Network to Help Foresters Adjust to Free Trade Mexico Considers Experience of Chile's Forest-Management Program

Article excerpt

BENEATH cotton-ball clouds and soaring pines, delegates gather for the International Forestry Encounter:

* Chilean academics chat with Mexican campesinos in straw hats.

* Mexican government officials sit in the parched grass extolling the merits of market competition.

* An Idaho sportsman listens intently to a North American Lummi Indian representative discussing how modern forestry management fails to cope with a sacred tradition of forest spirit songs.

Out of this intercultural blend last week emerged a new organization: The Interamerican Forestry Network.

Comprised of delegates from seven nations - including a hefty helping of Mexican campesino groups - the network is mainly an information-exchange vehicle. The aim: to help small-scale foresters find ways to fight and adapt to the hemispheric spread of free trade agreements, privatization of forest resources, and market-oriented economies.

"We're in a very difficult situation. Most campesinos don't understand the implications of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)," says conference organizer Arturo Garcia, president of the Centro de Estudios para el Cambio en el Campo Mexicano (CECCAM - Center for the Study of Change in the Mexican Countryside).

"There's a growing discontent with agricultural policy, but until now there's been no leadership or broad organization in which to channel this discontent. We need to build a force which not only can pressure domestic and international governments but develop solutions to these new challenges," he says.

Some Mexican academics and indigenous groups are concerned that free trade agreements between Canada, the United States, and Mexico (and potentially Chile) will increase rural poverty here by opening the door to more imports of low-cost lumber. Mexican small-scale foresters have neither the economies of scale nor the technology of their foreign competitors.

Canada, for example, is the world's biggest exporter of paper, the second biggest exporter of wood pulp, and No. 3 in lumber exports. Canada's forestry industry generates sales 15 times greater than Mexico's. And Mexico's forestry industry is in trouble. Between 1985 and 1990, Mexican forestry production, in dollar terms, fell 9 percent.

The Mexican government recently enacted agricultural reforms designed to attract private investment and give local landowners more freedom over the use of their resources. Even so, there is concern that this development path will not successfully support the 17 million Mexicans now living on forest land.

"Low-cost imports will make most local foresters uncompetitive. So, to eat, you'll see the campesinos selling their patrimony to national or international corporations," says Pedro Magana Guerrero of the National Union of Autonomous Regional Campesino Organizations. "That means greater concentration of resources in fewer hands, low-wage manual labor jobs with no alternative. …