Mexico's Prophets of Climate Change: Women Forest Defenders

Illegal logging is on the increase. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Celsa Valdovinos knew there was a serious problem when only about an inch of water trickled from the irrigation hose. In the mountains of southern Guerrero state where Valdovinos and her husband Felipe Arreaga lived during the 1990's, the small farmers were becoming increasingly alarmed about water supplies. "This was in January and by the next year it was gone," Valdovinos recalls. As the rainfall diminished so did the prospects of the mountain residents. Animals died, crops withered, and the social fabric unraveled.

Valdovinos and her neighbors connected the environmental changes they were witnessing to deforestation. More and more forest cover was disappearing every year as farmers burned hillsides for corn patches and pastures, drug growers torched forest cover to plant their illicit crops, and contractors felled trees for a Boise Cascade Corporation mill that operated on the Pacific Coast at the time.

Long before climate change became a trendy cause, the Campesino Environmentalist Organization of the Sierra of Petatlan and Coyuca de Catatlan (O.C.E.S.P.), emerged as a grassroots group dedicated to saving Guerrero's forests. Soon, however, the movement faced repression from loggers and the Mexican army. In 2001, jailed O.C.E.S.P. leader Rodolfo Montiel and his friend Teodoro Cabrera were released by Mexican President Vicente Fox after an international campaign was waged on their behalf by environmentalists and human rights activists. Mikhail Gorbachev and Hillary Rodham Clinton were among world leaders who raised their voices for Montiel and Cabrera.

Other O.C.E.S.P. supporters were killed, arrested, or disappeared. Many like Valdovinos and Arreaga were forced into temporary hiding in the mountains. Now, 10 years after the O.C.E.P. burst onto the world stage, Valdovinos and a growing cadre of poor rural women quietly carry on the work of defending and restoring Guerrero's forests, and are even taking the struggle to new levels. Once in the background, women are now in the forefront of the movement.

Founded in 2001, the Women's Environmentalist Organization of the Sierra of Petatlan (O.M.E.S.P.) promotes sustainable and organic agriculture, forest fire prevention, reforestation, water and soil conservation, and recycling. The group has grown from 12 to 90 members, and Valdovinos serves as the president. Infused with a strong self-help ethos, the women largely carry on their work with little more than a great love for the land.

"There's a lot of consciousness among the people. For example, the majority of the people in our group dispose of their garbage properly and don't allow the children to trample too many trees," Valdovinos says. "It's not uniform. We're not going to change from day to night, but there is a lot of progress among the people."

Valdovinos' group can take credit for simple but groundbreaking accomplishments during the past six years. In 2003 and 2004, members planted more than 175,000 red cedar trees in the hills. The seeds came from a nursery run by the Mexican army. Some members of the group have found that they can earn a decent side income of as much as $3,000 annually from selling tree seeds.

Most of the women environmentalists have family gardens, and Valdovinos and Arreaga are starting a new tree nursery. Beekeeping is another new project viewed with great potential. "People are used to cutting trees and taking away the hive and letting it go to waste," Valdovinos says. "What we're going to do now is put the hive in a box; we're learning how to reproduce many hives from this box."

An environmental outlook is apparent even with young mountain residents like 16-year-old Cristina Cabrera. A soft-spoken young woman, Cabrera says more youth are hearing the green message she's absorbed and put into practice.

"We can make compost with organic trash and dispose of inorganic trash, and we can take care of the trees because they give us water," Cabrera says. "We have to plant a lot of them so there is a lot of water in the future, and animals too."

Outside support for the O.M.E.S.P. has been spotty. The organization has received some funding from two German foundations but is now seeking additional sources of support. Dealing with government agencies is difficult, Valdovinos says. "We're people who didn't go to school," she adds. "I, for example, didn't even study one year in school. The little reading I learned was because I forced myself, asking others (for help) when I was 12 years old. I was 28 when I learned how to do numbers. That's why it's difficult for us to make applications."

But the O.M.E.S.P.'s luck with the bureaucracy could be changing. Salvador Anta Fonseca, the director of Mexico's National Forestry Commission (Conafor) in Guerrero and Oaxaca, has pledged to help the O.M.E.S.P. access federal programs that help finance tree nurseries and plantations, soil conservation, and reforestation. Praising the work of the rural women, Anta adds that Conafor can also assist groups like the O.M.E.S.P. with strategic planning. "We can support them in doing studies on rural participation so they can organize and identify their problems," he says.

Forest conservation, which both former president Vicente Fox and his successor Felipe Calderon have termed a matter of "national security," remains a critical need in Mexico. According to Inter Press Service correspondent Diego Cevallos, more than 100 million acres of forest supply two-thirds of Mexico's fresh water supply, but the country has lost half its forests in the last 50 years.

Interviewed by La Jornada environmental reporter Angela Enciso, Miguel Martinez of the Biological Tropical and Conservation Association estimated that only 5 percent of the nation's tropical forests remain. Tourist development in places like Acapulco, which was once covered with lowland tropical forest, has contributed to the ecocide. The local consequences of tropical forest loss were tragically borne out during tropical storm Henriette when mudslides and flooding killed or injured victims in Acapulco. On a global scale, some recent studies suggest that the cutting down of tropical forests could account for upwards of 30 percent of global warming. The Calderon administration has set a goal of planting 250 million trees this year.

Lorena Paz, an organizer for the Mexico City-based Maya Institute, lauds the land-based O.M.E.S.P. for offering a shining example to city slickers. "There is a group of people that is taking action to protect the environment in the zones where water and air is produced and where biodiversity is abundant," Paz says. "Informing the urban population about this has an enormous impact, because it educates about the need to take care of the environment in the cities too, of struggling against contamination, and above all of taking care of the water, which goes to enormous waste in the cites."

Despite growing recognition for the O.M.E.S.P.'s work, Mexico is still dangerous turf for forest defenders. In 2004, Valdovino's spouse and long-time forest activist Felipe Arreaga was arrested on trumped-up murder charges and imprisoned for nearly 10 months before he was acquitted and released. The detention severely disrupted the O.M.E.S.P.'s growing work. Like the Montiel and Cabrera case, Arreaga's arrest sparked an international solidarity campaign. A free man, Arreaga nevertheless has threats hanging over him.

In 2005, O.C.E.S.P. supporter Albertano Penaloza was ambushed while traveling in the mountains with his family. Two of Penaloza's sons were killed, and nobody has been arrested for the crime.

"It makes me think that there is someone who's getting revenge and wants to kill them off little by little over sufficient intervals of time so the crimes aren't connected with one another," says Yadira Rios of Petatlan's New World Environmentalist Group. "We live in a state of impunity. Crimes are committed across Mexico and if you don't have money or if you're not from the political class, the crimes go unpunished."

It has been a bloody year in the forests. In March of 2007, forest guard Juan Millan Morales was murdered in the Omiltemi reserve near the Guerrero state capital of Chilpancingo. Known as a hot spot for illegal logging, the forest zone was the scene of the 2003 murder of federal environmental official Wilibaldo Sotelo.

Acapulco's El Sur newspaper recently reported that three murders last spring in mountains of Coyuca de Catatlan were linked to decades-old logging disputes. In one case, 16-year-old Justo Arroyo Salgado and a 14-year-old migrant indigenous worker named Calixto were shot to death April 24 while trying to put out a fire allegedly set by pro-logging forces. In neighboring Mexico state, meanwhile, 16-year-old Aldo Zamora, the son of well-known forest activist Idelfonso Zamora Baldomero, was shot to death in a May 15 ambush reminiscent of the 2005 attack on the Penaloza family in Guerrero.

Regardless of the setbacks and sorrows, Valdovinos is determined to forge ahead with her fellow women environmentalists. "I feel very happy about the organization. We have many problems and enemies, but I still feel content because it's work I've done for years and I feel that I cannot live without this work," Valdovinos reflects.

Never forgetting the big picture, Valdovinos urges governments and civil societies everywhere to take immediate action in saving the earth's resources. "I invite people to become conscious of the grave problem we have on planet Earth that's affecting us all," she implores. "We have to struggle to move our planet forward because we have to leave something for those who remain, for the children who are our going to live. What are we going to leave them? We're going to leave them nothing."

From the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy (C.I.P.).

Kent Paterson is a longtime freelance journalist and author who covers Mexico and the U.S. Southwest for the Americas Policy Program at