Hardship looms for Mexican community of “vara” harvesters

provided by University of Arizona

ry tropical forests are the most endangered forests in the world – more so than tropical rain forests – University of Arizona ecology researcher Cynthia Lindquist says. To help preserve these forests, conservationists promote the use of non-timber forest products. These forest resources typically regenerate rapidly and do not cause destruction of nearby wilderness during harvest.

    In theory, this makes non-timber forest products ideal for providing sustainable income to those who rely on the forests for their livelihood. But as far as data supporting the sustainability of this strategy, none exists – until now.

    Lindquist, a research associate in the UA geosciences department, spent five years studying the social, economic, and ecological factors surrounding the harvest of the non-timber forest product vara blanca. She spoke about the research during the 87th annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America this past August.

    Straight, slender vara trees grow quickly in the dry tropical forest of Sonora, Mexico, reaching heights up to 33 feet. Previously used in construction, four- to five-year old vara trees are the perfect size to make stakes that support growing plants, like tomatoes and grapes, Lindquist explains. Now used extensively in agricultural fields, Sonoran workers regularly harvest vara as a cash crop for export to farms in Sinaloa, Sonora, and Baja California.

    “One of the big questions in conservation ecology is what happens when a people switch over to non-timber products and become dependent on it for their livelihood. The vara study can help to answer this question because the people are dependent on it and have been making a good living off of it since the 70s,” Lindquist says.

    The municipality of Alamos in Sonora, Mexico, where Lindquist performed her research did not always harvest vara as a cash crop for export, she notes. Three centuries ago, the Spanish mined silver from Alamos' rich underground ore deposits. Alamos was then one of the most productive silver mining centers in Mexico. The population boomed to 30,000, and the wealthiest residents built luxurious mansions.

    The mine closed, however, in 1910, bringing with it political and geographical isolation and economic hardship that the community still struggles with today. Today, Alamos has the second lowest standard of living in the nation, Lindquist says, and that is exacerbated by the poor national economy. Many people rely on government programs to help supplement their incomes.

    After the mine closure, many Alamos residents turned to farming, says Lindquist. But this proved difficult due to the mountainous terrain and lack of irrigation. Forced to look for economic alternatives, people soon discovered the utility of a plentiful, native tree growing right in their forested backyards – Mexican vara blanca.

    With a seemingly endless vara supply and an increasing agricultural demand for the vara stakes, many Alamos residents turned to harvesting vara for cash.

    “In the late 60s, there were about 15 people harvesting vara full-time,” Lindquist says. “In 1997, there were around 90-100 people harvesting vara, and by 1999 that number had grown to an estimated 1,000-1,500 people.”

    When Lindquist checked government records, she found they document intensified harvest rates over the last 20 years. She says that clandestine vara cutting occurs, making current harvest levels as high if not higher than in past years.

    With more people than ever harvesting vara, Lindquist wondered if vara could keep up with current demand. Her fieldwork shows that recent heavy harvesting is depleting vara forests and curtailing new vara growth because fewer plants survive to reproduce. In short, vara will disappear, given current harvesting rates. Lindquist's findings are corroborated by local residents' reports that the tree already has disappeared in some areas and probably soon will disappear in others.

    Lindquist suggests what might be done to save vara from extinction and the Alamos community from economic ruin: “If there can be community-based, consensus-based conservation plans with the government helping with economic alternatives, then the people can diversify to alleviate pressure on this incredible bank of wealth instead of being driven to the point where they ultimately cut all the vara down.”

    Lindquist realizes how much time and trouble Alamos residents took to assist in her research. She wants to help the community with what she's learned about vara to help forestall future economic hardship.

    “When people talk about conservation, they typically just take the biological data and make a rule out of it and are done. But when they do that they forget the human element,” Lindquist says.

    What's really needed in conservation ecology are well-rounded studies that take natural resources, people and all relevant factors into account, she adds.