Livin' la Vida Loca ( Living the crazy life)

Oaxaca – A Community Based Environmental Management Story (Part 1)
by Liseth Manrique Zeder -- February 22nd, 2013

In developing countries sometimes the control over land in areas far away from the cities is almost nonexistent. So, what if the people that live in the area take control over it? What are the pros and cons of giving control back to original population over these remote areas?

In March, my Community Based Environmental Management class will travel to Mexico to learn about a successful case of this kind. However, being Peruvian and seeing the challenges that community based environmental management represent made me want to learn more about it and to try to capture the essence of what makes environmental management successful and what doesn’t.
The Zapotecs are an ancient civilization that had its beginnings in Oaxaca (pronounced Oahaca) in the late 6th century BC. The name means in the native language “people from the clouds.”  There is a lot of archeological evidence from them such as temples. Currently, the Zapotec origin villages are divided into two main groups, the largest in the southern valleys of Oaxaca and one in the south of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, there are still small villages in Veracruz, Guerrero and Chiapas. Together, these groups are about 400,000 people.

The Zapotec decedents sought to continue their cultural practices, particularly the old system of “usos y costumbres” (uses and customs). In this system the people can choose municipal workers in an assembly. This happens in the 418 municipalities of Zapotec origin. In most cases by the age of 60 years a person will have contributed 15 years of community work. Even  immigrants of Zapotec origin living in the United States must do community work. These people must return to their native villages to undertake community work. The people point out that this kind of work allows them to stay linked to their ancestral culture. And it is probably this type of communal work that allows Oaxaca to have a successful system of community based environmental management.

Another aspect that has allowed the “formalization” of this type of management was its recognition by the Mexican government, parallel to the federal state. These efforts can be traced back to the government of President Lazaro Cardenas (1934-1940). Cardenas is known for the land reform and the creation of the “ejidos” (communities of peasants) in the Mexican agricultural sector and for the nationalization of underground resources, especially oil among other reforms. During the 60s, rural communities claimed control on the forests to protect natural resources.  These days communities have control over the forests. I will travel on March to Oaxaca to learn about them and I will write my conclusions after that.


Mathews, Andrew Salvador. 2002. Mexican forest history, Journal of Sustainable Forestry, 15:1, 17-28

Quinones, Sam. 2012. Bonds of tradition are a financial bind for Oaxacan migrants. Los Angeles Times, Nov 20, 2012, pgs 1-5.

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