A Mexican town protects its forest from too many lawyers and cartels

Cheran, Mexico

Ordinary citizens have taken the fight against illegal logging into their own hands in the pine-clad mountains of western Mexico, where loggers are clearing entire hillsides for avocado plantations that drain local water supplies and attract drug cartels hungry for extortionate money.

In some places, like the indigenous township of Cheran in the state of Michoacan, the fight against illegal logging and plantation has been so successful that it is as if a line has been drawn through the mountains: avocado trees and cleared land on one side, pine forest on the other. . But it required a decade-long political revolt in which the people of Cheran declared themselves autonomous and formed their own government.

Other towns, intimidated by growers and drug cartel gunmen, struggle but are often intimidated by violence.

Autonomous Farmers Council member David Ramos Guerrero said farmers here have agreed to a total ban on commercial avocado orchards, which he says only brings “violence, bloodshed “.

“People are allowed to have three, four or five, or at most 10 avocado seedlings to provide food, but commercial planting is not allowed,” he said.

The reason is clear. During a patrol, Mr. Ramos Guerrero observes an almost deforested valley in a neighboring canton. Rows of young avocado trees line bare slopes that once housed pines and firs.

“It’s an island, all around Cheran there was an invasion of avocados,” he notes.

Anyone who has walked through the cool mountainous pine and fir forest of Michoacan knows that the pine canopy protects against heat and evaporation. the thick carpet of fallen pine needles acts like a sponge, absorbing and storing moisture; the roots of the pines prevent water and soil from flowing down the slopes.

But the first thing avocado growers do is dig retention ponds to water their orchards, draining streams that were once used by people further down the mountain. And then the drug cartels extort money from avocado producers.

“We realized that the only thing avocados do is absorb all the water produced by our forests,” Ramos Guerrero said.

Cheran, who began his autonomy experiment in 2011 by blocking roads used by illegal loggers, now trenches forest roads with backhoes. Regarding the lawyers, Mr. Ramos Guerrero says: “We start in a friendly way, discussing [to farmers]. If we can’t reach an agreement, we use force, we tear up or chop down the avocado trees. »

If the farmers still don’t agree to stop logging or planting avocado trees, that’s when the forest patrols of Cheran come into action.

Driving a pair of pickup trucks through the woods, a community patrol of men armed with AR-15 rifles pull up and grab an axe, then a two-man chainsaw chopping down trees. Lumberjacks will likely pick them up with a caveat to ask permission next time. Patrols find already cut pine logs hidden in the brush along the roadside and seize them, loading them onto one of the trucks.

Salvador Ávila Magaña remembers the situation before the Cheran uprising in 2011. He was frightened by threats from loggers, who then cut down his land.

“The last threat was that if we showed up there [at his land] again, they were going to kidnap us, we were going to be found in sacks,” said Mr. Ávila Magaña. “Several people were killed and they were found in pieces, burned.”

But even though his 45-acre plot had been fully exploited, Mr. Ávila Magaña decided to replant pine trees, hoping “to leave something for my children or grandchildren”, who he hopes will be able to take over what It was once a sustainable forestry practice to extract pine resin for turpentine or cosmetics.

“We reached an agreement among the communal farmers that we were not going to plant avocado trees, we were only going to plant trees that produce good oxygen,” he said.

Avocados have been nothing short of a miracle crop for thousands of small farmers in Michoacan. With a few acres of manicured avocado trees, small landowners can send their children to college or buy a pickup truck, something no other culture allows them to do.

But due to the immense amount of water they need, the expansion of avocados has been by moving into moist pine forests, rather than disused cornfields.

Neither growers nor exporters have made a serious effort to ensure their avocados come from sustainable orchards. The Mexican Association of Avocado Growers did not respond to interview requests.

While the battle was temporarily won in Cheran, it is still being fought in other Michoacan towns that have not had a local government citizen takeover.

About 60 miles away, in the town of Villa Madero, activist Guillermo Saucedo tried to institute the type of farmer patrols used in Cheran to detect illegal logging and unauthorized avocado orchards. It involved up to 60 or 70 people in the patrols, starting in May 2021.

But on December 6, Saucedo says he may have spoken too forcefully at the meetings or angered powerful allies of loggers and avocado growers: he clashed with gunmen from the drug cartel.

“A white SUV with tinted windows cut me off,” Saucedo recalled a month later. “Three people came out with pistols and rifles and they cocked their guns and pointed them at me…they started beating me and forced me into the vehicle.”

During the drive, they threw a jacket and a ski mask over his head and continued to hit him in the head with the butts of their rifles and the butts of their pistols. Later, at a safe house, they repeatedly questioned him about a detained cartel leader, but Mr. Saucedo believes this was a cover for their real interest – his community organization.

“They kept beating me until they got tired,” he said. Hours later, they abandoned him on a dirt road in a remote township and asked him to blame a rival cartel for his kidnapping.

Patrols ceased and Mr. Saucedo was forced to keep a low profile in his home village of Zangarro. His pleas for protection from the federal government have so far gone unheeded, in a country where, in the past three years, 96 community, environmental and rights activists have been murdered.

Mr. Saucedo and environmentalist Julio Santoyo do not know what the exact links between the drug cartel and the Villa Madero loggers and avocado growers are.

Mr. Santoyo thinks the gangs could invest directly in avocado plantations. That wouldn’t be amazing in Michoacan, where in 2010 another cartel, The Knights Templar, actually took over the business of mining iron ore and exporting it to China.

Saucedo thinks cartels protect loggers and producers.

“They act like godfathers to them, protecting them,” Saucedo said. Granted, avocado growers in other parts of the state have often complained that drug cartels demand payment for each shipment of fruit, and it’s easy to see why the gangs would want more production.

In Villa Madero, which was once surrounded by solid pine forests, Mr. Santoyo recently used Google Earth to count about 360 retention ponds that avocado growers have dug to feed their thirsty groves. Mr Saucedo says that now that many pine forests have been felled, avocado growers are resorting to deep wells, further depleting the water table.

Mr. Santoyo says he has also received indirect threats from a cartel to “soften” his activism. But he says local farm families are already being impacted by the avocado plantations.

“People in this region have traditionally been able to draw water from streams for their animals, goats, cows or sheep,” Santoyo said. “They can no longer find water, sometimes even for themselves, and now they have to transport it in vans or on foot or with horses.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP reporter Fernanda Pesce contributed to this report.

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