Monday, September 8, 2008 at 11:20AM
[chuck] in Science, community forestry; tropical dry forest

Alebrijes are whimsical, brightly painted figures carved by artisans in the Central Valley of Oaxaca. These popular handicrafts first started appearing in the market in the early 1970's, and currently hundreds of thousands are produced each year.  All of these  figures are carved from the wood of one species of dry forest tree, Bursera glabrifolia, or "copal".  The intense commercial demand for this wood has virtually eliminated the tree from the forests of the Central Valley.  When I first started getting interested in alebrijes, local craftsmen were buying copal wood (at exorbitant prices) from middlemen who harvested the material (illegally) from dry forests over two hours away.  

In response to this situation, Silvia Purata, a Mexican ecologist and former Kleinhans Fellow (currently with People and Plants International), and I started looking for communities with significant quantities of dry forest that could be managed for Bursera glabrifolia. We found a suitable site at San Juan Bautista Jayacatlán, north of Oaxaca City.  Field operations were initiated in collaboration with the community in 2001 to collect the baseline inventory and growth information needed to put together a forest management plan.  These data were painstakingly collected over the next two years, and a management plan was developed and submitted to the Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT).  And then we waited...

Upon inquiring about  the delay, we were told that there was a bit of uncertainty in the decision-making process because  "no one had ever solicited a management permit for dry forests in Mexico".  After a bit of discussion (thx, Silvia), the permit was finally granted to Jayacatlán and, as a result, the first sustainable source of Bursera glabrifolia wood was created.

Shortly after the SEMARNAT permit was granted, the first "sustainably harvested" copal tree was felled at Jayacatlán.  I was there with a video camera.  [NOTE: The toast offered to the tree says "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 forest resources found here"].

Further information about the alebrijes project can be found here.


Article originally appeared on thus i have seen (
See website for complete article licensing information.