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Dec. 6, 2022

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Mexican town protects forest from avocado growers and cartels

Citizens take battle against illegal logging into their own hands

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A communal police forest officer rides in the back of a pickup along with a volunteer community patrol through the woods looking for illegal logging and avocado planting Thursday on the outskirts of Cheran township, Mexico.
A communal police forest officer rides in the back of a pickup along with a volunteer community patrol through the woods looking for illegal logging and avocado planting Thursday on the outskirts of Cheran township, Mexico. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano) (fernando llano/The Associated Press) Photo Gallery

CHERAN, Mexico — Regular citizens have taken the fight against illegal logging into their own hands in the pine-covered mountains of western Mexico, where loggers clear entire hillsides for avocado plantations that drain local water supplies and draw drug cartels hungry for extortion money.

In some places, like the Indigenous township of Cheran in Michoacan state, the fight against illegal logging and planting has been so successful that it’s as if a line had been drawn across the mountains: avocados and cleared land on one side, pine forest on the other. But it has required a decade-long political revolt in which Cheran’s townspeople declared themselves autonomous and formed their own government.

Other towns, bullied by growers and drug cartel gunmen, struggle onward but are often cowed by violence.

David Ramos Guerrero, a member of the self-governing farmers board, says farmers here have agreed on a total ban on commercial avocado orchards, which he contends only bring “violence, bloodshed.”

“People are allowed to have three, four or five, or at most 10 avocado plants to supply food, but commercial planting isn’t allowed,” he said.

The reason is clear. On a patrol, Ramos Guerrero looks out across an almost deforested valley in a neighboring township. Rows of young avocado trees stand in lines up the denuded slopes that once held pine and fir trees.

“This is an island. All around Cheran there has been an invasion of avocados,” he notes.

Anyone who has walked through the cool mountain forest of pine and fir trees in Michoacan knows that the pine canopy protects against heat and evaporation; the thick mat of fallen pine needles acts like a sponge, soaking up and storing humidity; the roots of the pines prevent water and soil from running off the slopes.

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

“We have realized the only thing avocados do is soak up all the water that our forests produce,” Ramos Guerrero said.

Cheran, which began its experiment in self-rule in 2011 by blocking roads used by illegal loggers, now digs trenches across logging roads with backhoes. As far as avocados, Ramos Guerrero says: “We start in a friendly way, by talking (to farmers). If we don’t reach an agreement, then we use force: We tear up or cut down the avocado trees.”

If farmers still don’t agree to stop logging or planting avocados, Cheran’s forestry patrols swing into action.

Riding a pair of pickups through the woods, a community patrol of men armed with AR-15 rifles stop and seize an axe and a chainsaw from two men cutting up trees. The men will probably get them back with a caution to seek permission next time. The patrols find already cut pine logs hidden in the brush along the road and heave them onto one of the trucks.

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