Rodolfo Lopez is training Zapotec Indians to develop and manage their own forestry resources in the highlands of Oaxaca, Mexico.
Rodolfo Lopez was trained in business administration at one of Mexico's most prestigious private universities. He decided from an early age, however, that he would devote his skills to those who most needed them. Unlike his contemporaries who are now prosperous businessmen, he left the North of Mexico to work in the rural indigenous communities of the southern state of Oaxaca. There he has worked closely with the Forestry Department at the same time that he has developed independent community forestry projects. He is a skilled negotiator and is able to move easily from the complex political bureaucracy of Mexico City to the myth-based society of the Zapotec communities. Rodolfo was elected an Ashoka Fellow in 1989.
Rodolfo's idea is ingeniously simple: To preserve the forest, work the forest. By helping the Indians gain legal control of their forests, Rodolfo enables them to achieve independence through the substantial revenue they receive. Furthermore, the Indians develop a sense of how essential it is to their interests to preserve the forest. Without practical, economically productive alternatives like Rodolfo's, the devastation of forest areas will continue. Legal control, however, is not enough. If the Indians can't manage the forest themselves, the contract loggers who have clear-cut most of Mexico will eventually regain practical control.Rodolfo's job is to help the Indians seize their present opportunity. First, he helps them understand both their economic opportunity and the importance of managing the forest for sustained, long-term yield. Then he helps them master the skills–forestry, technical, financial, and management–they need to truly take charge. This training is an integral part of the actual day-by-day process.Already, there are 12 forestry companies owned and directed by Zapotec Indians within UCEFO (The Union of Forest Communities in the State of Oaxaca–an umbrella organization Rodolfo created). Rodolfo plans to quickly multiply their number.
Mexico has lost over 95% of its tropical forest and over two-thirds of its temperate forest. There is an urgent need to preserve remaining forests. According to official estimates, 80% of the country's land is seriously eroded. It was not until 1982 that restrictions on the use of the forest by local communities were lifted, enabling the communities, rather than the large timber companies, to develop their own resources. The local communities, however, are not well-equipped to attempt the transition from the traditional slash and burn agriculture. Largely unschooled, and lacking self-confidence and management skills, they need help to set up their own enterprises.
At the first level of strategy, Rodolfo has persuaded the Forestry Department to transfer cutting rights and management to the indigenous communities of Oaxaca. Dealing with the Department and its several constituencies requires ongoing attention–both to avert problems and to open a powerful possible channel for spreading the idea of long-term forest management. Second, Rodolfo works within the Indian communities themselves to establish their companies. Community-based forestry companies are well-established. Rodolfo hopes to have 300 functioning in Oaxaca within a few years. Not only does he help the communities set up their companies but he also provides training in administration and accounting. For the first time, unschooled Zapotec Indians are actually directing their own companies. Now that the forestry activities are well underway, Rodolfo is broadening his area of interest. He wants the fruits of this new economic independence to be channeled back into the forest communities themselves. He is now concentrating on helping rural people organize the installation of drinking water and electricity and the construction of schools and roads. Finally, conscious that the forest resources are limited and must be developed in a rational measured way, Rodolfo is promoting the introduction of non-forest related economic activities such as vegetable and fruit growing. Over the next several years, Rodolfo and UCEFO will have to concentrate heavily on increasing the efficiency of their forestry. Mexico is rapidly opening itself up to the world economy; average tariffs have fallen from 50 to 20 percent in just a few years. If, as seems likely, Mexico joins Canada and the United States in a free trade agreement, it will have to compete against the low-cost logs from north of its border.