University of Calgary

Logging the forest

Exploring the politics of logging

By Alexandra Venter

Getting to know the people behind the politics has been essential to Dr. Conny Davidsen’s environmental policy research in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo.

Davidsen, a geography professor who joined the University of Calgary’s Latin American research contingent in September, is studying community forest management. Each year, she spends several months visiting communities, such as the Mayan towns of Quintana Roo, and meeting officials from government and environmental NGOs.

Davidsen’s fieldwork tells her a lot about community values and what’s at stake for the people who depend on the more than one million hectares of tropical rain forest and agricultural land in the region.

While formal interviews are important, Davidsen says that key issues surface when she sits down with her Mexican colleagues for a midnight beer. “Environmental policies can be really ambitious on paper,” says Davidsen. “But what’s most important is always what’s really happening on the community level—and in people’s minds—behind closed doors in administration.”

A day with one of the 23 Mayan communities in Quintana Roo begins at sunrise. Davidsen takes time to play with the children, chat—in Spanish—with the adults and join community members in the forest, hunting, collecting what they need to survive, or harvesting timber for sale.

Since gaining harvesting rights to the forests in the early-1980s, the local communities have learned to manage the forests and have developed their forestry expertise. They have set aside almost 150,000 hectares for permanent forests, which harbour migratory birds and other rainforest wildlife.

Achieving sustainability continues to be a challenge, however. Ecological data suggests that some tree species may still be over-harvested. “(Forest-use) needs to be sustainable in the long run, otherwise the communities would lose their resource base,” explains Davidsen. She adds that successful forest management also depends on a community’s ability to adapt to change—ecological and market driven.

In addition, many communities are struggling with lack of education. The state government legally approves of logging only after forest-users have written formal management plans. With an illiteracy rate of 26 percent, many communities rely on informal logging, and as a result, their timber fetches a reduced price, pressuring them to harvest more.