Environmental degradation and political restoration in the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca, 1887-2001

Suppressing fire and memory: Environmental degradation and political restoration in the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca, 1887-2001

Mathews, Andrew Salvador

FIRE IS a powerful symbol of chaos, often marking the destruction of order in both the social and the natural worlds. Fire fascinates the eye and appeals to the imagination, yet forest fires in the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca-in southern Mexico-have all but disappeared from popular memory. Why should something so apparently memorable be unknown to so many people? This article reconstructs the history of the forests of the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca, and describes how local memories of forest history have been partially suppressed as a result of the struggle between forest communities and logging companies, to claim control of the forest, starting in 1956 and continuing until 1982. In the 1950s, government officials blamed forest destruction upon the local indigenous communities. Fire, as a symbol of disorder, became the target of state control and the subject of a state-sponsored discourse of environmental degradation. Over the following fifty years, the forest communities gradually mastered and modified this discourse, and reallocated blame to outsiders in order to claim control of their forests. As a result, past forest fires are little remembered today. This story can help us understand how local and extra-local people can struggle over environmental discourse in order to claim control of the natural environment. These conflicts over discourse are carried out not only in the realm of narratives and language, but through political organization and popular mobilization as well as the more mundane practices of logging and fighting forest fires.

In recent years, a number of scholars have pointed out how state narratives of environmental degradation often have formed part of a systematic discourse that states used to claim political control over natural resources.1 These degradation narratives maybe partially or completely incorrect; James Fairhead and Melissa Leach in particular have presented solid evidence that, far from declining, forest area in Guinea has increased over the past one hundred years despite the ongoing state narrative of deforestation. Fire is a powerful metaphor for social and environmental destruction, and fire suppression frequently has been part of state policies of social control. As Stephen Pyne has pointed out, “as often as not fire suppression was one of the most powerful means of controlling indigenes”; this was certainly part of the agenda of state-sponsored forestry programs in the Sierra Juarez over the past fifty years.2 In the Sierra Juarez however, the forest communities have taken control of the forests and of fire suppression, appropriating a state discourse of natural resource management in order to gain control of their own forests. In the process, they have internalized many of the elements of the state degradation discourse, including the vision of fire as destructive. By adopting part of the state language of natural resource control, and by organizing politically, the forest communities have gained control of their forests, although in the process they lost sight of the history of their forests and of their own long and constructive relationship with fire. Far from having been uniformly degraded over the past sixty years, the forests of the Sierra Juarez have in many ways recovered from the fires of the revolutionary period from 1911 to 1923. Forest area increased, and forest fire frequencies dramatically changed around 1940, going from a regime of frequent light fires to one of almost total fire suppression punctuated by rare, intense fires.

The pine forests of the Sierra Juarez depend upon fire for successful regrowth, and today’s forests regenerated after a period of frequent burning that ended around 1940. This decline in forest fires surely could have been seen as a triumph by state forestry institutions, but it has passed unperceived and unrecorded. How has fire been excluded from state and community memories, so that its present-day absence seems normal while the frequent fires of the past are completely forgotten? How has the memory of the traditional use of fire by indigenous communities been suppressed? It is all the more paradoxical that community memories of forest history have been suppressed, because the Sierra Juarez communities are flagships of sustainable forest management for the Mexican forest service and international NGOs, and community members are intensely interested in their forests and in everything to do with them.3 This article argues that a state political myth has obscured community memories of fire as a force in the forest, and as a tool for human use. I view forest fires from two perspectives, both as a political myth aimed at social control and as a biological event that changes forest structures.

Discourse analysis can be useful for explaining how people come to forget or ignore uncomfortable or inconvenient data, because it highlights the power of the tacit and unspoken to suppress information, what Norman Fairclough calls the “power behind discourse,” the naturalized “common sense” which comes to be taken for granted, and forgotten.4 This suggests that discourse analysis can begin to answer why the indigenous communities of the Sierra Juarez no longer talk about the long-term history of their forests. Clearly, the communities internalized parts of the state-sponsored degradation discourse. However, discourse analysis is not enough; it is all too easy to treat discourse as a monolithic structure of ideas, a theoretical construct that is seamlessly joined across social divides and which obscures the actions of individual people. This does not allow us to ask how the state degradation discourse arrived in the Sierra Juarez and how much room for maneuver individuals and communities had to modify the discourse, nor does it allow us to ask about the role of community political power and mobilization in forcing the forest service to modify its own discourse. One way to avoid this problem is to see discourse as an interpretive framework that is informed by local practices in local social worlds. From this point of view, degradation discourses are less uniformly applied; some aspects of the dominant degradation discourse may recede into the background and others gain prominence as people reject or ignore some parts of the discourse and foreground others. In the Sierra Juarez, local communities shifted the state discourse from blaming degradation on indigenous people’s use of fire and swidden agriculture to blaming the predatory logging practices of outside logging companies.

Discourse analysis is better at explaining what is forgotten or repressed than how people come to actively believe things about the world. This is a traditional question of history and philosophy of science and recent work in the social studies of science has come to emphasize the importance of practice in the creation of scientific knowledge about the world.5 This emphasis on practice can be used to illuminate the process by which the Sierra Juarez communities came to see fire as a threat to the forest. The practice of fire suppression took place in the social context of organized logging and forest management. Fire suppression, together with the theoretical framework of scientific forestry, which held that fires were degrading, created the belief among local communities that fire was a threat to the forest. Community fire fighting teams initially were organized by outsiders, but as community members took control of the forests, they also took control of fire fighting. The belief that fire was uniformly destructive came to be widely shared among the dominant groups in the forest communities. The official discourse of fire as degrading became accepted truth in the Sierra Juarez, through the dissemination of the practices of forest management and fire suppression, and the creation of community forest management organizations. In the process, the local communities were able to substantially modify official discourse, diverting attention from fire as an agent of degradation to fire as the opponent of their own virtue in protecting the forests.

In present-day Mexico, forest fires are seen as an omnipresent threat to natural order; this can be compared with another great political myth of modern Mexico, that of the Mexican Revolution.6 The Revolution was the defining political event of twentieth century Mexican history, a conflagration that marked the establishment of the political order that has prevailed ever since. One view of the Revolution has abiding power in popular memory and public culture. A standard history of the Revolution was propounded by the PRI state; according to which the state had returned land to agricultural communities that had been despoiled by large landowners, restoring moral and social order after the bloodshed of the Revolution and the oppression that preceded it.7 This history has a continuing political currency. Images of revolutionary violence and rebellion continue to be manipulated by contending political groups to this day. In much the same way as the state has propounded the myth of revolutionary restoration, it also has propounded a narrative of environmental degradation. In Oaxaca, as elsewhere, the state claims to have saved Mexico from chaos and inaugurated a regime of national development. Paradoxically, according to another powerful official discourse, environmental degradation gets steadily worse. Two progressive official discourses are at odds with one another-in the political discourse, order is portrayed as progressively increasing, in the environmental discourse, disorder is portrayed as progressively increasing. This should alert us to the possibility that stories about nature are profoundly social and that natural disorder can be a kind of social disorder begging for intervention and moral regeneration. This also suggests that discourses of social progress such as development or environmental degradation require an opponent in order to function. Both of these discourses require a threat, a source of chaos and disorder to which the moral regeneration of the progressive discourse can provide a solution. In the case of the Sierra Juarez, forest fires provide this opposition. By following the shifting role of fire in degradation discourses over the past fifty years, we can learn how degradation discourse can be appropriated by local communities and turned against the state.

In order to triangulate between the political and epistemic components of degradation narratives, this article uses a mixture of ethnographic, historical, pictorial, and biological evidence to assemble a history of the forests of the Sierra Juarez from the late nineteenth century to the present. The reconstructed environmental history presented here is not a definitive “real history” of the forests of the Sierra Juarez. Rather, it is a systematization of evidence and points of view that already are present locally, albeit very much suppressed. In an article of this scope I cannot resolve the tension between the social sciences’ emphasis on the perspectival nature of knowledge and the search for positive knowledge practiced by the natural sciences. Nevertheless, I suggest that environmental history can begin to resolve this tension, by showing how an attention to shifting perspectives and changing practices can yield a more reflexive understanding of a changing natural environment. Indeed, it is by attention to the practices of community members and foresters that the forest itself emerges as a protagonist in this history. The natural world resists our efforts at control, and slips past the efforts of language to encompass it; it is exactly this resistance of the natural world to discursive domination that is one of the themes of this article.


THE FORESTS and communities of the Sierra Juarez have long been affected by the wider political economy of Mexico. During the late colonial period the area was one of the most commercially important parts of New Spain, closely tied into trade networks for cochineal dye production and cotton weaving.8 The cochineal dye was derived from a small insect grown on cactuses, largely in the valley of Oaxaca and in the districts of Ixtlan and Villa Alta. Between 1740 and 1790, the Sierra experienced an economic boom; the Alcaldia Mayor of Villa Alta was one of the most lucrative administrative posts in New Spain during this period.9 The many churches built in the Sierra during the eighteenth century vividly testify to the wealth flowing in this area. The economy was well monetized, as indios were drawn into the repartimiento labor system to earn money for taxes and to buy goods they wanted.10 Communities with land in hot climate zones (tierra caliente) specialized in cochineal production, and purchased or bartered for corn and wheat from neighboring communities in the temperate zone or even as far as the valley of Oaxaca.11 The cochineal boom caused many communities to diminish agricultural production so as to specialize in cochineal production, and adjacent communities with no cochineal production specialized in food production. This caused both land abandonment and agricultural expansion at the same time, in different parts of the Sierra, although given the small population at the time, the overall impact upon forest area was probably relatively minor. The cochineal trade reached a peak in the 1770s; after this, the abolishment of the repartimiento system and the wars of independence caused a gradual decline. By the 1840s, mining, cochineal and textiles were at a nadir, and the people of the Sierra probably were largely engaged in subsistence production, and relatively little engaged with the cash economy.


SILVER AND GOLD mining had been important in the economy of the Sierra since colonial times, with a period of renewed activity occurring in the late eighteenth century followed by a decline during the wars of the early- and mid-nineteenth century.12 These mines were small by the standards of San Luis Potosi or Zacatecas in the north, but were important to the local economy. The mines provided wage labor and required a network of commerce to supply explosives, chemicals, timber for pit props, and food for the miners. Lower grade ore was refined locally (requiring heavy use of oak for fuel), but in prosperous periods the best ore often was shipped out by mule train to refineries in the north. The mining industry followed a pattern of booms and busts so that, over the centuries, the Sierra was riddled with mines. Most of these mines are now abandoned as their ore bodies are relatively small by modern standards.13

The late nineteenth century saw a new mining boom throughout Oaxaca with the richest mines in the Sierra Juarez.14 At a time when the population of the district was around 24,000, the most important mines at La Natividad near Ixtlan employed about 450 workers, with smaller mines at Yavesia, Lachatao, and Amatlan employing most of the adult men in these communities.15 A few mines may have employed up to one hundred people, but most were much smaller, employing fifty or fewer. Many small-scale mines were worked by families or small groups of people, on a part-time basis. Similarly, there were small-scale ore refining operations employing only two or three people, which had small smelters requiring mercury and sulfuric acid and large amounts of charcoal. In the principal mining centers, the local population was largely dedicated to mining, and depended upon neighboring towns for food, timber and charcoal; Ixtlan, Atepec, Jaltianguis, Guelatao, and Chicomezuchil all were said to have been involved in growing food for sale to the mining communities.16

Different ore extraction technologies required different amounts of fuel; the mercury amalgamation process required less fuel, whereas ores high in lead as in the Sierra Juarez could be smelted directly with heavy fuel use, although this required milling.17 Frequent references to mills and smelting in the Sierra Juarez mines suggest that the smelting process often was used, which suggests a high demand for fuel. The introduction of the cyanide process in the early twentieth century greatly reduced the demand for fuel, and the mining crisis after 1912 shut down all of these mines except for La Natividad. It is hard to measure the impact of mining upon the forests of the Sierra Juarez quantitatively, but local fuel-wood demand must have been quite intense, possibly leading to repeated cutting of oak for firewood and charcoal, especially near the larger mines. Pit props were also a source of heavy demand for timber. Firewood cutting alone did not eliminate tree cover, but might have shifted forest composition in favor of oak and away from pine. A combination of firewood cutting and grazing could have eliminated tree cover altogether, in favor of grassland. The mule and donkey trains needed to supply the mining industry also required extensive pastures to produce fodder and cultivated land to produce food grains. Cultivation had to support animals as well as people, we have to imagine numerous trains of pack animals toiling over the rough tracks of the Sierra, an activity which has disappeared almost entirely since the arrival of motor vehicles in the 1940s.


PASTORALISM WAS much more important in the nineteenth century than it is now, and required more pasture, and more frequent use of fire to maintain it. The Sierra Juarez does not seem to have been an area of extensive sheep raising during the colonial period, unlike the nearby Mixteca.18 It has been argued that intensive pastoralism was responsible for severe deforestation and soil erosion in some parts of New Spain but for reasons which are not clear, this did not occur in the Sierra Juarez.19 The existence of large areas of pasture in the Sierra Juarez during the late nineteenth century is suggested by paintings which commemorate the life of the most famous pastoralist of the Sierra Juarez, the liberal president Benito Juarez, who was born in the village of Guelatao de Juarez in 1806. He worked as a shepherd for his uncle until he ran away to Oaxaca in 1818, reputedly to avoid paying a fine for damages his sheep had inflicted upon someone’s crops.20 The historical accident of Benito Juarez’s birth in Guelatao led to the village becoming a powerful political symbol in Mexico ever since, with annual presidential visits and speeches on the occasion of Juarez’s birthday. The association of Juarez and his successor Porfirio Diaz with Oaxaca and the Sierra Juarez led to the memorialization of the landscapes of Oaxaca by Jose Maria Velasco, Mexico’s most famous nineteenth-century landscape painter. Velasco visited Oaxaca in 1887, to paint the sites of the birth of Juarez in Guelatao and of Diaz’s military victory over the French at La Carbonera.21

Velasco was a naturalist and botanical illustrator, and his paintings are meticulously executed, showing details of the plants, rocks, and cloud formations, which allow the species of plants in the foreground of his paintings to be clearly recognized. He was a member of the Sociedad Mexicana de Historia Natural and was aware of the Sociedad’s concern about deforestation in the valley of Mexico.22 Velasco’s paintings show his interpretation of the landscape near the village of Guelatao as he saw it in 1887. His depiction of the landscape largely coincides with the documentary evidence about pastoralism and trade I have presented and, as I will show later, with biological data about fire frequency.

In the winter of 2001 I visited the area painted by Velasco in 1887 and noted that that the landscape was more forested than it was in 1887. The ridge in the background is largely forested at present, whereas Velasco shows it bare. Similarly, more distant parts of the landscape are shown covered with scrub or old fields, whereas at present they are covered largely by young pine trees. This painting suggests that the area immediately around Guelatao was much less forested in 1887 than it is in 2001. This deforestation probably was due to firewood cutting, agriculture, and deliberate use of fire to maintain pastures. Two other paintings of Guelatao by Velasco also show the same pattern of relative deforestation. Guelatao was a small village of little economic significance in 1887, so it seems probable that areas near the mining centers were much more affected. This does not mean that the whole Sierra was bare of trees, only that certain parts of the Sierra nearer to villages were converted to pasture and that some of those areas have reforested since.

I have been unable to find any direct written evidence about fires in the Sierra Juarez during the 1880s, but the eminent botanist Cassiano Conzatti, writing twenty-five years after Velasco executed his paintings, stated that fires were an annual event in the mountains immediately north of Oaxaca, and had been so ever since he had arrived in Oaxaca in 1890.23 This suggests that frequent burning was occurring in the Sierra Juarez proper where Velasco had been working, only forty kilometers away from Oaxaca. These fires probably would have been set by shepherds to create pasture for sheep, cattle, donkeys, and mules. These fires appeared destructive to a commentator like Conzatti, but most fires would have been light under-story fires, which favored grasses and kept forest stands open, but which did not eliminate tree cover, except perhaps near villages, where grazing was heaviest, as we saw in Velasco’s painting of Guelatao.


THE INDIGENOUS communities of the Sierra Juarez did not suffer the loss of land experienced by communities in other parts of Mexico during the last yearsof the nineteenth century, but they did become involved in the struggles of Mexican Revolution as local political factions aligned themselves with national events, although for reasons largely to do with local politics.24 As Paul Garner points out, the caudillos of the Sierra, Fidencio Hernandez, and Guillermo Meixueiro had little interest in claiming control of agricultural land. Their political and military power was based upon patron client relations with the Sierra communities rather than upon control of land and capital, so claiming control of communal land would have undermined their political base of support.25 When Diaz fell from power in 1911, the serranos were largely opposed to the Maderista and constitutionalist governments, as the local caudillos had little reason to upset a political system which worked well for them.26

The most notable opposition to the domination of the caudillos was the community of Ixtepeji, which had supplied labor to the textile mill in Xia, set up thanks to the connections of Hernandez and Meixuiero. Ixtepeji and Ixtlan had a long history of mutual animosity and land disputes, which was exacerbated by the fact that Hernandez and Meixueiro were both from Ixtlan and may have coerced people from Ixtepeji to work at the textile mill. When the revolution reached the region in 1912, different communitues in the Sierra adopted different national causes, and a settling of accounts between old rivals ensued. Ixtepeji adopted the Maderista cause, and attacked and burned Ixtlan and other communities. In the counterattack, Ixtlan and other communities allied themselves with Federalist forces, and burned Ixtepeji, sending all of the adult men away to forced labor in the North.

The years 1912-1925 were troubled ones for the Sierra, with invasion and counterinvasion by different factions, including an attempt by the serranos to control the entire state in 1915, and an incursion into the Sierra by supporters of president Venustiano Carranza in 1916. Bodies of armed men moved through the Sierra for several years, many communities were burned at one time or another, and fire often was used as a weapon during the fighting. The community of Ixtlan was partially burned by Ixtepeji in 1912, and in retaliation the communities of Ixtepeji, Xopa, Guiloxi, Yahuio, San Francisco, San Pedro Cajonos, and San Miguel Cajonos were burned by Federalist forces.27

Fire also was used sometimes in actual battles. A comunero of Ixtlan, Luis Ramirez Garcia, aged ninety-eight, recalled the events when the Ixtepejanos and the Carrancistas were chased out of the Sierra in 1916 by using deliberately set fires. “They were on a mountain, and we couldn’t get them out of there, it was disputed for eight days. One of the serranos thought, and at night, at ten at night, he put a fire to the foot of the mountain, five or six men with torches. They burned the whole mountain, it was all burning, and on that side the smoke and fire. The fire attacked them, and they [the Carrancistas] ran, and the serranos got in there. It was in 1916, round about.”28

Similarly the serrano general Isaac M. Ibarra writes of the use of deliberately set fires between Los Pozos and La Coronilla in March of 1920.29 Thus, deliberately set forest fires were a feature of the fighting between 1912 and 1920, although their magnitude and intensity is unknown. As I will show in the next section, fires played an important part in the ecology of the pine forests of the Sierra Juarez before, during, and after the Revolution, but declined greatly in frequency from around 1940.


IT HAS LONG been known that the ecology of the genus Pinus is greatly affected by fires and that many pines are adapted to regenerate and persist under fire regimes of differing intensity and frequency-.30 This has been demonstrated for pine-oak forests in Mexico and for pine-oak mixtures in the southwestern United States, which are very similar to pine-oak forests in northern Mexico.31 Little work has been carried out on historical fire regimes in Mexico, but the few available studies confirm the importance of fire in ensuring the regeneration of pines. Peter Fuie and Wallace Covington reported that fires were relatively frequent in northwestern Mexico until 1945. Gerardo Segura and Laura Snook noted that after an intense fire in 1938, less frequent light fires were set by pastoralists in east-central Mexico. Emily Heyerdahl and Ernesto Alvarado reported frequent fires in north-central Mexico until the 19403, followed by a much less frequent fire regime.32

In this section, I will present the results of a fire history study in the Sierra Juarez showing that fire has been much more important there than had been believed hitherto. I will combine data about stand structure, fire history, and landscape level age structure to suggest that a period of frequent burning until around 1940 created the conditions suitable for a cohort of pine trees to establish, and that fire suppression since around 1940 allowed these trees to become mature.

The study stand is of the Pinus forest type of Rzedowski.33 The stand is at an elevation of 2,400 meters above sea level, on the western side of the Sierra Juarez mountain range of Oaxaca about 6 km north west of the town of Ixtlan de Juarez. The stand had an average temperature of 12-14C, and annual precipitation of between 1,000 mm and 1,200 mm per year, placing it in the Koeppen climate zone C(2w), a temperate sub-humid zone.34 The overstory is dominated by a mixture of Pinus leiophylla and Pinus oaxacana with occasional Quercus spp. emerging into the over-story, mainly Quercus rugosa, Quercus laurina, and some Quercus obtusata.35 In the understory, Arbutus xalapensis is fairly common as a sub-canopy tree.

The study stand is around 12 ha. in size, sloping steeply (40 percent) downhill from an old logging road, with a generally west and south west aspect. There is evidence of burning in the stand, as a considerable number of trees have “cat-face” scars on their uphill sides (these triangular scars at the base of the tree trunk are caused by the longer burning time of fires where the accumulated dead vegetation on the uphill side of the tree has provided additional fuel). Most of these scars have almost completely closed up, suggesting that there has been little recent burning. Several scarred trees have had the wound face cut open by local people for ocote, the resin-impregnated heartwood that is used for kindling. On several occasions promising tree scars could not be sampled as the face of the scar had been completely hacked out as far as the heart.

The age of the dominant trees in the stand is relatively uniform, averaging between sixty and eighty years old, although there are a small number of P. leiophylla of up to two hundred years of age (see Figure 3). The presence of pulses of pine regeneration can be traced to distinct episodes of forest fires in the late 19205 and early 19303. This created the conditions suitable for the regeneration of a dense cohort of young pine trees, which are now the dominant over-story trees. Although the age of oak trees could not be determined, their presence in the sub-dominant and suppressed positions is a clear indication that most of them regenerated after the pine trees; a strong oak presence at the time of stand regeneration in the 19305 produced an oak dominated stand, as the oaks crowded out the pines and prevented them from regenerating in the relatively dense shade shed by oak trees.36


SIX FIRE-SCARRED trees were selected for analysis and six samples were collected by felling the tree and cutting a cross section.37 Annual rings were counted to determine the date of fire scars after cross correlation of the sample dates using COFECHA dendrochronological analysis software.38 The fire history was analyzed with program FHX^sub 2^.39 For results, see Table 1 and Figure 3. The two parameter Weibull distribution modeled the fire interval data accurately (p> 0.05, Kolmogorov-Smirnov test for goodness of fit) and was highly significant (p=0.66).

A frequent light burning regime was maintained from 1794 to 1933, with a median fire interval of 4 years, followed by fire suppression from 1933 to the present. The median fire interval value of 4 years is plausible if we compare this with the median fire interval of 3 years for all scars on a 30 ha. site in Durango with similar precipitation and elevation to our study site.40 The Weibull Median Probability Interval of 5.25 years for the study site is also comparable with Fule and Covington’s value of 6.67 years for 25 percent of samples scarred, where the All Scars WMPI is 4.63 years; similarly, Emily Heyerdahl and Ernesto Alvarado give WMPI values of between 3 and 6 years, at rather drier sites in northern Mexico.41

The suppression of fire after 1933 allowed a cohort of pines to grow up into the over-story, so that most trees regenerated in the period 1930-1945. This was probably due to the combined effect of the 1927 and 1933 fires and one or two good seed years. Fire suppression from 1933 onward allowed the young trees to grow up through the vulnerable seedling and sapling stages, when a fire would have killed most of them. Thus, the history of fire and subsequent fire suppression has been critical in creating the present pine dominated stand. Fire suppression also explains the dominance of oak in the under-story: There are no canopy gaps, and no bare mineral soil available for pine regeneration.

Fire clearly has had a powerful effect upon the forests of Ixtlan. A 1993 community forest management plan states that across 8,080 ha. of the community forests, 4.3 percent of sample trees had a scar at the base, of which many were fire scars. The fires which created these scars were light fires which only occasionally spread up into the crown to kill trees or whole stands, but which shifted forest composition in favor of fire tolerant tree species, and grasses. The greater frequency of fire in the past is confirmed by local informants, who agree that widespread but low intensity grazing was much more frequent in the past than it is now, and that forest fires are more vigorously suppressed by the community because logging roads allow access for fire fighting. Even in 1993, 24 percent of the community forests still were subject to some occasional grazing.42 The fire history data presented above suggest that at one time frequent light fires were much more common in the drier pine-oak forest types on the Pacific side of the watershed. Pastoralism or other cultural practices probably were responsible for the higher fire frequencies before 1940. No single factor can account for the decline in fire frequency after 1940; a succession of wet years and a decrease in post-revolutionary social unrest are probably only two of the causes, but the decline of agriculture and the arrival of logging in the region also were important factors.

Although the study stand is only 12 ha., it presents a reasonable snapshot of the forests of the community of Ixtlan. The average stand age community forests is between sixty and eighty years. Given that the overwhelming majority of these are even aged stands of pine, it is reasonable to suppose that the dominant trees in these stands regenerated sixty to eighty years ago, giving stand initiation dates between 1920 and 1940 (see Figure 5), which is similar to the study stand (see Figure 3). The most probable cause for such a uniform initiation event would be widespread forest fires during the 1920s and 1930s, followed by a period of fire suppression long enough to allow the young trees to grow up through their fire sensitive juvenile stages; once again, this is very similar to the study stand.43

At present most fires in the Sierra Juarez are suppressed, as attested by both official statistics and community members. Large fires mentioned to me by informants included one that affected 1,500 ha. near Cerro Pelon in 1973, and a similar sized fire near Yavesia in 1985, but such large fires are rare and in communities with forest management plans fires are quickly suppressed by community fire fighting crews. During multiple interviews with community members and forestry officials in 2000-2001, I was able to verify that as in Ixtlan, the communities of Lachatao, Amatlan, Yavesia, Comaltepec, La Trinidad, Xiacui, Analco, and Macuiltianguis all engaged in active fire suppression. From the perspective of both the forest service and communities, willingness to fight fires indicates that the community is an “advanced” forest community, but this is also decidedly atypical of Oaxacan forest communities, as in most communities organized fire fighting can be scarce or non-existent.44


ALTHOUGH MEXICO has a long history of state efforts at forest control dating back to the colonial period, attempts to regulate logging were scant until after the Mexican Revolution. Modern forestry regulation officially dates to the forest law of 1926, which gave the right to regulate forestry practices to the national government. Because of manpower limitations and poor communications the 1926 and later forest laws only began to be enforced in the 19303, mainly near urban centers such as Mexico City and Oaxaca. From 1930 onwards the forestry department introduced a policy of fire suppression, influenced by U.S. Forest Service policies, and possibly also by the destruction caused during the Revolution.46 For the forest service, forest fires were a symbol of disorder and a visible threat to the forests, as fire could be used to convert forested land to agricultural uses. Deforestation was believed to be a to threat to water supplies because it dried up springs and reduced rainfall. Contemporary newspaper accounts show that this desiccation theory was widely accepted among educated people.47

From the early 19305 onward state intervention in the forests began to affect the Sierra Juarez communities’ awareness of fire, although it did not directly cause actual fire suppression. Manpower limitations meant that the forest service could not effectively fight fires itself, so it placed the responsibility for fire fighting upon the communities, who were told to organize Corporaciones de Defensa Contra Incendios (Community Fire Defense Corporations).48 The fire control regulations were detailed, and quite impossible to enforce: Among many other improbable conditions, communities were required to “Within the forest, with noticeable signs, indicate the places where fires will be allowed”; “Forbid for any motive, burning in the forest which does not conform to the previous article”; and “Ask the forest service for written permission, when for justified reasons it may be necessary to burn on pastures or agricultural lands, maintaining throughout the necessary vigilance.”49

How did the communities respond to government attempts to suppress the use of fire, given that fire was an integral component of traditional agricultural and pastoral techniques? In 2001, informants in the Sierra Juarez did not remember forest service fire regulations as far back as the 1930s, but in general, they agreed that communities preferred to settle fire problems internally rather than call in the forest service, which was liable to impose heavy fines. The scant documentation available in the Archivo General del Estado de Oaxaca (AGEO) usually refers to forest fires when one community accused another of encroaching upon its land and tried to get the forest service to intervene. A typical example is the case of San Pedro Teococuilco, which in 1930 was accused of burning forests on its boundaries with San Juan Guelache, San Miguel Etla and San Gabriel Etla. The forestry department sent a letter to the municipal authorities of Teococuilco, telling them to cease burning because they were not supposed to convert forest land to agricultural uses, as this would “surely damage the springs in this region.”50 Another case of communities using accusations of fire setting in what were really boundary disputes over agricultural land arose in 1945 between La Trinidad and Xiacui, near Ixtlan.51 Xiacui accused La Trinidad of “cutting immoderately” and of setting fires that were a threat to the water supplies of the hydroelectric plant at La Natividad. Officials from La Trinidad replied to this accusation in a letter to the governor of Oaxaca, claiming that they had little land for growing maize and were compelled to cultivate the steep slopes of their own community forests, not on Xiacui’s land at all. They accused Xiacui of “forgetting our right to live and with the object of reducing our lands, denounced [us] to the Forestry Agency…. [accusing us] of fires, the truth being that we only cultivated the area Llano Salado to grow maize for our families. The Forestry department imposed an excessive fine of THREE THOUSAND EIGHT HUNDRED AND THIRTY PESOS, requiring immediate payment. For these reasons only you, with a spirit of humanity and justice can avoid [us] a painful [sic.] fine, which men without conscience impose upon us, insisting we can not pay such a quantity [such as] we have never known, if this fine is not cancelled … we shall be obliged to abandon our huts, the entire population searching work in other regions in order to cover the fine, as we do not even have enough money to buy maize.”52

This episode shows how at least some of the community members of Xiacui had learned about official theories of climactic desiccation and their relationship with fire. They also had learned that the forest service considered agriculture and forests to be separate and inimical, and they used this knowledge to invoke the intervention of the forest service in a dispute over agricultural land. The community certainly knew that pine trees would regenerate abundantly upon abandoned fields, so that agriculture was not necessarily a threat to forests.

How involved were the Sierra communities in fighting fires? In 2000-2001 people in Ixtlan told me that they had always fought fires, but this may have been no more than an attempt to describe their community in a positive light. In Ixtlan in particular, the official ideology that all fires are bad has made comuneros’ claims that they fought fires equivalent to a claim to moral rectitude. Nevertheless, there is some evidence that the community of Ixtlan did fight fires in the past: Rosendo Perez Garcia, writing in the 1940s, said that one of the community offices (cargos) was that of guardamontes (forest guards) who were responsible for protecting communal lands from encroachment and from fires.53 The community of Ixtlan did in fact fight large-scale fires, as in 1942 when a fire on the boundaries between Ixtlan and Atepec caused Ixtlan to appeal to the governor for help.54 Ixtlan probably knew that they could expect no assistance, but they were involved in a land dispute with Atepec, so an accusation against Atepec provided additional support for their cause. The governor responded by ordering all men over the age of fifteen in both communities to turn out to fight the fire. Clearly the governor and the forest service had to rely upon the efforts of the communities themselves.

The traditional use of fire in agriculture was carefully controlled, and it is likely that communities suppressed fires when they chose to do so. Where the communities chose not to fight fires they could claim that the fires were accidental, and in such cases the forest service was largely impotent. In a 1949 newspaper editorial, an anonymous forestry official wrote about fires in the tropical zone of Oaxaca, blaming deforestation upon swidden agriculture and peasant irrationality. He ended upon a tragicomic note of frustration: “That the fires which are registered in the forests are the exclusive responsibility of the municipal authorities who in no way collaborate in their extinction, and in investigations always blame one another.”55 One can well imagine his bewilderment as he tried to sift through accusation and counteraccusation.

Media representations of forest fires in the 1940s and 1950s largely blamed traditional agriculture, and the irrationality and laziness of indigenous farmers “Everywhere a pitiless destruction of forests is carried out, which it is urgent to radically avoid. Ignorance is in many cases the principal motive for this vicious practice, because enormous fires are produced as a result of carelessness in burning.”56 With the arrival of widespread commercial logging from the late 1940s onward, fighting fire became a symbol for rational management of the forest, and fire fighting was promoted by both logging companies and forest service.


IN THE LATE 1940s small logging companies began to appear in the Sierra Juarez. These companies made independent deals with the communities, and often masqueraded as community logging businesses in order to satisfy regulations. This soon was seen by the national and state governments to be a chaotic and undesirable situation, as loggers were evading both taxes and forest service regulation. During this period, the forest communities began to learn that timber was a valued commodity, but they were also exposed to exploitative contracts with the logging companies. Contemporary newspaper accounts speak of gunfights between communities over contested forests and of bribery and corruption of state officials.57 This period left a legacy of deep distrust of logging companies and the forest service among the Sierra communities.

In 1956, the Mexican government awarded a 139,225 hectare concession in the forests of the Sierra Juarez to the paper company, Fabricas Papeleras de Tuxtepec (FAPATUX).58 The FAPATUX concession was part of a national policy of creating forest product processing industries by granting favorable terms to private companies in order to attract their capital and technology. The concession effectively took control of the forest away from the communities that legally owned it by giving FAPATUX the sole right to organize logging and purchase timber. The logging concession gave rise to a long series of political struggles between the communities and the paper company between 1956 and 1982, when the logging concession was cancelled.

The official justification presented by FAPATUX and the Mexican state for this seizure of the forests of the Sierra can be seen in the following passage from a letter directed by FAPATUX to the secretary of agriculture describing the state of the forests in 1956. “[Except for a few inaccessible areas] all of the rest [of the forests] have suffered more or less intense exploitation, and all have suffered the impact of indigenous demographic pressure. Large areas have been deforested to dedicate them to a rudimentary and migrant agriculture; forest fires are intense and frequent, destroying the young trees and therefore the regeneration capacity of the forest. Uncontrolled grazing by goats and sheep completes this picture of enemies of the forest. It is no novelty but a great truth, to say that forests subjected to a technically directed exploitation, improve their silvicultural conditions and increase their productive capacity.”59

FAPATUX justified its right to the forests on the grounds that they were being degraded by the local indigenous communities. The direct causes of the degradation were supposed to be fire, shifting cultivation, pastoralism, and population growth. The story of a forest industry attacking traditional land uses as destructive is a familiar one from many places; swidden agriculture in particular has been the object of willful misunderstanding on the part of states around the world.60 The Mexican state has similarly viewed the local swidden systems, milpa, as destructive.61 The other familiar part of FAPATUX’s argument was the claim that scientific management would halt destruction of the environment, and that other land users needed to be displaced in order to permit proper resource use.62 By blaming the degradation on local indigenous peoples’ isolation and ignorance and their pursuit of subsistence agriculture, FAPATUX ignored the extra-local factors of war, trade, and mineral exploitation, which would have linked the Sierra to a wider political economy and national events, and perhaps forced officials to identify quite different culprits for degradation. As I have argued above, degradation of the forests was a result of the strong connections between the Sierra and the national economy. The FAPATUX justification was both self-serving and incorrect; it wrongly described the inhabitants of the Sierra as isolated, and it blamed environmental degradation on their isolation in order to claim control of the forests.

Over the twenty-five years after the 1956 concession, FAPATUX and the forest communities engaged in a complex tug-of-war over timber extraction and labor organization, during which the communities were organized as a source of labor for industrial logging and learned the theories and practices of modern forestry. Initially the logging company attempted to employ outsiders, but the communities soon succeeded in imposing their demand that all logging be done by community members. Community members worked at first only as loggers, but gradually managed to take control of more and more parts of logging operations-working as truck drivers and then buying their trucks, working as crane operators, and finally working as forestry technicians.63 Timber extraction was highly organized, with a pattern of logging roads, cutting areas, and skid roads compartmentalizing both landscape and labor; company foresters regulated cutting by marking trees to be felled, and logging teams were paid by volume cut within established lots of forest. The communities affected the way in which FAPATUX was able to extract timber by demanding changes both in logging practices and labor organization. The paper company initially attempted to introduce a capital-intensive cable yarding logging system near Atepec in 1958, but the community opposed this system, which relied upon outside labor to manage the machinery. Instead, it demanded that only community members should be employed as loggers, thereby imposing a labor-intensive selection-logging system. Paradoxically, a clear-cut system would have been more ecologically appropriate to regenerate the light demanding pine species of the Sierra Juarez, although it is highly unlikely that this was a consideration for FAPATUX.64

The terms of the original concession made it clear that FAPATUX was largely responsible for enforcing forestry regulations within the concession area. Members of the Sierra Juarez communities who worked most closely with the paper company have little memory of forest service presence during the concession period. In effect, the forest service acknowledged its inability to enforce regulations and sub-contracted its enforcement to a private company. FAPATUX enforced at least some of the regulations regarding timber harvesting and fire suppression, adhering to the prevailing diameter-limit cutting system, marking timber to be felled, documenting timber for transport, and organizing forest workers into fire fighting teams.65 Community members practiced fire suppression in the specific context of timber extraction and modern forest management organization, where agriculture was seen as separate from forestry. FAPATUX continued the forest service policy of halting milpa cultivation; the company forester was the person responsible for authorizing the conversion of forests to agricultural land, which he was usually reluctant to do. The separation of forests and agriculture promoted by the forest service in the 1930s gradually became naturalized in the lives of forest workers and farmers of Ixtlan between 1960 and 1982, as industrial forestry supplanted milpa agriculture.

Almost contemporaneous with the arrival of FAPATUX in the Sierra in 1956 was the beginning of a precipitous decline in agricultural production, as cheap maize began to be imported from other parts of Mexico along the road system built to allow timber extraction. This can be seen in the figures for agricultural land in the district of Ixtlan. The total reported cultivated area declined from 22,973 hectares in 1950 to only 5,016 hectares in 1980, with most of the decline occurring between 1960 and 1970. These figures are supported by aerial photographs, which show a growth in forest area between 1967 and 1999.66 During the same period, heavy out-migration maintained a broadly stable population.

Farmers concentrated their efforts on more productive irrigated and permanently cultivable land near villages, diminishing the need to use fire as an agricultural tool in milpa in the cooler high elevation pine-oak region. At least in the community of Ixtlan de Juarez, and probably also in other forest communities, the decline in agriculture affected settlement patterns as people moved to town to work in the forest industry and abandoned their more remote fields. Working in the community forests of Ixtlan implied a more urban lifestyle, as forest workers spent weekdays out in the forest and weekends in their houses in town or on their nearby fields. Fire came to be seen as a threat to commercial forestry and to the people who depended upon forestry for their livelihoods, while it began to lose its role in agriculture. Fire moved from being seen as partially domesticated within the milpa agricultural system, to being seen as wild within the new forest management system.67 Even in its traditional uses fire was never fully domesticated; my informants all emphasized that agricultural fires always had been liable to escape from cultivation in spite of the best efforts at control. Ultimately, forest management dominated over agriculture, as community members came to derive the bulk of their income from forestry activities. By the early 1980s, fire suppression was a generally agreed upon policy. At present in Ixtlan, everyone claims that fire suppression is of the greatest importance, and sees their community as being special because people fight fires.

FAPATUX faced considerable resistance from the communities, including a long strike in 1967-1972, when communities refused to sell timber. In 1982 FAPATUX tried to renew its concession, but popular mobilization and national newspaper attention forced the government to cancel the new concession and hand over direct control of logging and forest management to the forest communities. FAPATUX largely withdrew from the forests of the Sierra and is now only one among several timber purchasers. Since 1986, communities have been able to employ their own foresters, working relatively independently of the forest service. The community of Ixtlan has learned from FAPATUX and the forest service the discourse of the destructiveness of forest fire and the strict separation of forest from agriculture. Along with this discourse have come the practices of fire suppression and logging, and a complex community organization devoted to controlling and allocating the profits of the forestry business.68 As we shall see, the discourse of fire as destructive has a particular meaning within the context of community pride in forest management, the community’s long struggle to regain control of the forests, and the community organizations that regulate forest management.


IN 2000 and 2001 I carried out ethnographic fieldwork in the community of Ixtlan de Juarez, at the heart of the old FAPATUX logging concession. Community leaders accused FAPATUX and other logging companies of being pillagers of a forest which had been largely untouched before the arrival of the first logging companies in 1948. They also told me that the logging companies had taken the largest trees, leaving only the smaller ones behind, and that FAPATUX was responsible for greatly expanded logging from 1956 onward. Zenaido Perez, an elder of the community of Ixtlan, recounted these events to me in 2000: “No one had exploited the forest, it was almost virgin, although there were a few people who sold planks, but very few. He (Manuel Garcia) took the largest trees, the best of what there was. I remember one day, working with a two-man saw we cut a tree six feet across, it took us half a day to cut it, it was a father tree … it almost makes me sick with anger [me da coraje], now we really suffer the consequences of irrational exploitation. We need to fight forest fires to protect the forest. Fire can destroy the forest, but we here have the advantage that the forest reforests by itself, we have seen that. But the forest gives to us, and we have to think, what are we giving back to the forest.”69

Zenaido directly contradicted the FAPATUX description of the forest in 1956 by claiming that the forest was essentially untouched in 1948 and that it was outside logging companies that destroyed the forest. He claimed that the communities of the Sierra Juarez have the right to restore the forest from degradation caused by the logging companies. Once again a claim that the forest is degraded is part of a political claim to control and restore it, so that defining what degradation is and who is causing it are both critical rhetorical moves. Interestingly, Zenaido defined degradation in terms of timber volume and saw the present-day forest as degraded because it had too few large pine trees. In defining forest degradation in terms of commercially valuable timber, he shared the definition of degradation espoused by FAPATUX in 1956, and he even agreed that fire is destructive. Other community members said there were too many oak trees now, and not enough commercially valuable pine, similarly defining degradation in terms of its impact upon commercial forestry activities. Zenaido also said that protecting the forest from fires is a community obligation. In Ixtlan the comuneros, the men who are entitled to benefit from forest exploitation, are expected to fight forest fires when necessary. Willingness to fight fires has become a marker of full community membership, of the willingness to fulfill community obligations and of the right to receive profits from community forestry.70

Zenaido’s use of the term “irrational exploitation “further underlines the way he has appropriated the official language about forest management. In the original presidential decree creating the FAPATUX concession the logging company was described as bringing “rational exploitation” to the forests of the Sierra Juarez.71 To our ears, it may seem strange that rationality has such weight in modern Mexico; it is significant that the definition of indigenous people in colonial Mexico was gente sin razon (people without reason), and this may in part explain the continuing power of rationality (razon) in present day discourse about the Mexican state. In extensive reading in newspaper archives on forest conflicts in Oaxaca, I found that the terms rational exploitation and irrational exploitation were ubiquitous from the 1950s onward and that rational exploitation continues to be the term for good forest management to this day.72


WHEN THE FAPATUX concession was cancelled in 1982, the federal forest service once again became the primary enforcer of forestry regulations. At present, the forest communities of the Sierra Juarez and the forest service are in close agreement about the history of degradation of the forest, about the terms in which degradation is to be defined, and about the practices needed to regenerate the forest. The forest service officially supports the view that FAPATUX pillaged the forest of its largest trees and has helped publish books and videos by forest community members who describe this harvesting-induced degradation.73 This change in official ideology was imposed upon the forest service by the need to work with the communities, given the forced withdrawal of FAPATUX from the scene after 1982. Forestry officials feel no conflict with the official ideology of the past, because their own unstable career structure and the unstable institutional location of the forest service mean that few of them are personally associated with past policies. Fighting forest fires is seen as a duty both by the forest communities and the forest service. Both parties agree that milpa agriculture, which depends upon long forest fallows and the use of fire, is reprehensible. Forest communities largely have stopped milpa cultivation, in the face of some degree of internal dissent. Protests against this policy have been muted by the general decline in milpa cultivation since the 1960s, and the move away from subsistence agriculture. Forest destruction is generally supposed to have started in 1948 or in 1956, and nothing is mentioned about the state of the forests before then.

The dominant forest history of the Sierra portrays the area as having been isolated from external political and economic forces before the 1940s and the arrival of the logging companies is portrayed as something new and unusual. As I have shown, the contrary is the case; the arrival of industrial logging was only the most recent in a series of economic booms and busts that shaped the environments of the Sierra Juarez over the past four hundred years. These booms and busts affected the forest both by direct extraction of forest resources and, indirectly, by providing alternative livelihoods to the Sierra communities, giving rise to cycles of agricultural extension and abandonment. These cycles were caused by the involvement of the Sierra Juarez in wider circles of trade and politics, so that over the long term the forests of the Sierra were marked by national and international political and economic events. The Sierra Juarez was portrayed by the state and FAPATUX as isolated and backward in order to marginalize the serrano leaders after the revolution and install a regime of environmental management. It is a tribute to the ingenuity and organizing ability of the Sierra communities that they have been able to turn this politically motivated representation to good account in their own retelling of the history of the Sierra Juarez.


IN GAINING control of their forests, the comuneros of Ixtlan have adopted the state-sponsored discourse of forest degradation, which describes forests as threatened by deforestation and fire and seeks to prevent degradation by organizing logging and suppressing fires. The degradation discourse has worked upon popular memories in two ways. The first has been the naturalization of the separation between agriculture and forestry; the second has been the creation of knowledge of fire as the destructive opponent of forest management. The official discourse of fire and the separation of agriculture and forests has become part of the worldview of the people of Ixtlan. Community members have come to take the separation of agriculture from forestry for granted; they know that abandoned fields have regenerated abundantly with pine, but the dominant discourse of fire as degrading gives this knowledge no interpretive framework, and there is no public space where it might be discussed and acted upon. The separation between agriculture and forest land was first made by the forest service in the 1930s and is now a part of the organization of community life, as work in the forests and the fields is separate both in theory and in practice. Individuals may know that old fields are now pine forest, but this does not fit the discourses of degradation and forest management used to write management plans and claim control of the forest from the state. The discursive separation of agriculture and forestry has suppressed memory of past agricultural fires. This effect of discourse upon collective memory has become more powerful the less it is discussed.

Memory also has been suppressed by the creation of new knowledge of fire through the practice of fighting fires. Fire fighting takes place in the context of protecting the standing timber in community forests-only those who are willing to fight fires can become full comuneros with the right to participate in the community forestry business. Their difficult, dirty, and dangerous encounter with fire has led community members to see fires as the opponent both of their forests and of their livelihoods. Community members know about fire in a direct and active way, but they know it only as a danger and a threat, and this submerges memories of more benign fires from the past, the fires used by farmers and pastoralists. This knowledge of fire is conditioned by the social world of organized logging and timber extraction. Although degradation discourse provides part of the interpretive frame for knowing fire, the organization and practices surrounding commercial logging and fire fighting are critical in defining how comuneros come to know fire. The knowledge system of traditional agriculture, where fire was potentially benign, has been submerged and overwritten by the knowledge system of modern forestry, which was and is inimical to milpa cultivation. There is no necessary opposition between these two knowledge systems. The literature in the sociology of science is replete with examples of creative hybridization between different knowledge systems, and under other circumstances some kind of hybridization or accommodation between these two systems of knowledge conceivably could have occurred.74 Unfortunately, in the context of Mexican forestry in the twentieth century, forest science was fervently opposed to swidden cultivation, and this opposition has been entrenched in the institutions of community forest management.

Far from being in a continued process of degradation, the forests of the Sierra Juarez have at least by some measures actually been recovering from relatively intense exploitation in the late nineteenth century and intense fires during the Revolution. Total standing volumes per hectare probably have diminished as a result of heavy selection logging by the logging company between 1956 and 1982, but this probably had little impact upon overall forest cover and species composition; oak and arbutus presence has probably increased, and biodiversity in general probably has not been affected. Far from being increasingly degraded, the forests in the 1950s may well have been recovering from frequent fires set before, during, and after the Revolution. Thus, the 1956 FAPATUX/state account of continued degradation is a self-privileging narrative that was about justifying state intervention, not about the condition of the forests of the Sierra. The state narrative of degradation actually blinded the state to what was happening in the forests. Forest fires largely had come under control from the 1940s on, but the state could not trumpet this as an example of a successful scientific forestry intervention because it literally did not know what was happening in the forests. The state narrative of degradation was of a general, continuous environmental decline, which could be projected onto any forest landscape by visiting government or paper company officials. Government presence in the forests continues to be sporadic because of insufficient manpower to allow frequent visits to the forests and because the institutional instability of the forest service has made past records inaccessible. So, at present, forest service officials lack information about the past of the forests and of their own bureaucracy. The official environmental history has allowed government officials to exercise power although the effect of this power was to obscure a story that they could have used to justify past government interventions. However, government officials are not entirely in control of the official history. Blame has been reallocated, and they have to accept a positive role for the forest communities in managing their forests, even if this control is circumscribed by official regulations and forest management plans. A story of post-revolutionary environmental recovery surely could have been fruitfully linked to the national political myths propounded by the PRI, but the government did not do this because it was blinded both by its self-serving official history and by its material inability to find out what was happening in the forests.

The state has not been completely successful in imposing its version of history upon the Sierra communities. By cutting off the history of the forest in the late 1940s, the communities have been able to use their political power to reverse the terms of the technical forestry of the 1950s at the price of ignoring and partially forgetting their own knowledge of the forest. They have accepted that degradation is to be measured in terms of pine timber volume and fire control, the terms operative in the 1956 FAPATUX document. However, by organizing politically, the communities were able to reallocate responsibility for the degradation, successfully shifting blame from themselves to FAPATUX. The discourse of degradation put out by the forest service and FAPATUX has been hegemonic, in the sense put forward by William Roseberry: “This is the way hegemony works. I propose that we use the concept not to understand consent but to understand struggle, the ways in which words, images, symbols, forms, organizations, institutions and movements used by subordinate populations to talk about, understand, confront, accommodate themselves to or resist their domination are shaped by the process of domination itself. What hegemony constructs then, is not a shared ideology but a common material and meaningful framework for living through, talking about, and acting upon social orders characterized by domination.”75

The hegemonic discourse of forest degradation has defined the language that is used in the political struggle to control the forests of the Sierra Juarez. Residents of the forest communities have adopted the terms of the hegemonic discourse, and reversed them, and then used their political muscle to make the forest service accept their revised history. Within the forest service, some people are well aware that this is a simplified and even incorrect version of history, but because they are rarely able to visit the forest, they have little feeling for what the real changes in the forest landscape might have been and little interest in finding information that contradicts the official discourse. Many individuals know that the official “reality” is incorrect, but they cannot use this knowledge to change the official discourse, which continues to provide an overarching narrative of environmental destruction that marginalizes evidence to the contrary.

It has become a commonplace of historians that state mythologies need to be interrogated and treated with suspicion, because they are so closely tied to projects of control.76 Only relatively recently have mythologies about natural resource degradation begun to be treated with a similar skepticism, as in Fairhead and Leach’s pioneering research in West Africa.77 This does not mean that degradation narratives are uniformly wrong. Just as the myth of the Mexican Revolution is partially correct (many agrarian communities did receive land as a result of the revolution, even if much of it was unsuitable for farming), so too deforestation is a serious problem in Mexico. The Sierra Juarez is an exception to both these myths. No land redistribution took place as a result of the Revolution, and forest area has been increasing at least since the 1960s, and probably since the Revolution. In the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca, the forest communities largely opposed the Revolution, an embarrassing topic that is largely passed over as a hindrance to good relations with the state.

The communities of the Sierra Juarez are cited as successful examples of forest management, but they also are examples of the triumph fire suppression over the agricultural use of fire. This is very unusual for Mexico as a whole, and partially explains why the forest communities of the Sierra Juarez are so successful in managing the forest and have such good relations with the forest service. The communities and the forest service have forged a common version of forest history in order to foster collaboration. The price of a good working relationship with the forest service has been participation in the generalized bureaucratic narratives of environmental degradation and loss of local knowledge of forest history. The memory of fires and of increase in forest area has been suppressed in order to secure community control of forests. Thus, in the Sierra Juarez, the suppression of fires has walked hand in hand with the abandonment of agriculture and the suppression of memory.


This paper is drawn from fieldwork and archival research I carried out in Mexico in the summer of 1998 and between April 2000 and August 2001. This research was funded thanks to the generous support of the Tropical Resource Institute of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, by an Enders Grant from the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, by the Yale Center for International and Area Studies, by a Switzer Fellowship from the Switzer Foundation, by a Fulbright/Garcia/Robles fellowship, and by a Dissertation Research Grant from the NSF Program in Science and Technology Studies. An early version of this paper was presented to the Council for Latin American and Iberian Studies at Yale in the fall of 2001. My thanks to Professor Michael R. Dove for patiently reading an early draft, and also for being a principal investigator for this project. For their invaluable and critical insights, I thank Jonathan Padwe, Laura Meitzner Yoder, and Steve Rhee. For advice about silviculture and ecology I thank Professor Mark Ashton. For assistance in learning how to date tree rings 1 thank Ann Camp. I thank also my collaborators in Mexico, the comuneros of Ixtlan de Juarez (most of whom remain anonymous), especially Leopoldo Santiago Perez and Gustavo Ramirez Santiago. My thanks also to Martin Gomez and Juan Francisco Castellanos at INIFAP in Oaxaca, Antonio Plancarte at SEMARNAP Oaxaca, and Jose Luis Romo at UNAM Chapingo. My thanks to the Prieto family for generous hospitality and advice, and Paloma Diaz and Juana Inez Diaz for help with locating the painting by Velasco. I thank two anonymous reviewers for their careful reading and insightful criticisms.

1. For critiques of state degradation discourses in Africa, see James Fairhead and Melissa Leach, “Reading Forest History Backwards: The Interaction of Policy and Local Landuse in Guinea’s Forest-savanna Mosaic,” Environment and History 1 (1995): 55-92; and James Fairhead and Melissa Leach, Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in a Forest-Savanna Mosaic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). See also J. C, McCann, “The Plow and the Forest: Narratives of Deforestation in Ethiopia, 1840-1992,” Environmental History 2 (1997): 138-59. For a description of the change in degradation discourses through time see Dianne E. Rocheleau et al., “Environment, Development, Crisis and Crusade: Ukambani, Kenya, 1890-1990,” World Development 23 (1995):1037-51.

2. Stephen J. Pyne, “Keeper of the Flame: A Survey of Anthropogenic Fire,” in Fire in the Environment: Its Ecological, Climatic, and Atmospheric Chemical Importance, ed. P. J. Crutzen and J. G. Goldammer (Chichester: John Wiley, 1993), 245-66.

3. For an international organization’s description of the community forests of Oaxaca, see World Bank Sector Leadership Group and Mexico Department, Latin America and the Caribbean Regional Office, Staff Appraisal Report: Mexico Community Forestry Project, (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 1997). For a more nuanced description of the community forests of the Sierra Juarez by Mexican scholars, see Miguel E. Szekely and Sergio Madrid, “La Apropiacion Comunitaria De Recursos Naturales: Un Caso De La Sierra De Juarez, Oaxaca,” in Recursos Naturales, Tecnica Y Cultura: Estudio Y Experiencia Para Un Desarrollo Sustentable, ed. Enrique Leff and Julia Carabias (Mexico, D.F.: UNAM, Coordinacion de Humanidades, 1990), 387-409.

4. Norman Fairclough, “Discourse and Power; Discourse, Common Sense and Ideology,” in Norman Fairclough, Language and Power (London and New York: Longman, 1989), 43-108.

5. Andrew Pickering, “From Science as Knowledge to Science as Practice,” in Science as Practice and Culture, ed. Andrew Pickering (London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 1-26.

6. There is a remarkable continuity in official programs of fire suppression and forest protection over the past sixty years. See, for instance, the official fire suppression program Direccion Forestal y de Caza y Pesca, “Instrucciones Para La Campana Contra Incendios De Montes,” (Archivo General del Estado de Oaxaca (AGEO): Asuntos Agrarios, Serie V Problemas por Bosques, Legajo 893, Expediante 11, 1930), 1; and compare with a statement of official policies in a newspaper article, Olga Elena Romero, “Campana de defensa,” Seccion Editorial. El Imparcial, 12 January 1954 2; and a recent newspaper article and think tank report, “Convertidas en cenizas, 151 mil has de bosques,” El Financiero; 17 May 2000, 50; and CESPEDES, Humo En Los Ojos: Incendios Forestales Y Deforestacion En Mexico (Centro de Estudios del Sector Privado para el Desarrollo Sustentable, 1998), 24.

7. The PRI is the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional.

8. Maria de los Angeles Romero Frizzi, “Epoca Colonial (1519-1785),” in Historia De La Cuestion Agraria Mexicana: Estado De Oaxaca, Prehispanico-1924, ed. Leticia Reina (Oaxaca, Mexico: Centro de Estudios Historicos del Agrarismo en Mexico, Universidad Autonoma Benito Juarez de Oaxaca, 1988), 107-81.

9. John K. Chance, La Conquista De La Sierra: Espafioles E Indigenas De Oaxaca En La Epoca De La Colonia (Oaxaca, Mexico: Institute Oaxaqueno de las Culturas, CIESAS, Fondo Estatal Para la Cultura y las Artes, 1998).

10. Indio is a Spanish colonial term for the indigenous people of Mexico. Repartimiento was a colonial era system of putting out raw materials to indigenous people, who were supposed to covert them to finished products such as textiles. For a discussion of the colonial era repartimiento system in Oaxaca see Jeremy Baskes, “Coerced or Voluntary? Repartimiento and Market Participation of Peasants in Late Colonial Oaxaca,” Journal of Latin American Studies 28 (1996): 1-28.

11. Bryan R. Hamnett, “Dye Production, Food Supply and the Laboring Population of Oaxaca, 1750-1820,” Hispanic American Historical Review 51 (1971): 51-78.

12. For a discussion of the Oaxacan economy in the late nineteenth century, see Francie R. Chassen and Hector G. Martinez, “El Desarrollo Economico De Oaxaca a Finales Del Porfiriato,” in Lecturas Historicas Del Estado De Oaxaca. 1877-1930, ed. Maria de los Angeles Romero Frizzi (Oaxaca, Mexico: INAH, Gobierno de Oaxaca, 1990), 47-106. For a description of the mining boom in the Sierra Juarez, see Rosendo Perez Garcia, La Sierra Juarez. 2nd ed, vol. 1, Coleccion Historia (1956; reprint, Oaxaca, Mexico: Institute Oaxaqueno De Las Culturas, 1996).

13. USGS geologist Steven Ludington, interview with the author, 14 May 2001, Oaxaca, Mexico. Notes in possession of author.

14. Francie Chassen and Hector Martinez, “El Desarrollo economico de Oaxaca a fines del Porfiriato,” 47-106; Garcia, La Sierra Jua 1:310-325.

15. Ibid., 1:435-446.

16. Ibid., 1:316.

17. D. A. Brading, Mineros Y Comerciantes En El Mexico Borbonico (1763-1810) trans. Roberte Gomez Ciriza (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1995).

18. Frizzi, “Epoca Colonial (1519-1785),” 107-81; Ronald Spores, The Mixtecs in Ancient and Colonial Times (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984).

19. The impact of pastoralism upon colonial Mexico is the subject of debate, with Elinor Melville arguing that grazing caused severe soil erosion and deforestation, (Elinor G. K. Melville, A Plague of Sheep: Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) and others arguing that pastoralists rapidly learned to manage their grazing practices so as to reduce the impact upon vegetation and soils. See Karl W. Butzer and E. K. Butzer, “The ‘Natural’ Vegetation of the Mexican Bajio: Archival Documentation of a 16th-Century Savanna Environment,” Quaternary International 43 (1997): 161-72; Andrew Sluyter, “From Archive to Map to Pastoral Landscape: A Spatial Perspective on the Livestock Ecology of Sixteenth Century New Spain,” Environmental History 3 (1998): 508-28. In any case, the Sierra Juarez was not subject to intense grazing during or after the colonial period.

20. Anastasio Zerecero, Benito Juarez: Exposiciones (Como Se Gobierna) (Mexico City: F. Vasquez, 1902).

21. Maria Elena Altamirano Piolle, Jose Maria Velasco: Paisajes De Luz, Horizontes De Modernidad (Mexico City: Museo Nacional de Arte, 1993), 1:314-21.

22. Sociedad Mexicana de Historia Natural, “Dictamen Sobre La Repoblacion Vegetal Del Valle De Mexico,” La Naturaleza V (1883): 245-51; Elias Trabulse, Jose Maria Velasco: Un Paisaje De La Ciencia En Mexico. (Toluca: Instituto Mexiquense de Cultura, 1992).

23. Cassiano Conzatti, “La Repoblacion Arborea Del Valle De Oaxaca,” Boletin de la Estacion Agricola Experimental de Oaxaca 1 (1914): 1-13.

24. Paul Garner, La Revolucion En Provincia: Soberania Estatal Y Caudillismo En Las Montanas De Oaxaca (1910-1920) (Oaxaca, Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1988); Paul Garner, “Federalismo Y Caudillismo En La Revolucion Mexicana: Genesis Del Movimiento De Soberania En Oaxaca: 1915-1920,” in Lecturas Historicas Del Estado De Oaxaca. 1877-1930, ed. Maria de los Angeles Romero Frizzi (Oaxaca, Mexico: INAH, Gobierno de Oaxaca, 1990), 325-53.

25. By 1911 the reigning leaders of the Sierra were Fidencio Hernandez and Guillermo Meixueiro, the sons of the leaders who had supported Diaz’s rise to power in the 18703s

26. Serrano literally means “someone from the Sierra” i.e. the Sierra Juarez. During the revolution the term specifically identified the group of Sierra communities that had allied themselves with Meixueiro and the cause of state sovereignty. Caudillo is the term for the political/military leaders who dominated Mexican politics from independence until the definitive triumph of professional politicians over the generals in the late 19305. See Enrique Krauze, Mexico, a Biography of Power: A History of Modern Mexico 1810-1996, trans. Hank Heifetz (New York: Harper Collins, 1997).

27. Isaac M. Ibarra, Memorias Del General Isaac M. Ibarra: Autobiografia. (Mexico City: 1975.

28. A comunero is a member (usually male) of the community who has full access rights to communal land and may participate in community decision making. People who live in a community may not be comuneros if they moved into the community after it was legally recognized by a post-revolutionary land title. The quotation is from the author’s interview with Luis Ramirez Garcia, Ixtlan de Juarez, 11 December 2000, Interview notes in possession of author, author translation.

29. Ibarra, Memorias, 167.

30. James K. Agee, “Fire and Pine Ecosystems,” in Ecology and Biogeography of Pinus, ed. D. M. Richardson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 193-208.

31. Andrew M. Barton, “Factors Controlling Plant Distributions: Drought, Competition and Fire in Montane Pines in Arizona,” Ecological Monographs 63 (1993): 367-97; Andrew M. Barton, “Pines Versus Oaks: Effects of Fire on the Composition of Madrean Forests in Arizona,” Forest Ecology and Management 120 (1999): 143-56; Peter Z. Fule and Wallace W. Covington, “Fire Regime Changes in La Michilia Biosphere Reserve, Durango, Mexico,” Conservation Biology 13(1999): 640-52.

32. G. Segura and L. C. Snook, “Stand Dynamics and Regeneration Patterns of a Pinyon Pine Forest in East Central Mexico,” Forest Ecology & Management 47 (1992): 175-94; Emily K. Heyerdahl and Ernesto Alvarado, “Influence of Climate and Land Use on Historical Surface Fires in Pine-Oak Forests, Sierra Madre Occidental, Mexico,” in Fire and Climatic Change in Temperate Ecosystems of the Western Americas, ed. T. T. Veblen, et al. (New York: Springer-Verlag, 2002), 22; Fule and Covington, “Fire Regime Changes,” 640-52; Peter Z. Fule and Wallace W. Covington, “Changing Fire Regimes in Mexican Pine Forests,” Journal of Forestry, (1996): 33-38.

33. J. Rzedowski, Vegetacion De Mexico, (D.F, Mexico: Editorial Limusa, 1978), 283-314.

34. Enriqueta Garcia de Miranda, Modificaciones Al Sistema De Clasificacion Climatica De Koppen (Para Adaptarlo a Las Condiciones De La Republica Mexicans), 2nd. ed. (Mexico City: UNAM, Institute de Geografia, 1973).

35. For pine species descriptions, see Aljos Farjon, Jorge Perez de la Rosa, and Brian T. Styles, A Field Guide to the Pines of Mexico and Central America (Oxford: Royal Botanical Gardens Kew, 1997). For oak species descriptions see Rogers McVaugh, Flora Novo-Galiciana, vol. 12, part I, number 3, Contributions from the University of Michigan Herbarium (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Herbarium, University of Michigan, 1974).

36. The local oak species do not form clear annual rings, and are thus unsuitable for dating by counting rings.

37. Stephen M. Arno and Kathy M. Sneck, “A Method for Determining Fire History in Coniferous Forests of the Mountain West,” in USDA Forest Service General Technical Report Int-42 (Ogden, Utah: Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Forest Service, USDA, 1977).

38. Richard L. Holmes, “Computer Assisted Quality Control in Tree Ring Dating and Measurement,” Tree-ring Bulletin 43 (1983): 69-75; Edward R. Cook and Richard L. Holmes, “Users Manual for Program Cofecha” Adapted from Users Manual for Program Cofecha, in Tree-Ring Chronologies of Western North America: California, Eastern Oregon and Northern Great Basin, by Richard L. Holmes, R. K. Adams and H. C. Fritts, (Tucson, Ariz: Laboratory of Tree Ring Research, 1986), 41-49; (Tucson, Ariz.: Laboratory of Tree Ring Research, 1999).

39. H. D. Grissino-Mayer, “Tree-Ring Reconstructions of Climate and Fire History at El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Arizona, 1995).

40. Fule and Covington, “Fire Regime Changes.”

41. The Weibull Median Probability Interval is derived from a model of fire frequency distribution, whose shape is defined by a number of parameters. For further details see Agee, “Fire and Pine Ecosystems,” 106-112. Heyerdahl and Alvarado, “Influence of Climate and Land Use on Historical Surface Fires in Pine-Oak Forests.”

42. For estimates of fire scarring and grazing over the whole area of the forests of Ixtlan see Tecnica Informatica Aplicada S.A, Programa De Manejo Forestal, Ixtlan De Juarez, Oax, 1993-2000, 4 vols. (Texcoco, Mexico: 1993): 1:219. The frequent light fire regime is typical of drier forest types on the Pacific side of the watershed. In the much moister forest types on the Atlantic side of the watershed, fires tend to be rarer but more intense, causing heavy scarring to trees. P. patula in particular is known to regenerate prolifically after fire: See Lazaro Rafael Sanchez Velazquez, “Estudio De La Sucesion Forestal En La Sierra De Juarez, Oaxaca, Mexico, Despues De Un Incendio Forestal Superficial,” Biotica 11 (1986): 219-31.

43. The forests of Ixtlan are diverse in climate and species composition, and fire frequencies and intensities are probably correspondingly diverse; the data presented here can give only a general snapshot of a much more complex fire history; which requires further research.

44. The SEMARNAP official responsible for coordinating federal fire fighting efforts in the state told me, “When the communities don’t want to fight a fire, it is not worth fighting it-in places where they get nothing from the forest, where there is no (forest) resource, people don’t want to go up to the hills and fight fires. But when the army comes, there is more respect, and people participate more. Places where we have trouble getting cooperation are Sola de Vega and the Mixes, compared to the communities where the community receives an income from the forest.” Author’s interview with Ruben Garcia, Oaxaca, Mexico, 30 November 2000. Interview notes in possession of author, author translation.

45. Data derived from Ixtlan forest management plan Tecnica Informatica Aplicada S.A, Programs De Manejo Forestal, Ixtlan de Juarez: 207. Average stand ages as reported in the management plan were found to be highly correlated with measured stand age (Pearson Correlation 0.84, R2=0.711), N=14.

46. For a history of the forest service in the early twentieth century see Lane Simonian, Defending the Land of the Jaguar: A History of Conservation in Mexico (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995). For the purposes of the present paper, I will use the term “forest service” to indicate the federal agency responsible for forests, with the understanding that its name has changed frequently over the last seventy-five years. At present the functions of the “forest service” are split between SEMARNAT (the succesor agency to SEMARNAP), PROFEPA, and a Comision Nacional Forestal. The forest service’s constant mutation of names and its migration between institutions are a reflection of its ongoing weakness.

47. Desiccationism, which had almost no scientific basis at the time, and relatively little even today, was disseminated around the world during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by scientific networks. On international desiccation discourse see Richard H. Grove, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995); for the impact of desiccation discourse in Mexico, see Simonian, Defending the Land of the Jaguar. For an account of the relation between desiccationism and forestry practices, see Andrew Salvador Mathews, “Mexican Forest History: Ideologies of State Building and Resource Use,” Journal of Sustainable Forestry 15 (2002): 19-30.

48. Marte R. Gomez, “Memorandum to Direccion Forestal Y De Gaza Y Pesca: Disposiciones Reglamentarias Para Efectuar Las ‘Quemas De Limpia'” (AGEO: Asuntos Agrarios, Serie V Problemas por Bosques, Legajo 892 Expediente 22, 1930).

49. Author translation. Direccion Forestal y de Gaza y Pesca, “Circular Relativa a La Campana Contra Incendies De Monte Girada a Todos Los Presidentes Municipales Del Estado” (AGEO: Asuntos Agrarios, Serie V Problemas por Bosques, Legajo 893 Expediente 21, 1932), 89.

50. Francisco Lopez Cortes, Direccion Forestal y de Gaza y Pesca “Que Ya He Ordenado a La Autoridad Municipal De Teococuilco Exija El Cumplimiento De Las Disposiciones Sobre Quemas De Limpia”(AGEO: Asuntos Agrarios, Serie V Problemas por Bosques, Legajo 900, Expediente 14,1930), 4.

51. Various, “En Que Los Comuneros De Xiacui Denuncian El Incendio De Los Bosques Por Los Habitantes De La Trinidad, Ixtlan,” (AGEO: Asuntos Agrarios, Serie V Problemas por Bosques, Legajo 900, Expediente 19, 1945), 9.

52. Ibid. Author translation.

53. The cargo system of community office holding is an inheritance from colonial forms of municipal government which were appropriated by indigenous communities. For a description of the cargo system in a Zapotec mountain community near the Sierra Juarez, see Laura Nader, Harmony, Ideology, Justice and Control in a Zapotec Mountain Village (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1990). For an insider’s description of the cargo system in Ixtlan with reference to fire fighting, see Garcia, La Sierra Juarez 1:264.

54. Various, “Los Vecinos De Ixtlan De Juarez Denuncian Que Los Rancheros De Rancho Chivo Han Provocado Un Incendio” (AGEO: Asuntos Agrarios, Serie V Problemas por Bosques, Legajo 900, Expediente 18, 1942), 9.

55. “Oaxaca Y Su Reforestacion,” La Voz de Oaxaca, 17 November 1949, 2. Author’s translation.

56. “Editorial,” La Voz de Oaxaca, 27 May 1947, 3. Author’s translation.

57. One example is the case of the Ranz family logging business. The father and son team were arrested and sent to prison as the result of a gunfight over contested timber, but apparently managed to bribe their way out. The judge responsible was stripped of his authority and prosecuted. “El Juez De Miahuatlan Lic. Miguel Figueroa Fue Destituido Y Consignado a La Procuraduria: Fue Acusado Por El Tribunal De Abuso De Autoridad Pues Resulta Responsable De Que Los Madereros Ranz Hayan Obtenido Su Libertad,” Nuevo Diario, 13 July 1951, 1.

58. FAPATUX was fully nationalized in 1965, but its policies were substantially the same throughout the concession period. See Jorge L. Tamayo “Una Experiencia Forestal Industrial,” Revista del Mexico Agrario 9(2) (1976): 145-58.

59. FAPATUX, Memorandum to Secratario de Agricultura y Recursos Hidraulicos, “Memoria Descriptiva De La Unidad Industrial Forestal Para Las Fabricas De Papel Tuxtepec, S.A. De C.V. En Los Estados De Oaxaca Y Veracruz” (Tuxtepec: 1956). Author translation.

60. Michael R. Dove, “Theories of Swidden Agriculture and the Political Economy of Ignorance,” Agroforestry Systems 1 (1983): 85-99.

61. Milpa refers to various forms of long fallow swidden agriculture, which rely upon the conversion of secondary forest to agriculture, with varying fallow periods. For a description of milpa cultivation in the Sierra Juarez, see Leonardo Tyrtania, Yagavila: Un Ensayo En Ecologia Cultural, 1st. ed. (Mexico, D.F.: Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana, Unidad Iztapalapa, Division de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades, 1992). For a good review of the history of swidden agriculture in Mesoamerica see Thomas M. Whitmore and B. L. Turner II, Cultivated Landscapes of Middle America on the Eve of the Conquest, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001). Mesoamerican milpa agriculture has not attracted the same kind of well-informed and ardent defense as has swidden in southeast Asia, but for descriptions of Mexican milpa systems see Janis B. Alcorn, Huastec Maya Ethnobotany (Austin: Texas University Press, 1984); Arturo Gomez-Pompa, Jose Salvador Flores, and Victoria Sosa, “The Pet Kot: A Manmade Tropical Forest of the Maya,” Interciencia 12 (January-February 1987): 10-15; Ronald Byron Nigh, “Evolutionary Ecology of Maya Agriculture in Highland Chiapas, Mexico” (Ph.D. diss, Stanford University, 1975).

62. Dove, “Theories of Swidden Agriculture.”

63. David Barton Bray, “The Struggle for the Forest: Conservation and Development in the Sierra Juarez,” Grassroots Development 15 (1991): 13-25; Miguel E. Szekely and Sergio Madrid, “La Apropiacion Comunitaria de Recursos Naturales: Un Caso de la Sierra de Juarez, Oaxaca.”

64. The MMOM was codified in Forestry Department Circular 2 of 1964. It formally limited the percentage of standing volume that could be cut to 35 to 50 percent, which in practice translated to a diameter-limit-cut selection system. See Francisco Javier Musalem, “Breve Analisis Sobre La Silvicultura Y Manejo De Bosques De Coniferas En Mexico,” Mexico y sus bosques, (November-December 1972): 21-32. The impact of selection logging upon light-demanding pine forests was to favor the regeneration and increased dominance of oak species. See L. K. Snook, “Effects of Mexico’s Selective Cutting System on Pine Regeneration and Growth in a Mixed Pine-Oak (Pinus-Quercus) Forest,” USDA Forest Service General Technical Report SE-46 (1986): 27-31.

65. For accounts of FAPATUX’s attempt to introduce the tower-logging system, see Faustino Froylan Velasco Gutierrez, “La Explotacion Forestal Y Sus Repercusiones En Una Comunidad Zapoteca: Atepec, Distrito De Ixtlan, Oaxaca,” (INI, 1986), 14; and Jorge L. Tamayo, “Una Experiencia Forestal Industrial,” 145. For more detail on the contestation of silvicultural systems in the Sierra Juarez, see Mathews, “Mexican Forest History,” 19-30.

66. Francisco Abardia Morelos and Carlos Solano Solano, “Empresas Forestales Comunitarias En Las Americas: Estudios De Caso,” (paper presented at the conference Aprovechamientos Forestales en las Americas: Manejo Comunitario y Sostenibilidad. 3-4 Febrero 1995, Universidad de Wisconsin-Madison, 1995), 111-44.

67. I am indebted for this observation to Michael R. Dove.

68. For a well-informed discussion of the management structures in Sierra Juarez forest communities, see Gerardo Alatorre Frenk, La Construccion De Una Cultura Gerencial Democratica En Las Empresas Forestales Comunitarias, 1st ed. (Mexico: Casa Juan Pablos, Procuraduria Agraria, 2000).

69. Zenaido Perez is a pseudonym for a community member of Ixtlan de Juarez. Interview with the author, Ixtlan de Juarez, 25 July 2000. Interview notes in possession of the author, author’s translation. Manuel Garcia was the owner of the logging company that worked in the forests of Ixtlan from 1948 to 1956, when he was displaced by FAPATUX. In his conversation with me, Zenaido made it clear that most of the damage to the forests had been caused by FAPATUX.

70. Community members primarily define degradation in terms of the decline in timber volumes and diameters caused by the predatory practices of the logging company; this is a view that has been actively promoted by NGOs such as ERA, which worked intensively with the UZACHI group of communities in the 1980s and early 1990s. Francisco J. Chapela and Yolanda Lara, Impacto De La Politica Forestal Sobre El Valor De Los Bosques; El Caso De La Sierra Norte De Oaxaca, Mexico (Oaxaca, Mexico: Estudios Rurales Y Asesoria, 1993).

71. For the terms of the original timber concession see Presidencia de la Republica de Mexico, “Codigo Forestal: Decreto Que Declara De Utilidad Publica La Constitucion De Una Unidad Industrial De Explotacion Forestal En Favor De La Empresa Denominada Fabricas De Papel Tuxtepec, S.A. De C.V,” in Diario Oficial 1958), 691-719.

72. For uses of the term razon and irracional with respect to forestry, see “Una politica forestal de proteccion a nuestros bosques, la norma inflexible del gobierno: Ineludiblemente los explotadores madereros del estado tendran que someterse a lo estatuido en los convenios celebrados con el gobierno so pena de sanciones muy severas” Nuevo Diario, 3 November 1951, 1,4; Fernando H. Gamboa, “Una voz en defensa del arbol” El Imparcial, 11 July 1958, 2; “Piden a MMH cancele concesiones a Pandal y FAPATUX. La misma peticion para el gobernador del estado” Carteles del Sur, 24 February 1983; Salvador Anta and Juan Manuel Barrera, “Alternativas en el desarrollo forestal comunitario” Noticias: Suplemento Ecologia, 21 October 2000, 1-2.

73. Pedro Vidal Garcia Perez, La Region De La Sierra Juarez: Las Propiedades Comunales Y El Desarrollo Sustentable (Oaxaca, Mexico: PROCYMAF, SEMARNAP, WWF, 2000).

74. See, for example, Akhil Gupta’s description of the hybridization between traditional and modern theories of soil fertility in Gujarat. Akhil Gupta, Postcolonial Developments (London: Duke University Press, 1998), 234-90.

75. William Roseberry, “The Language of Contention,” in Everyday Forms of State Formation: Revolution and the Negotiation of Rule in Modern Mexico, ed. Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniel Nugent (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994), 355-66.

76. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (New York: Verso, 1991).

77. Fairhead and Leach, Misreading the African Landscape.

Andrew Salvador Mathews is a Ph.D. candidate in Environmental Anthropology at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Yale Department of Anthropology. He received his B.Sc. in Physics and Philosophy at LeedsUniversity, and his M.Sc. in Forestry and its Relation to Land Use at Oxford University. He has worked as a forester in New Hampshire and Central America. His current research looks at the Mexican forest service and its relations with forest communities in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Copyright Environmental History Jan 2003

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