Monday, September 25

A day of hiking in the communal forests of the Sierra Norte de Oaxaca


There are important forests nestled in the mountains of Oaxaca, and those of the Pueblos Mancomunados of Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte are an admirable example. Just a couple of hours by car from the state capital, along panoramic roads, you can reach this region known for its socio-environmental characteristics.

Home to some of the best-preserved temperate forests in the country, this region is governed by eight Zapotec towns and communities that share the care of the forests through an unusual collaboration: the “mancomún”, a unique form of communal land ownership.

The mountain towns territorially united by this collaboration are Amatlán, Benito Juárez, Cuajimoloyas, La Nevería, Lachatao, Latuvi, Llano Grande and Yavesía. To understand this community, one must take a step back and understand that in these and other neighbouring Zapotec, Mixe, and Chinantec towns and communities, an ancient tradition prevails: that of communality.

For the Indigenous peoples of this region, communality is both a way of life and of representative organisation. It has been conceptualised by thinkers, intellectuals and inhabitants, such as Floriberto Díaz, Jaime Luna, Benjamín Maldonado and Tomás Cruz.

To describe this “way of naming and understanding Indian collectivism”, as defined by Benjamín Maldonado (2003), various thinkers agree that there are four or five pillars that underpin the communal life of the Indigenous peoples.

The first of the pillars is the land and the communal territory: An intricate sum of material and immaterial elements -not private- that make up the inhabited place. A place where the inhabitants do not think of themselves as external to the territory and its assets but as a fundamental part of it.

The second pillar relates to community governance, which is built from communal authority and power, and whose maximum expression is the community assembly. These forms of authority adopt a complex system of charges; responsibilities, and obligations that the assembly and community distribute, as a service, among its inhabitants; who are always accountable to the community.

The third pillar is the tequio: collective and communal work or service done voluntarily. This can vary from, for example, opening a road, cleaning a stream, or watching over the town. But regardless of the task, the bottom line is always the same: putting community interests before individual interests and offering hours of work and service for the reproduction and well-being of the community.

The last of the pillars is the communal festival, the rites and ceremonies, as a final expression of communal values and gifts. The celebration is the quintessential expression of communality, where everything: food, work, decorations, and ideas, is shared and communalised. Several thinkers mentioned above agree that it is this element that is underpinned by the others. At the fiesta, identity is reaffirmed, as are the fundamental cycles of life on Earth, and the motives and ways of being of the communities.

These pillars are not separate, nor are they more important than other characteristic elements of the intricate system of communal life, such as traditional and community education, traditional law (or internal regulations), languages and symbols, cosmogonies and world views; ceremonial life, artistic expressions, division of labour, clothing and food preparation typical of the towns, and herbal and traditional medicine, among others.

We recently visited one of the eight pueblos mancomunados of Oaxaca, where we were able to walk through trails and forests that are cared for collectively and that fulfill an essential ecological function.

The nearly 20,000 hectares of forest that make up the pueblos mancomunados contain extremely valuable ecosystems due to their ability to capture and regulate large amounts of fresh water and for hosting a significant amount of flora and fauna. But they are also beautiful. The eyes cannot take in so many clouds, so many mountains and hills sheltered by millions of multiform pines, which do not lose their greenness even in the drought of the driest months.

They are humid and fertile mountains and ravines where life is gestated for hundreds of species, many in danger of extinction, such as the grey fox and the white-tailed deer. It is also the home of the Zapotec people, many of them farmers, who traverse the landscape daily to work their land.

We did a day trip to San Antonio Cuajimoloyas with Coyote Aventuras; a local tourism and ecotourism company in Oaxaca whose principle is to “ask permission, logistically and spiritually,” to go deeper and travel beyond ordinary places. They also organise personalised multi-day tours where you can go hiking and mountain biking, among other activities.

The ascent to the Sierra Norte from the state capital is also beautiful. The Central Valleys of Oaxaca at this time of the year stretch out arid and serene in front of the first slopes of the Sierra. In the rainy season, they turn an intense green, and the change in vegetation is visible as you ascend to a region that is often filled with clouds.

San Antonio Cuajimoloyas is a Zapotec town that has organised for more than two decades to take care of its forests. In order to take advantage of its natural resources without over-exploiting them, it offers community ecotourism services as a sustainable alternative.

Many of the community enterprises that have been created by the pueblos mancomunados do not respond to private interests but to the interests of the communities and are determined through their ejidatarios (shareholders of common lands) and commissioners. For this reason, before starting the hike, it is important to go to the ecotourism centre, where a community guide is assigned to accompany you throughout the journey, providing important insights and explanations.

For example, our guide explained to us that there are about nine different species of pine in these forests. We saw some, like the Oyamel and the Ayacahuite; we compared the shape of their cones and trunks. We tried to differentiate their forms from the top of a natural viewpoint, where it is possible to admire the forest that stretches out like a long patched carpet of different shades of green over a corrugated and endless mountain range.

It was a memorable day of hiking through a little piece of the immeasurable communal forests of the Sierra Norte de Oaxaca.

* Este post fue patrocinado por Coyote Aventuras *


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