Photo: Ron Mader, Sierra Juárez, Oaxaca (Some rights reserved)
Mexico is rich in temperate and tropical forests. The country possesses 1.3 percent of the world’s total forest resource, with one-quarter of Mexico’s total land area classified as forest lands. This guide is an introduction to the country’s forests and notable trees.
- How successful are reforestation efforts? = ¿Que exitosos son los esfuerzos de reforestación?
The national tree is the cypress, or ahuehuete, which thrives along rivers and creeks in the semi-arid regions. Near Oaxaca City, in the town of Tule, is the famed Tule Tree (Árbol del Tule), a giant cypress (42-meter width), now more than 2,000 years old.
Mexico boasts the highest number of pine and oak species in the world. Other notable trees include mahogany, zapote and ceiba (also known as pochote), the sacred tree of the Maya.
Many communities that have depended on forestry are diversifying their income with tourism. It’s best not to be a purist and demand that towns near nature treks completely abandon commercial logging. Until environmental tourism can prove its mettle, logging — even if unsustainable — will continue.
There are a number of positive actions aimed at slowing deforestion and improving reforestation. Key will be linking forestry to environmental services (including ecotourism). Other “non-timber” products include botanicals, artesania, mushrooms, and bottle-spring water.
Central Mexico is covered with pine and oak forests, along with a diverse undergrowth and strands of liquidambar, the genus of sweetgum, found throughout the Americas.
In southern Mexico, the forests are a mix of low jungles and tall deciduous forests, combined with mangroves, marshes, and savannas.
Northern Mexico is dominated by desert terrain. That said, some of the most impressive forests are located in the north, particularly in the state of Chihuahua.
Most of the country’s forest production occurs in the temperate-cold coniferous and broad-leafed forests in the states of Chihuahua, Durango, Jalisco, Michoacán, Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Guerrero. The tropical and subtropical forests are comparable in size, but they account for only 10 percent of Mexican forest production. Tropical forests are located in the states of Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Yucatan, Campeche, Tabasco and Oaxaca.
Commercial forestry has encountered numerous obstacles, including the fact that wood production costs are currently 35 to 40 percent higher than the world average. Importation of cheaper softwoods from the United States is expected to further reduce Mexico’s lumber production. Mexico’s lumber output in 1994 was 5.9 million cubic meters, its lowest production in 22 years.
Roots of Deforestation
Before the Spanish conquest, about two-thirds of the country was forested. Not all was virgin forest and, in fact, evidence links deforestation to the downfall of great pre-Conquest cities including Palenque and Teotihuacán. Today, less than one-fifth of the country remains verdant, mainly in the south and east.
Deforestation remains a large problem, because it is often viewed as a sign of progress. It is also a means for the poorest segment of Mexico’s rural population to gain unclaimed land. Fifty percent of Mexican farmers now live at subsistence levels, meaning they simply do not grow enough food to support their families. Either they move further into the forests, thereby increasing deforestation, or migrate to the cities.
Profepa, the federal agency charged with protecting Mexico’s natural resources, estimates that the country loses about 1.3 million acres of forests each year, the fifth worst deforestation rate in the world.
Cattle ranching has destroyed more than three-quarters of the high forests that covered Mexico at the turn of the century. Along with the trees, numerous animal and plant species have perished due to the loss of their native habitats.
In Chiapas‘ Lacandón rain forest, home of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, some 70,000 acres are cut down each year. The forest which originally occupied 15 million hectares (37 million acres) and 90 percent has been converted to grazing pastures. Environmentalists predict it could disappear within the next two decades.
Another example of deforestation lies in the Monarch Butterfly Reserve.
Deforestation leads to soil erosion and flooding. Forests work as a natural sponge that soak up excess rain waters and slow rivers that overflow their banks.
In October 2005 Hurricane Stan hit Mexico’s Gulf Coast and weakened to a tropical depression. The resulting rains caused rivers to overflow and flooding in seven states killed over 30 people. Environmentalists calculate that 76 percent of forest cover in Chiapas and 83 percent in Oaxaca have been lost.
Another consequence of deforestation is that soil erosion shortens the lifespans of hydro-electric dams. Chiapas contributes a good degree of the nation’s electrical supply and continued deforestation threatens the capability of the plants to generate power.