Renewable Copal Trees for Alebrije Carvings

Discover the colorful works of art produced by carving copal tree wood and the journey to obtain renewable trees.

  • alebrije copal tree
    Alebrije produced from copal (Bursera glabrifolia) wood sustainably harvested from the dry forests of San Juan Bautista Jayacatlán, Oaxaca, Mexico.
    Photo by Charles M. Peters
  • alebrije copal tree
    “Managing the Wild,” by Charles M. Peters, invites readers with him all over the world. Read of his travels and the unique discoveries he has made.
    Courtesy of Yale University Press

  • alebrije copal tree
  • alebrije copal tree
 Managing the Wild: Stories of People and Plants and Tropical Forests (Yale University Press), by Charles M. Peters, invites readers to follow him through his travels of tropical forests. Take a closer look at the growth and propagation that occurs in the tropical forests. Meet some of the community that maintain the forests. The following excerpt is from Chapter 9, “A Renewable Supply of Carving Wood”. 

A Renewable Supply of Carving  Wood

San Juan Bautista Jayacatlán (N17 degrees 25 degrees 37 degrees, W96 degrees 49 degrees 11 degrees), Central Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico, 2001–2003

Alebrijes are small, whimsical figures that are carved and painted by Mexican artisans in the form of animals, dragons, mermaids, or human-animal hybrids. They are not a traditional craft item but rather a toy that farmers in the Central Valley of Oaxaca would carve for their children. Craft buyers started to notice — and buy — alebrijes in the early 1960s, and soon the carvings were appearing in craft stores throughout Mexico. By the 1980s wholesalers from the United States were visiting the carving communities and purchasing the figures directly from the makers. The alebrijes became more intricate and the painting more ornate as the carvers sought to distinguish themselves in an increasingly competitive market.

By the 1990s, most of the households in the better-known carving communities such as San Antonio Arrazola, San Martín Tilcajete, and La Unión Tejalapam were earning a significant   portion of their annual income from the sale of alebrijes, and some families had abandoned agriculture to work as full-time carvers. As the market continued to grow, it became apparent that individual families could not keep up with the orders using only household labor, and several alebrije factories, each employing twenty or so workers to help with the sanding and painting, were established in the vicinity of Oaxaca City. But as the demand for these figures boomed, the supply of the raw material required to make them diminished. All alebrijes are made from the wood of a single tree species (Bursera glabrifolia), native to the tropical dry forests of Mexico. Known locally as copal, this tree produces a soft, fragrant wood that is ideal for carving. Unfortunately, given the relatively harsh conditions of a tropical dry forest, copal trees do not grow very quickly and their regeneration is limited. Tropical dry forest habitats exhibit high temperatures, low total annual rainfall, and a marked dry season of from five to eight months. These are not ideal conditions for plant growth. Population densities of the species are thus low in many regions. As well, the species has been exploited since pre-Columbian times for its aromatic resin and the fragrant oil found in its wood. Copal trees in Oaxaca are struggling.

 Once the market for alebrijes began to grow, the demand for copal wood skyrocketed and all the copal trees in the vicinity of the carving communities in Oaxaca disappeared. Outside wood col- lectors entered the picture and started bringing illegally harvested copal to the carving communities—usually at night—and selling the material for exorbitant prices. Every year the wood collectors were forced to go farther into the mountains to look for copal trees, and the selling price for the wood correspondingly increased. The carvers, however, continued to receive the same price for their alebrijes.

 The situation highlighted two related problems. Because commercial tree felling in Mexico is illegal without a permit and an approved management plan—especially in government-controlled protected areas — copal wood was being harvested illegally from dry forests, mostly in nearby protected areas. The species was being overexploited and totally depleted from increasingly larger areas of the Central Valley of Oaxaca. Yet in spite of a burgeoning international market for their products, local carvers were trapped in a vicious price squeeze and earning less and less for their work. This familiar pattern illustrates how commercial markets for wild- harvested resources move from the boom to the bust phase.

 In an effort to reverse this downward spiral of resource depletion, I collaborated with a Mexican colleague, Silvia Purata, on a project focused on the sustainable use and management of copal trees in the tropical dry forests of Oaxaca. We reasoned that such a project would produce several useful results. It would provide an immediate source of carving wood, enhance the value of dry forests relative to competing land uses such as agriculture and pastures, and, we hoped, offer an incentive to conserve these habitats. Perhaps most important, however, the project would engage local communities in the long-term management of their forests and offer a mechanism to compensate them for their efforts.



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