Blog 14 Hills and Forests

Jan 27, 2011


Dear all,


In my dim distant memories the volcanoes in the midst of which Lake Zirahuén sits were entirely clothed with forest: pines, mostly, with a smattering of oak and some tall tropical trees whose names I didn’t know then and still don’t. Last year the mountains were eighty percent tree-covered. This year it is more like seventy percent. The trend is clear, and it has at least four causes, all of which are interrelated.

The first cause is demographic and economic: with the pass of time, subsistence farming is increasingly less attractive to its practitioners. Technology has streamed the rest of the world into Zirahuén. Traditional wood slat houses sport satellite dishes

that convey images of cars and washing machines into compounds that still have outdoor kitchens where families cook over wood fires and tether their donkey to the dry sink next to the well. And unlike most times past, for most people today the opportunities to move up are visible and within reach. Migrate to the cities in se

arch of wage jobs. Migrate north to the maquiladoras, the assembly plants that snuggle close to the Mexican border from Matamoros to Tijuana. Emigrate north to the land of (reputed) opportunity to pick grapes, pluck chickens, and groom golf courses. Send a little money back to clothe the kids and buy the machines to make your family’s life easier. Or, if you really want to make a killing, there is the drug trade.  So if you no longer need your share of the woodlot or those few acres to grow corn or beans, why not raise cash by selling it off?


The second cause is that trees have become increasingly valuable. Now it is not just weeding out a few for firewood or local construction needs, that has been going on for centuries, but now it’s in bulk for veneers, plywood, paper, furniture, and fancy houses in the cities. Japanese cities. Hong Kong. The demand has pushed up prices for prime timber and made logging very profitable. This is especially true when you don’t own the trees. Timber piracy has become a plague in Michoacán. Crews with power saws, diesel equipment, massive trucks, and floodlights will pay off local officials and police to look the other way for a night and then swarm in and in twelve hours strip a hillside bare. Guards with heavy weapons (most of them, a

s with the drug cartels, evidently purchased in the US) discourage t

he local owners from any effective protest. Michoacán is vast, intensely mountainous, and relatively sparsely populated. The army can’t be everywhere, and by the time they muster, another mountainside has been denuded. 

The third reason has to do with land ownership patterns. Much of the land in this part of Mexico, and just about all of the forest, is owned in common by ejidos, communities of Indians or mestizos. A national law a few years back permitted the ejido to sell off some of its land providing that all members of the community voted to approve. Once a sizeable portion of the community has moved to a cash economy, the pressure becomes immense on the remaining traditional farmers to sell —if not their agricultural plots— their forest reserve. There have been instances, too, of the lamentably traditional Latin American practice of the landholding class, the terratenientes, bringing to bear the sort of pressure that cannot be resisted. Opposition spokesmen can be disappeared. Or it may happen that a portion of the forest will mysteriously burn, delivering the sort of message that encourages a quick sale of the rest.

Lastly, there is the avocado. Michoacán produces over a billion kilos of avocados annually, most of it on hillsides lying between 1200 and 2000 meters high along a swath south of a line between Zirahuén and Uruapan. Worldwide demand for the fruit lead to rising prices that drive up the value of orchard land and push cultivation into higher and higher altitudes. Pressures to sell land (see reason #3) are often irresistible.

I’ve come to know the forests around the Lake Zirahuén, at least the northeast quadrant of the lake, pretty well in the last two years. As a break from writing I hike almost every day, exploring every trail I can find, crisscrossing the lower slopes, dropping into the ravines, struggling up toward the peaks.

The bird book is always in my knapsack along with my camera, a bottle of water, a couple of mandarin oranges or granadas chinas, and my emergency kit: compass, scout knife, whistle, and matches. The
binoculars drape from a strap around my neck. I’m not sure whether the birding is the goal or just an excuse for hiking. Either way, it provides a face-saving reason for stopping to huff and puff while I scan the treetops for warblers or —Tuesday’s triumphant spot! — an elegant trogon.  In addition to an expanding bird list, the hiking is giving me a feel for how the local forests are used, and, from the perspective of two years now, how they are changing.


For example, whenever I meet someone – some days I may run into as many as two people—I stop to talk. Invariably they are woodcutters, gleaning their firewood with an axe or a machete, or wheelbarrows, or two wheel handcarts, or donkeys, and lugging it down to their houses in town. Sometimes they are lugging one or two poles that they will use to prop up something at their homes. One old man who lives at the foot of our road goes up the mountain every morning at dawn and by ten o’clock is toting his daily firewood supply home on his back. According to another woodcutter I talked with, he has just celebrated his ninetieth birthday. This cutting is not commercial, it is subsistence, providing fuel for cooking and, presumably, the occasional hot bath. I assume that mostly they cut on ejido land, or unfenced private land. Some near-in commercial cutting seems to be going on too: I hear the occasional chain saw whining in the distance.

I have noticed that this year I am running into fences where there were none last year. Hand hewn poles and untarnished new barbed wire. And sometimes concrete poles and chain link topped with barbed wire. The barrier provided by the first is symbolic, and often the woodcutter paths appear to run right through them. The gates on the chain link fences are always padlocked. Behind them I can make out rows of newly planted avocado trees. When I climb high enough to get a good view of the other three quadrants of the lake, the avocado orchards have clearly become the dominant feature.That’s not yet the case on our side of the lake, but it is coming, as you can see in the photo of what last year was pine forest.


Tuesday, the trogon day, I followed a track high on the south side of the mountain that Vicky and I had climbed. Once I topped the steep part, and the slope rounded, I hit the chain link fenced avocado orchard. The trail —an ancient one, judging from some of the stonework I crossed along the way— made an abrupt right turn to follow the fence toward a deep ravine. Then, when the mountain got steep again, the trail jogged left along the fence, where it gradually descended into the ravine floor. I could hear water gurgling. After a few hundred meters I found the spring where water flowed out of a cleft in the rock. From its location I knew that this was the water source that made possible the small village just up from the east shore of the lake. But now there were eight black plastic 3/4” pipes  carrying a substantial part of the flow to various agricultural plots below and beyond the ravine; and one 2” white plastic pipe leading straight up the hill toward the avocado orchard. Somewhere above me a generator kicked in and the remaining water in the stream disappeared into the white pipe. As I turned and started back down I could hear it sluicing in the pipe behind me.

As I came out of the woods and headed down the home stretch, a logging truck, stacked high with huge lengths of pine, kicked up dust as it rumbled down the road.

Even so, on our quarter of the lake the forest remains pretty much intact. For how long is an open question. Some large stands of pitch pine are still tapped for resin.

An occasional small clearing nourishes cows, and there are enough patties on the trails to indicate that there are more clearings than the ones I have found.
Sometimes on the lower slopes someone will have carved out a small milpa, the Mexican word for cornfield. The only industrial size agriculture on our side of the lake is the avocado orchards, and one cornfield up the hill from us large enough to plow with a tractor. Across the lake, though, several large tracts are given to corn, oats, and, of course, once up off the most fertile land near the lake, avocados. 
                    David & Linda