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Illegal Logging and the Failures of the Mexican State


If you haven’t read Karla Zabludovsky’s piece today on locals in Michoacán organizing to fight illegal logging by criminal gangs that is robbing them of their livelihood and traditional ways of life, you really must do so. A few points on this:

1. While legalizing marijuana in the United States would rob the Mexican criminal gangs of a major source of income, the idea that it would somehow resolve the violence in Mexico is absurd. Maybe at one time such a thing might have made a major difference but not now. The gangs have moved into any number of other activities, including kidnapping, extortion, the illegal wildlife trade, and logging, as well as of course smuggling hard drugs. Of course, the U.S. could shut the flow of guns to Mexico but that would violate my rights to have a personal arsenal the size of the Honduran army or something.

2. That locals have to organize to fight these criminals says a lot about the failures of the Mexican government over the last 70 years or so to bring rural communities into state. Effectively, the government has given up any hope of paroling these areas. While the post-revolutionary state did take major steps forward under the Calles and Cardenas regimes, after 1940, it really stalled out. Although Mexico is a fairly well off country by developing world standards, resources never flowed into rural areas and neither did a state presence. The long-time rule of a single party state is the real culprit–the PRI made sure the leaders of these communities bought into the program and that was good enough. There was never much incentive for the state to deliver in these communities.

The “uses and customs,” or usos y costumbres, that some indigenous communities rule themselves under have positive benefits, but it is also deeply complex and fraught with intra-community tensions, as my wife Kathleen McIntyre shows in her dissertation on evangelicalism and religious conflict in indigenous Oaxacan villages.

But while usos y costumbres might give these indigenous communities some power to fight the criminal gangs, it’s absolutely pathetic that they have to rely on this instead of the Mexican police force. This just says so much about the problems Mexico faces. Why does everyone look the other way on all the drug smuggling, the killing of women in Juarez, the illegal logging, and so much else? Because the state refuses to pay cops enough to make it worth their while and because the state never bothered developing the infrastructure that would provide economic options to people. And while I may be a bit harsh on governance in a relatively poor country, the Mexican government deserves a lot of blame here.

3. This illegal logging is both a social and ecological disaster. Ecologically, among other things it severely threatens the future of the monarch butterfly, since even in this central tourist destination, the Mexican state is unable/unwilling to protect the forests the monarch relies upon to survive. Plus you have the survival of many other species placed in peril, from migratory birds to all too rare mammal populations to rare plants. The forests of Michoacán also contain mushrooms the local people rely on for their economy. With those disappearing, the future of these villages is very much in doubt.

On another note, I am starting a new series on the blog that I am calling Forestry Friday. I’ll have a forestry related post each week on some aspect of current or historical forest issues. Why? Because I care a lot about these issues and I hope you will too.

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  • e.a.foster

    If governments do not protect the enviornment there will be no where to go. They may feel they are getting paid to look the other way & they can take the money & enjoy it. However, at some point there won’t be anywhere to go with the money & enjoy life because the earth will have been poisoned. if its not legal & illegal logging in Mexico & the U.S.A. its pipelines through B.C.

    The elite have always run Mexico & they don’t care about the rest of the people. This attitude has migrated north to the U.S.A. & Canada.

  • OzarkHillbilly

    On another note, I am starting a new series on the blog that I am calling Forestry Friday.

    as some one who has spent more than a little time in Mexico (exploring caves), and someone who owns 12 and a half acres of forestry in Washington Co. MO….


    • Barry Freed

      Yes, also looking forward to this new addition. I hope tenure review committees take these kind of things into account because they really should.

      • Well, I’m going to make the case for it in my review next year.

        Of course, I’m not leaving anything to chance here and don’t want to give anyone any reason to deny me tenure, but if for whatever reason I happen to be a borderline candidate, I want series like this and This Day in Labor History to nudge me over the top.

        • On my annual reviews I put my blog work under “professional service,” and since we do a lot of reflection on professional issues over at our place (New APPS). The Chair and Dean seem to buy it. As well they should!

          But you could in you case I think claim “public outreach.” Just look for a phrase that’s in the mission statement of the university.

          (/unsolicited advice that you’ve probably already thought of)

          • Actually I hadn’t thought of it. I have to put my portfolio together in the fall so I need to start thinking more seriously about what goes where, etc.

  • Charlie Sweatpants

    “While legalizing marijuana in the United States would rob the Mexican criminal gangs of a major source of income, the idea that it would somehow resolve the violence in Mexico is absurd. Maybe at one time such a thing might have made a major difference but not now.”

    I’m certainly no expert on Mexico specifically or Latin and South America generally, but I’ve got to believe that legalizing marijuana and decriminalizing everything else (cocaine included) would make a major difference long term. Good police work could drive the cartels out of legitimate businesses slowly but surely, but not if they’ve got the perpetual money hose of drug cash to fall back on.

    The top levels of the cartels have changed hands several times since the heyday of Pablo, and the middle management types are constantly being mowed down (legally or illegally) only to be replaced over and over again. That remarkable durability of operations in the face of enormous and enormously capable anti-drug efforts would be much harder to sustain without the steady supply of smuggling income.

    • DrDick

      Yes, just like legalizing alcohol eliminated the American Mafia.

      • Kal

        I think most Mexicans would rejoice if the cartels were transformed into having the level of influence of the American mafia.

        • DrDick

          True, but that was not a result of repealing prohibition.

      • Informant

        Legalizing alcohol did put a major crimp in the Mafia’s operations. Other types of illegal activity had nowhere near the profit margin.

        • DrDick

          I think Lucky Luciano found a suitable substitute.

    • If you legalized all drugs it would make a difference in the Mexican cartels. But not only is that never going to happen (we are a full century since the criminalization of cocaine and opiates and not one step closer to legalization than we were in 1920), but even if it did, it’s not like Mexican organized crime would melt away. It would be challenged greatly but would definitely still exist.

      The elimination of the illicit marijuana trade would be a far lesser challenge for them.

      • cpinva

        i don’t think anyone is seriously suggesting that legalizing pot would suddenly make the mexican (and other) cartels suddenly disappear, obviously they won’t. however, as charlie sweatpants correctly notes, it would take a huge, steady chunk of cash out of their revenue stream. this revenue stream helps support most of their activities, and can’t easily be replaced. making life harder for the cartels also makes them a much less attractive option for those they recruit.

        i’m glad someone with a name finally pointed out something i wondered about years ago: the almost abject failure of the mexican gov’t to provide the resources, in terms of money and expertise, to the rural areas of the country, that we (well, used to) take for granted in the US. of course, it’s just easier (on the gov’t of mexico, not the people), to harangue the US about its immigration policy, then get off its lard ass, and do something constructive for its people, giving them an incentive to stay home and be able to make a decent living.

  • It really has all been downhill since Lazaro Cardenas.

  • Will urban forestry be making an appearance?

    Urban tree cover, and the lack thereof, is a bfd.

    • Murc

      Is… is this a thing?

      Can you HAVE extensive tree cover in an urban area? Don’t the, you know, giant skyscrapers sort of preclude that?

      • Can you HAVE extensive tree cover in an urban area?

        It’s not unheard of.

      • scott g

        See also Portland, Ore, both for its general tree cover and places like the massive Forest Park.

      • Baton Rouge, for all its problems (“the charm of Shreveport and the efficiency of New Orleans”) does apparently have a very good % of tree cover (44%, allegedly highest in the country).


        • One thing they can never take away from us though is that we are the childhood home of SEK!

      • There’s also the Tijuca Forest National Park in Rio de Janeiro (behind the Jesus statue), which is the world’s largest urban forest.

      • Very, very little of the land area of even the largest cities consists of giant skyscrapers. If you look at a map of NYC, you’ll see that most of the buildings are houses. Single family houses, or apartment houses.

        You can get well over 50% tree cover in areas like that, through the use of street trees and yard trees. Even in Lower Manhattan, you can have a canopy of trees arching over the streets and making the sidewalks a pleasant, shaded place to walk.

    • Urban forestry might could make an appearance. We’ll see what kind of interesting stories I find to highlight.

  • Karla

    I’ve been to one of the monarch butterfly sanctuaries in Michoacán, on a scouting trip for a travel course to see them. It was truly amazing. I might go there again myself, but for the time being I don’t think I could justify the risk of taking students. (I don’t think our group would be likely to be targeted, but it could be collateral damage.) I hope that the situation changes before the butterfly population crashes, but worry that it won’t. It’s not clear what number of butterflies is too low to bounce back from a cold winter, dry summer, etc.

  • DrDick

    Having a number of friends who have worked extensively in Mexico, the federal government has often been a distant and ineffectual entity in many parts of Mexico. State governments have long been notoriously corrupt servants of large landowners and other elites, who are allowed to do whatever they want unhindered. Michoacan is definitely one of those areas, is Chiapas and the Yucatan.

  • scott g

    See also the struggles of the Tarahumaran and Tepehuan peoples to protect their forests in the Copper Canyon region. I was there more than a decade ago on a brief visit to friends working with the indigenous resistance to the cartels, who were also the loggers. Even the army didn’t go out much at night. Quite dangerous then, and it has since gotten much worse.

    • Yeah, I’ve been down in Copper Canyon some and it’s a pretty wild place and not in the good way. My understanding even 6 or 7 years ago when I was there was that the cartels were basically forcing the Tarahumara to grow marijuana and opium poppies and I’m sure that hasn’t changed. Just like Michoacan, the Mexican government simply never cared enough to build a state presence there that could challenge the cartels today.

  • Furious Jorge

    I’ll have a forestry related post each week on some aspect of current or historical forest issues.

    You might want to look at what’s happening in the Apuseni Mountains region of Romania, if you are so inclined. (It played a small but important role in one of the chapters of my own dissertation five or six years ago.)

  • Pingback: Logging, Social Conflict, and the (Absence of the) State in Mexico « Americas South and North()

  • Dan Mulligan

    Might I recommend the Environmental Investigation Agencies recent report on Peru. You might find it (overly) informative.
    Full disclosure: My daughter is a co-author.

  • Pingback: Marijuana in the Forests: A Localized Silent Spring in the Making? - Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money()

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