Biomass in the Borderlands: Charcoal and Firewood Production in Sonoran Ejidos

Article excerpt

In 1998 I attempted to cross the rugged Sierra Madre Occidental from Sinoquipe to Cucurpe. Despite the aid of good Mexican topographic maps, I lost my way on dirt roads that forever forked on the ejido lands of northeast Sonora. Instead of the beautiful, unused road to Cucurpe, I found three men making charcoal from large mesquite trees growing in riparian areas. At the time I did not realize that mesquite charcoal is produced primarily to satisfy the U.S. demand for a flavorful grilling fuel. Years of subsequent research into the borderland mesquite trade followed this initial discovery. This paper, using mainly ethnographic evidence, documents the impact of a multimillion-dollar trade of wood and charcoal on the dry borderland region of northern Sonora. This impact and current use of the environment is placed in the context of long-term environmental change in the region. Moreover, the use of biomass energy in the borderlands is placed in the context of biomass use around the world, which is the basic form of energy for billions of people around the world.

Conrad Bahre's (1991) classic account of vegetation change in the area, Hastings and Turner's The Changing Mile (1965), and the special double issue of Journal of the Southwest that documents social and environmental aspects of the binational Sonoran Desert Reserves (Felger and Broyles 1997) document environmental history of the dry borderlands region. They stop short, however, of documenting the recent trade in biomass, specifically mesquite wood and charcoal. This trade strips vegetation south of the border to meet demands north of the border. These authors do, however, leave readers with a vivid image of the "mesquite nemesis." Mesquite is the nemesis of ranchers in the area because it invades cattle pastures (with the help of cattle) and competes with grass for valuable water and sunlight. One could reason, armed with knowledge of how the tenacious mesquite tree (in this case Prosopis velutina) (1) infested many grasslands of the Arizona-Sonora borderland since the introduction of cattle, that charcoal and firewood production on Sonoran ejidos may not adversely impact ejido environments and sustainability because encroaching mesquite trees are eliminated. Research conducted for this paper revealed, contrary to these expectations, that charcoal production and firewood harvesting for export do not utilize the scrubby type of mesquite that invades pastures and hillsides. Instead, carboneros (charcoal makers) and leneros (woodcutters) take advantage of large, mature mesquite and ironwood trees growing in riparian areas. This paper, then, documents the details of the production, use, and trade of mesquite wood and charcoal in the Sonora-Arizona borderlands and relates current use of mesquite to the changes in mesquite use and density over several thousand years. It then discusses the ramifications of mesquite harvesting on the environment.


Results presented in this paper rely on qualitative information collected in cooperation with residents of the region over a five-year period. The often illicit and diffuse nature of the charcoal and firewood business, in addition to the booming drug trade in the area (Perramond 1996; Yetman and Burquez 1998) forced my gradual introduction to its main protagonists in remote, rural areas of Sonora. I chose to participate in daily activities and interview members in Ejidos La Arizona, La Cebolla, and San Juan in the Tubutama/Saric area, and Ejido El Berrendo in the Sonoyta/Lukeville area (figure 1). Rather than just interview people and expect candid results, I "soaked and poked" (Bernard 1995). In other words, I participated in daily ejido life. For example, one cold December evening I loaded 22,000 pounds of charcoal into the back of an eighteen-wheel trailer (figure 2, a & b). The carbonero handled the other 22,000 pounds, while four men stacked the forty-pound bags in the trailer ready for the journey to the border at Nogales. …