Renewable Copal Trees for Alebrije Carvings

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Alebrije produced from copal (Bursera glabrifolia) wood sustainably harvested from the dry forests of San Juan Bautista Jayacatlán, Oaxaca, Mexico.
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“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.

 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 (Burseraglabrifolia), 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.

 Our first task was to find the right community. We needed a little town that was well organized, was motivated to try a new approach, and had control of several thousand hectares of tropical dry forest. After visiting a couple of communities in the mountains outside of Oaxaca, my colleague and I finally fixed on San Juan Bautista Jayacatlán, which seemed perfect. During our first meeting to explain to the community what we had in mind, we became a bit overexcited about the prospects for sustainable forest use and rapidly outlined how we would lay out a management area, help the villagers do an inventory of copal trees, start growth studies, write a management plan and submit it to semarnat (Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources, the ministry that has to approve a management plan and grant a permit before a community can harvest and sell trees) to get a harvest permit, and then sell the sustainably harvested wood to the carving communities. At this point, the village head, who had been very patient with us, commented “No me acelera, maestra”—Not so fast, Professor, the community has to approve all of these things first.

At that point we left so the villagers could confer among them- selves; they had another meeting or two, and before much longer, we were informed that the community wanted to start managing the copal trees in their dry forests and selling the wood to the carving communities.

I had a gifted and energetic research assistant at this time, Berry Brosi, who agreed to move to Oaxaca for the summer to set up the management area and help the community with the copal inventory. Mariana Hernández-Apolinar, a doctoral student at the National University of Mexico, had also decided to collaborate with the project and conduct a population study of the copal trees to assess the ecological sustainability of harvesting. And a local forestry group had been working with the community to help the villagers manage their pine timber. Of course the villagers themselves were prepared to assist with the fieldwork. During the summer of 2003, this combined team collected an enormous amount of baseline data about the copal trees within the management area. We learned how many copal trees there were in the forest, how big they were, and where they were located. We laid out seedling plots to determine how well the species was regenerating on the site, and put growth bands on trees of different sizes to see how fast they were growing. Estimating the wood volume of the copal trees took some extra calculations. The volume of most timber trees can be estimated relatively simply by means of the diameter and commercial height (the height to the first major branch or fork along the upper stem) of the tree. Copal trees, however, are short and have a lot of branches, and these branches are the most desirable type of wood for the artisans who carve alebrijes. We came up with a rather ingenious way to calculate the wood volume of a copal tree by felling a few trees of different diameters, cutting the stems and the branches into sixty-centimeter-long pieces, and then weighing each one with a spring balance. We next summed the weights of all the individual pieces to calculate the total weight in kilograms of each tree. Finally, we converted the weight measurements to volume using the estimated density or specific gravity (grams per cubic centimeter of wood) of copal. We made a graph showing the total wood volume for trees of different diameters and used this to calculate the volume of every copal tree in the management area. It was simple, it was elegant, and it told us how much copal wood the community had in their management area. The growth bands recorded how much new wood was being produced each year.

Using these data, together with other information that she had collected, Mariana Hernández-Apolinar made a sophisticated computer model to assess the impact of wood harvesting on the re- generation and growth of the copal population, and ran several simulations to determine how much wood could be harvested on a sustainable basis. She found that the copal population was increasing slightly each year, and that the population could sustain an extraction rate of about eight trees per hectare per year. In a relatively short period of time, we had compiled an exhaustive dataset about the structure and growth of copal trees in this tract of dry forest.

 It was now time to put all these data together into a management plan and submit it to semarnat to get a harvesting permit for the community. Berry Brosi did most of the work on the plan, and the result was thorough, extremely well documented, and rich with charts and maps and regression equations. I remember thinking that it had to be one of the most detailed management plans ever written for a tropical dry forest in Mexico.

We submitted the proposal and then waited. And waited. We finally gave up and called semarnat. We first asked the official if he had received our management plan and application for a harvest license; he had. We then asked whether there was a problem with the management plan, or if we had made a mistake on the application; no, everything looked good. (In fact, he complimented us on the quality of our management plan.) After several minutes of small talk, the semarnat official confessed that he had no idea what to do with our application. Because of the small size and poor form of the trees, tropical dry forests contained little timber of value. No one had ever submitted a management plan for harvesting wood in a dry forest before. Ever. He then confided that people do not manage dry forests in Mexico; they generally convert them to agriculture or cattle pastures. But we kept him on the line while we made the case for sustainable forest management as a way of con- serving tropical dry forests in Mexico. By the time we hung up the phone, our proposal had been approved.

The harvest of the first copal tree under the permit was conducted with a fair amount of ceremony. Everyone walked out to the field with the chainsaw, the special hammer to mark the stump of the tree, a bottle of cheap whiskey, and some plastic cups. We selected the first copal tree, hammered the stump with the seal, filled a cup with whiskey, and offered the following toast: “With the permission of the forest, and the owners who are here with us, we offer a toast to start work on the management and exploitation of the copal resources found here.” We then poured the whiskey around the base of the tree, and the sawyer yanked the starter cord on his chainsaw. It emitted a little puff of smoke, and down came the first sustainably harvested copal tree in Mexico.

After years of buying illicit copal wood at inflated process, carving communities were thrilled to hear our sales pitch for sustainable harvesting and placed their orders. The wood would not be delivered in the middle of the night, and it would be significantly cheaper than that offered by other sellers because it came from a forest that was closer to Oaxaca — and it was legally harvested. We also tried to give the carvers precisely the type of wood they wanted. If they wanted thin, twisty branches, we would give them thin, twisty branches. If they wanted large trunk pieces free of knots, we would try to deliver those. We could not produce enough wood to supply all the carving communities in the Central Valley of Oaxaca, but we set a new standard of service for the ones we could reach, and provided a model for sustainable copal harvesting in the tropical dry forests of Mexico.

Reprinted with permission from Managing the Wild: Stories of People and Plants and Tropical Forestsby Charles M. Peters and published by New York Botanical Garden and Yale University Press, 2018.