By Violeta Gutiérrez Zamora
Mexico, like other countries in Latin America, is facing fast-rising numbers of COVID-19 cases and death tolls. Since March 31st, the federal government implemented several restrictions on economic activities considered as “non-essential,” among them the forestry sector. For rural communities that make a living out of their forest resources, the measures have meant a drastic decline for families and communities’ incomes. In an online press conference in mid-May, various actors involved with the forestry sector reported that the 70% decline in the domestic wood market and the plummet of ecotourism were already hitting community forest enterprises (CFEs). Although COVID-19 has not widely spread among rural communities, for many, the socio-economic consequences are already impacting their livelihoods.
In the Mexican environmental arena, CFEs have been a critical element to build up strategies for supporting people’s livelihoods, managing forest ecosystems sustainably, reducing, and avoiding deforestation. CFEs emerged in the 1980s after a wave of mobilizations against forestry concessions granted to private and state companies. With the suspension of concessions, several communities started to build their CFEs as a way to acquire more control and technical knowledge over the use of forest, and the economic benefits derived from timber production. Since then, they have settled wood and non-wood productive ventures like timber and charcoal production, wooden furniture manufacturing, sawmilling and water bottling plants, and ecotourism projects. The difference between private enterprises and CFEs resides in their core principles. While private enterprises raison d’etre is to turn and maximize profit, CFEs are drive by a sense of community responsibility. As such, one of the main objectives of CFEs is to invest their profits in the provision of public services that would otherwise be difficult for community members to obtain, such as employment, health care, education, and basic rural infrastructure.
The CFEs’ success, mistakes, and failures have a direct impact on the human populations that depend on them and, therefore, on the dynamics of forest ecosystems. The enormous responsibility that CFEs and the rural communities have in terms of biodiversity conservation and populations well-being is often unacknowledged and receives low remuneration. As I have argue elsewhere, CFEs and community forestry as a model confront critical limitations when neoliberal environmental policies aim to transform them, or at least treat them, as private enterprises to compete in the free-market. While the link between biodiversity loss and emerging infectious diseases such as COVID-19 is more evident, the critical role that CFEs have in biodiversity conservation needs further consideration and responsiveness from the state and the society in general. In this sense, the strategies of economic ‘reactivation’ promoted by the federal and state government need to rethink how to support CFEs and rural communities as a question of socio-ecological care and collective well-being rather than plain productivism.
Moreover, in the last four weeks, amidst the pandemic, other emergencies like forest fires have required prompt action from the communities the forest service at federal and state levels in Michoacán, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, and Yucatán. CFEs and the forest service workers, trained to manage fires, have become another group of essential workers for avoiding the spread of wildfires frequently caused by human action.
During last years, forest fire seasons have become harsher, longer, and with higher intensity across the globe. According to fire data from MODIS shared by Global Forest Watch, forest fires alerts in Mexico in 2019 were the highest since 2001. This year forest fires alerts in the country seem to maintain a lower tendency than last year. However, in personal conversation with a community authority in the Southern Sierra of Oaxaca, he complaint that when calling for support for fighting forest fires, the response from the Oaxaca state government is often sluggish. Despite the austere conditions in which CFEs and the environmental sector are, several workers from the companies, and the forest service along with community members have been fiercely working to manage the current wildfires, demonstrating once more how essential their work is.
In the near future, the environmental sector may suffer a further reduction in their already low budget (about 1.2 billion EUR for 2020). The cuts have already impacted the support community forestry received from the federal environmental agencies. CFEs and other governmental and non-governmental actors involved also need to rethink and reformulate strategies to confront the environmental debts and future emergencies related to people’s health, the oncoming economic crisis, the risks of violence, and the various vulnerabilities that climate change creates for the forest. Any strategy for socio-ecological transformations requires that the needs of rural communities and the CFEs are heard and placed as a priority. More than ever, the pandemic and the socio-economic crisis lead us to reconsider new strategies for socio-ecological adaptation and transformation where people can recognize future contingencies but also reformulate in common other senses of our coexistence between us and with the forest.
Violeta Gutiérrez Zamora is an environmental policy researcher and Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Geographical and Historical Studies of the University of Eastern Finland. In her research, she focuses on feminist political ecology, eco-governmentality, rural organizations and community forestry in Mexico.