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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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