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. I see a social and economic crisis developing in the countryside," he says.
Some observers expect Mexico to adopt the Chilean model of forestry development. In the past 20 years, joint ventures between Chilean and overseas forestry corporations have created large plantations of pine and eucalyptus trees. Privatization led to a rapid shift in ownership of forestry resources. Currently, 70 percent is privately owned.
The result is a strong export-oriented industry. Ten percent of Chile's exports are forestry products. Eight-five percent of those exports are produced on plantations. The Chilean model also has its critics.
"Social and labor organizations in the countryside were destroyed," says Rodolfo Contreras of the National Forestry Corporation of Chile. "Salaries rarely exceed the minimum wage. There's been a sharp migration to the impoverished outskirts of the cities." The use of pesticides and fertilizers in the plantations have created environmental problems, too, Mr. Contreras notes.
One of the purposes of this conference and the network is to seek out alternative development models. To that end, delegates heard how various Mexican ejidos (a form of communal land management) have set up profitable, sustainable forestry enterprises.
In the southern state of Quintana Roo, 19 Mexican ejidos have united under one forest management system. With the help of governmental and nongovernmental consultants, over the last decade they have developed reforestation projects, built a nursery, bought a sawmill, and developed a market for their wood products.
"Before, we had a resource but didn't know how to use it effectively. We'd sell a log for 200 pesos that today we can sell for 2,000," says Valerio Akepat, president of the Organization of Ejido Forestry Producers in the Mayan Zone. "We now have paved streets because of what we've achieved by ourselves. We feel stronger as a community." But delegates wonder if the Quintana Roo success can be duplicated or survive the hard-knocks of free trade. They ask whether small-scale foresters need government credit s.
Francisco Chapela, director of Estudios Rurales y Asesoria (Rural Studies & Consulting), an Oaxaxca-based firm working with several Mexican communities, says he is not certain that free trade will hurt Mexican foresters. "NAFTA could open up the possibility of new markets for us in tropical wood products," he says.
But Kurt Russo, a representative of the Washington State Lummi Indians, says that NAFTA may be used as a means to reduce environmental rules and increase logging. "The Northwest lumber companies want to get some of these regulations off their back. They'll try to argue that the Endangered Species Act is an impediment to free trade that other nations don't have," he says.