, the coniferous forests around the Nevado de Colima volcano have lost nearly 6,600 hectares (16,300 acres) due to illegal logging, livestock rearing and intentionally set fires, according to Mexico’s deforestation risk index developed by the National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change.

A section of cloud forest in San José del Carmen, inside the state park created in 2009. Community members have been protecting the forest voluntarily for over two decades. Image by Agustín del Castillo.

“[What was once] an original area of 7,000 hectares [17,300 acres] of fir-specific forest is now cut in half,” said Villa Castillo, the director of the Nevado de Colima national and state parks.

The expansion of the avocado crops is the most recent threat in a series of events that have negatively impacted the conservation of the forests in the area.

Between the 1940s and the 1990s, the Atenquique Industrial Company had exclusive rights to use the timber from these forests under a concession from the Mexican government. The result was “that the forests were skimmed — that is, they took the best parts,” Villa Castillo said.

When the concession expired in 1995, the forests did not experience a transition to a sustainable timber extraction method. Those who, along with landowners who held small plots, had rights to the shared land were limited to selling the forested areas, at very low prices, to the new logging industries located in Ciudad Guzmán. “Then, there were many abuses against the communities. The money was given to the caciques” — families who have always controlled the shared land — “alms were left for the community, and our forests were very poorly managed,” said Rafael González Merín, the former president of Huescalapa, a collective of communally owned farmland known as an ejido.

As a result, many residents of the community believe the solution is to conserve the forests with productive projects.

Communities pitch in to save their trees

Unlike the communities that have been overtaken by the avocado industry, Huescalapa has largely managed to resist its arrival. The community of shared land, which spans more than 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres), is home to pine and fir trees within its shady temperate forests.

The residents of Huescalapa have also set aside the proposals they’ve received from the forestry industry, which has expressed interest in buying their trees.

According to Gerardo Bernabé Aguayo, logging activity in this area of Jalisco “has been very negative because the industry has managed delicate areas — with very limited species — poorly, so we are supporting and launching projects with the communities.” Bernabé Aguayo is the president of the board of trustees of Nevado de Colima and Adjacent Basins, a civil association created about 20 years ago after being promoted by the government of the state of Jalisco. To support the conservation of the national and state parks, the board has financing from the regional private sector.

The board manages about 6 million pesos ($268,000) contributed by the federal government in 2020. With resources from the private sector, it has been able to access an additional 1.5 million pesos ($67,000).

An area of fir trees that has been destroyed by logging. Image by Agustín del Castillo.

Rodrigo Cantera Hernández, the president of the El Alcázar Ecotourism Center, said that in Huescalapa, the caciques removed timber from the fir forests, “but they did not report any money to the other community members, so we fought to eject them and were able to do so a couple of years ago.”

In Huescalapa, three main conflicts over timber have taken place in the past 20 years. First, in 1999, a group of community members sold part of the forest to a forestry industry from Ciudad Guzmán. A movement led by citizens put an end to the logging five months later.

Next, in 2012, environmental authorities granted permission for forest exploitation in these areas, so fir trees continued to be cut down. An opinion by the Institute of Environmental Law, a civil society organization, cited scientific evidence that demonstrated the uniqueness of mountain fir trees and forced SEMARNAT to withdraw these permissions.

The citizens of Huescalapa formed a cooperative to launch the El Alcázar Ecotourism Center. Image courtesy of the El Alcázar Ecotourism Center.

Then, in 2015, a federal judge suspended a new authorization to exploit timber in the cloud forest.

For communities like Huescalapa to have economic options that do not involve the use of timber because of the detrimental effects that this may have on the remaining population of Colima fir trees, ecotourism and similar activities are promoted.

According to Bernabé Aguayo, the goal is for the natural forest to be conserved as “a key area for contemplation, enjoyment, the preservation of environmental services, and research.”

In 2019, the cooperative in El Alcázar received 1 million pesos ($44,600), which allowed it to have the basic infrastructure for the ecotourism center. The cooperative may receive an additional 3 million pesos ($133,800) in 2020 to purchase more equipment and improve the roads, but support for this funding was blocked in a community assembly. “They have not understood that it is for the benefit of everyone, that it is not money for our pockets,” said Cantera Hernández, the president of the cooperative.

In Huescalapa, one of the challenges that interferes with efforts to promote the ecotourism center is the division that exists between community members. Many seek to use the timber, but others are already convinced of the importance of conservation.

Villa Castillo, the director of the Nevado de Colima national and state parks, emphasized that projects similar to the El Alcázar Ecotourism Center are being promoted in San José del Carmen and Zapotitlán de Vadillo, which are very close to the border between the states of Jalisco and Colima.

María de la Luz Cortés Reyes, the leader of the Amixtlán cooperative, which was created in San José del Carmen. Image by Agustín del Castillo.

The Amixtlán Ecotourism Center is located in the community of San José del Carmen. A cluster of cabins marks the entrance to the cloud forest, designated a state park since 2009.

“We decided to protect our forest long before they declared the state park, 20 years before then,” said María de la Luz Cortés Reyes, a community leader in San José del Carmen. She recalled that when loggers came with offers to buy the forest, members of the community believed that they offered very little payment and that “the damage [that the loggers left] was too much.” For that reason, they decided “not to touch the forest, because it produces water for the crops and for our houses.”

Cortés Reyes said the community was able to construct the ecotourism center because it had resources managed by the Nevado de Colima Cloud Forest State Park and by the Board of Trustees of Nevado de Colima and Adjacent Basins. However, she said it is important that more promotion is given to the area and that urgent problems, such as those with the water supply system, are resolved.

A view of the Nevado de Colima volcano from the Amixtlán Ecotourism Center in San José del Carmen. Image by Agustín del Castillo.

In the community of Zapotitlán de Vadillo, citizens also promoted the Puerta de la Hacienda Ecotourism Center, where administrators support the biocultural production of mezcal, an alcoholic beverage made from agave. The drink is made by two mezcaleros, or people who are experts in creating mezcal: Marcario Partida from Zapotitlán de Vadillo, and Rosario Pineda from Tetapán, a small community in Zapotitlán de Vadillo.

Other productive projects that are promoted in the communities include the organic production of eggs, such as by Efigenia Larios, a small producer from the community of El Tecuán. Additionally, the shared land communities of Zapotitlán de Vadillo, San José del Carmen and Huescalapa are provided with equipment for fire prevention and materials to help restore the forest soil.

Artists have painted murals that shine a spotlight on forest conservation in San José del Carmen and Zapotitlán de Vadillo.

The intention of these efforts is to allow those who own land or have rights on this fragile mountain to “understand that there are other options besides logging, and that they, too, can generate development,” said Arredondo, the researcher who specializes in the ecology of high mountains.

Despite the strong pressure for land use changes brought by the avocado agroindustry and fostered by the high level of impunity that often prevails in rural areas, many of the area’s landowners continue to search for a model in which their forests can remain standing.

“Many neighbors say that we are foolish for not wanting to sell this beautiful forest that we have, but that money only lasts for a short time,” said José Avalo Lino, a farmer in San José del Carmen. “We are so certain of [the importance of] preventing logging that, long before the declaration of the natural protected area, our community assembly had already decided to save this forest. We will continue to be ‘foolish’ in this decision.”

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and published here on our Latam site on April 9, 2020.

Posted in Forest Defense, Indigenous Resistance, Industrial Agriculture, North America and tagged , , , , , , , .

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