, Volume 24, Issue 1, pp 17-28
Date: 13 Dec 2006

Conserving copalillo: The creation of sustainable Oaxacan wood carvings

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Most accounts of the effect of the global marketplace on deforestation in Africa, Asia, and Latin America emphasize the demand for timber used in industrial processes and the conversion of tropical forests to pastures for beef cattle. In recent years, numerous scholars and policymakers have suggested that developing a market for non-timber forest products (NTFPs) might slow the pace of habitat destruction. Although increased demand for NTFPs rarely results in massive deforestation, the depletion of the raw materials needed to make particular products is common.

Many rural households in the Mexican state of Oaxaca have prospered over the past three decades through the sale of brightly-painted, whimsical wood carvings (alebrijes) to international tourists and the owners of ethnic arts shops in the United States, Canada, and Europe. This paper examines a promising project aimed at providing Oaxacan alebrije-makers with a reliable, legal, and sustainable supply of wood. The ecologists, artisans, merchants, and forest owners involved in the project face formidable obstacles. Gaining permission to harvest wood from land belonging to Oaxacan communities requires the negotiation of a complex social, legal, economic, and political landscape. Artisans’ decisions about where to obtain wood rest largely on price, quality, and reliability of the supplier; they are willing to pay a premium for ecologically sustainable wood only if the additional cost can be passed on to consumers. Nonetheless, a group of carvers has begun to buy sustainably harvested wood. This arrangement has economic advantages for both the alebrije-makers and the owners of the forests where the wood is produced.

Michael Chibnik is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Iowa. He has conducted fieldwork in Belize, Peru, Mexico, and in various parts of the United States. His research interests include economic anthropology, artisans, work organization, agricultural decision-making, and political ecology. He is the author of Crafting Tradition: The Making and Marketing of Oaxacan Wood Carvings (University of Texas Press, 2003) and Risky Rivers: The Economics and Politics of Floodplain Farming in Amazonia (University of Arizona Press, 1994), and editor of Farm Work and Fieldwork: American Agriculture in Anthropological Perspective (Cornell University Press, 1987).
Dr. Silvia E. Purata is a Mexican ethnoecologist based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She is a member of People and Plants International, an organization that works to integrate conservation and the use of natural resources. Purata has conducted research on the methods indigenous peoples use to extract non-timber forest products (NTFPs) in tropical forests and the fate of such systems in varying socioeconomic circumstances. She has also been working on the promotion of forest certification in the Selva Maya.