Working in Harmony with Nature

A community forestry cooperative in Mexico’s Selva Maya produces mahogany prized for its resonance.

The lush tropical forests of Mexico’s Selva Maya produce a unique symphony—from the roar of the jaguar and the squawk of the parrot to the percussive rain that pounds the dense foliage. Echoes of history also reverberate from Tulum and the other Mayan ruins that dot the landscape of the Yucatan Peninsula. And then there’s the sound of the trees themselves.

People who construct musical instruments out of wood often speak about the “voice” of a particular tree as expressed through the unique sound it produces. By this measure, the mahogany trees of the Selva Maya are prized for their resonance. Yet music is just one of the riches this wood produces; another is the revenue it generates for the local community that manages the forest according to rigorous sustainability practices.

As a result of its collaboration with the Rainforest Alliance, the Caoba ejido (forestry cooperative), located in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, has earned Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification for the sustainable harvest and processing of its mahogany, and the community now sells its certified wood to the lucrative market for musical instruments. The cooperative, whose name means mahogany in Spanish, earns two to four times the local price for this exquisite hardwood.

Caoba’s Path to Sustainability

Environmental conservation is hardly an academic issue for this community. The ejido neighbors the 1.73-million acre Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, which provides habitat to a wide variety of plant and animal species—such as ceiba and chicle trees, jaguars, tapirs, howler monkeys, and more than 200 types of birds. The reserve is also home to Mayan ruins that date back to 364 C.E. As ranching, tourism development, and other activities encroach on the region’s remaining natural areas, Caoba’s working forests are vital to protecting the local water supply, mitigating climate change, and serving as a wildlife corridor.

Through its ejido system, Mexico has given many rural forest communities control over their land and trees. Like their peers throughout the country, Caoba’s members rely on their natural resources to earn a livelihood and feed their families—via small-scale farming, and the harvest and sale of timber and non-timber forest products like honey.

A community forestry cooperative logger
Photo credit: Eugenio Fernández Vázquez

But despite Caoba’s desire to manage its resources responsibly and earn a living from its standing forests, the ejido lacked the necessary knowledge, tools, and connections—including bookkeeping skills and specialized machinery to scale up wood-processing activities that could net the cooperative a higher income. Due to its geographic isolation and limited communications access, the ejido members also struggled to reach the kind of international buyers that place a premium on high-quality wood and wood products.

Enter the Rainforest Alliance. Throughout 2011, we worked with Caoba and other ejidos in the area to help them prepare for FSC certification, providing training and technical assistance in environmental management, monitoring, financial planning, and other important skills.

Caoba member Inés Pérez—who is also the mill administrator and secretary of the ejido’s governing council—points to the tangible changes she’s seen in the office and the field: “We have changed our administrative practices, including improving our documentation and organization, and we are more conscious of protecting the environment, cleaning up our work areas, and implementing safety measures, such as the wearing of helmets.”

Leadership team in Caoba Ejido
Photo credit: Ann Snook

As a result of the Rainforest Alliance training and the community’s careful preparations, Caoba earned FSC certification in 2013 (the coop had earned and then lost FSC certification in previous years for a variety of reasons)—both for its forest management and chain-of-custody activities, which require the ejido to track its certified wood from tree to processing plant to buyer—and the cooperative has since become a model of sustainable forestry in the region.

“Through our collaboration with Caoba’s members,” said Ann Snook, the Rainforest Alliance’s representative in the region, “we’ve seen firsthand the value they place on working and making decisions together, as well as their unwavering commitment to conserving their natural resources.”

An Eye on the Bottom Line

While good intentions are inspiring, the long-term success of a community forestry enterprise depends on its economic viability. Some of the ejidos (including Caoba) that earned FSC certification more than a decade ago failed to see improvements in their income and ultimately lost interest in maintaining their certifications. This history demonstrated the urgency of boosting local livelihoods to ensure that Caoba and its neighbors could continue their responsible forest stewardship. To achieve this goal, the Rainforest Alliance looked for ways to connect the ejido to buyers that were specifically seeking certified wood, and who would recognize and reward the higher value of these products and their positive impacts on Mexico’s forestland and communities.

Working hand in hand with Caoba and another NGO, the Rainforest Alliance helped the ejido’s members negotiate and complete their first direct sale of certified wood to Europe in 2015. The community sold a shipment of mahogany to Madinter, a Spanish company that fabricates parts for high-quality musical instruments. (Madinter’s customers include Bedell Guitars, another company that has worked with the Rainforest Alliance.) Rainforest Alliance regional staff supported this sale by offering Caoba day-to-day advice and providing a consultant to ensure that the ejido’s certified mahogany was milled according to Madinter’s specifications.

Caoba has become the first ejido since 2007 to sell its wood directly to the export market, a step that has proven to be a game-changer in the area. The deal provides a new model for building an economically robust forest economy in a region that has seen a worrisome decline in income over the last decade. As a result of this sale—which represented the first time the community negotiated directly with a buyer instead of going through intermediaries—the ejido has decided that going forward it will reserve its musical-grade mahogany exclusively for export. It now finances its timber operations by selling other hardwoods to local buyers and other takers. This decision gives Caoba the freedom to hold out for higher prices for its certified products, a strategy that is paying off for the community.

Milled wood
Photo credit: Eugenio Fernández Vázquez

Following Caoba’s mahogany sale to Madinter, the Rainforest Alliance linked the ejido with the Oregon-based North American Wood Products (NAWP), a distributor of specialty wood items, and NAWP signed a deal to purchase the community’s mahogany for the musical-instrument market. At the time of the NAWP deal, the purchase price was about two times higher than what was being offered by local buyers, though the latter have since responded by raising their bids as well—a move that should help raise the bar for other ejidos in the area. Even with the increase in local prices, Caoba’s agreement with NAWP will earn the community 2.5 to 4.2 times more (depending on the dimensions and characteristics of the wood) than what it would receive if it sold its mahogany locally. Furthermore, the agreement with NAWP was made in dollars so it will not be impacted by the falling strength of the Mexican peso.

Beyond the higher prices that it is earning for its certified wood, Caoba also receives pro-bono training from the buyer. In what is expected to become a long-term partnership, NAWP has sent an expert to Caoba to oversee the cooperative’s production of dimensioned wood. This kind of private-public collaboration is unprecedented in the area. NAWP’s Marco Lowenstein explains the company’s forward-thinking approach: “We are looking to build a long-term relationship with community organizations, such as the ejidos of Quintana Roo, to support their commitment to sustainable management. We believe that business has to be good for both parties to be considered good business, and we want to grow together to our mutual benefit."

The ripple effects of Caoba’s deal were soon evident, with a second ejido in the area signing its own direct deal to export their musical-grade mahogany to NAWP. “The sale of mahogany to an export market has catalyzed positive changes,” says Snook, “not only for Caoba, but for the region. Buyers are offering better prices, the ejidos have a greater incentive to become and remain certified, and forest owners are seeing a significant jump in income from their wood.” Pérez echoes that sentiment. “We are seeing the results of our intensive efforts to be certified, and we’re seeing that certification can provide us with real economic benefits.”

The additional income generated by these deals will not only help support Caoba’s day-to-day needs, but it will also provide the ejido with the means to maintain its commitment to good forest management. By working in concert with the Rainforest Alliance and responsible buyers, the forest communities of Quintana Roo are elevating their standard of living and transforming their relationship to the land.

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