Land tenure reforms in Mexico during the last century – which coincided with a global trend toward devolution of forest land to rural communities, including indigenous groups – provided no guarantee of better forest conservation. But the reforms did offer rural communities across the country an opportunity to derive livelihoods from these resources through appropriate management.
Few communities have realized that opportunity more fully than Ixtlán de Juárez, one of three towns in Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte (the others being Santa Catarina Ixtepeji and Calpulalpan de Méndez) that workshop participants visited as a critical part of their deliberations on forest governance, decentralization and REDD+ in Latin America and the Caribbean.
At first glance, Ixtlán de Juárez looks like hundreds of other small towns in Mexico, with modest homes clustered around the central plaza, dominated by a centuries-old church nestled amidst majestic mountains. But when you reach the industrial park at the town’s edge, you begin to grasp the difference alluded to by a large banner in the town square, trumpeting the community’s success in sustainable forest management. The industrial park is not some private sector intrusion on an otherwise idyllic rural scene. It is a community-owned and run, state-of-the-art lumber mill and furniture factory, with an adjoining high-tech tree nursery, which depends on sustainable use of common property encompassing nearly 20,000 hectares of forest.
In a walk through the plant, its manager, Jesús Paz Pérez, explains the intricacies of communal decision making, derived from traditional forms of governance observed by the region’s Zapotec indigenous people. He also speaks about the exigencies of market capitalism, with a clear command of its dynamics. His words capture perfectly the real novelty of this community’s achievement. While other nearby towns have been declared pueblos mágicos (“magic towns”) because of their superior cultural riches, the comuneros of Ixtlán de Juárez have mastered the magic of multiplying social capital by financial capital to yield big returns (from annual sales of nearly US$4 million over the last 5 years), which are destined not just for a few powerful individuals but for all of the 384 comuneros and their families.
It’s a slow magic, however, resulting from more than two decades of persistent investment, experimentation and adaptation to difficult realities. Important milestones along the way have included modernization of the enterprise’s machinery, certification of its timber by the Forest Stewardship Council in 2001, the recent creation of an ecotourism unit, the launch of a new furniture venture and several national awards.
A key question on the minds of workshop participants was whether the formula of social capital multiplied by financial capital, which Ixtlán de Juárez has resolved so well, can become a central component of new REDD+ schemes. At the very least, this experience calls into question the common but condescending assumption that rural and indigenous communities lack the capacity to manage significant financial and natural resources.