The Last Resinero: Ejido Verde

(All Ejido Verde photos here taken by Kyle Hilken)

The Last of the Mohicans. “Emma Blowgun’s Last Stand.” The last male northern white rhino.

We have, culturally speaking, a bit of an infatuation with the last of things. It assuages the post-apocalyptic enthusiasts, excites the dramatists, and infuses every situation with imminence.

No doubt, amongst Indiana Jones’ last crusades and the last of the Jedis, there exist a collection of finalists that require our attention. The disappearance of ethnic communities and biological species are real issues that have rippling effects on history; existential ballads are imminent, at least for one person, and can inspire the hearts and minds of others.

But it often feels more like a game that entertainers and marketers and ex-partners play on the fragile human psyche - of wanting, needing the last of something. Get it while supplies last. Get in the last word. It makes you question the very meaning of finality.

And then, just as TheLastSamurai.mp4 reads “1 min left” on your download bar, you come to face the ultimate, final, last...thing.

***

“The last one?” I asked him to repeat.

“Yes, I am the last one,” he replied.

After a millennial history of collecting pine resin in old growth forests, Catarino Joaquín Campos is Cherán Atzicurín’s last resinero. This tight-knit indigenous community of 2,250 is tucked away in La Meseta Purépecha, a volcanic plateau in the Mexican state of Michoacán, and it’s losing its forest, fast.

Between 1963 and 1995, about half of the trees in La Meseta vanished as illegal logging, livestock grazing, and agricultural expansion swept across the largely agrarian region. As a whole, Michoacán has lost 1.4 million hectares, or 25%, of its forest, and continues to lose it at a clip of 70,000 hectares each year. That’s an area equal to the size of NYC.

Cherán Atzicurín and dozens of other Purépecha communities in La Meseta have long relied on resin collection as a means to support local economies and manage community forests. But as pine-drenched hillsides transform into scarred earth, it’s not just a source of income that’s being lost - it’s an entire cultural identity.

***

There is perhaps no stronger connection than the bond between people and place. Since the beginning of time, civilizations have been defined by surrounding forests, mountains, and oceans. We’ve prayed to sun deities and constructed statues to celebrate earth’s fertility. The clothes we wear - even our physical features - are products of our environment.

In La Meseta’s Purépecha communities, there’s no mistaking this. The pueblos are distinguished by bold, colorful murals brimming with forest motif: portraits of young Purépecha faces are traced with rings of 100-year-old pine trees, kicking legs are wrapped in gnarled deciduous branches.

But the gradual loss of that which has long defined them is bringing about rapid change.

***

A short 10 km across an emerald valley from Cherán Atzicurín lies Cherán. Despite its abbreviated name, there is nothing slight about Cherán. It is Michoacán’s only indigenous municipality, and has ascended to something of international fame for its autodefensas and ousting of the Knights Templar cartel. The streets are lined with vibrant indigenous art, its hillsides stacked with leaning brick houses that evoke images of Hayoa Miyazaki.

But even with its political establishment and mysterious allure, Cherán still suffers from the same departure as its Purépecha neighbors.

“About half of the community leaves for work in the north each year. Some of them never return,” Samuel Chávez tells us.

Samuel has lived in Cherán his entire life, and is now in the dwindling minority of working-aged men that don’t pursue seasonal jobs in the U.S. According to the latest U.S. census, the number of Latinos living in the U.S. that identify as American Indian increased by 68% between 2000 and 2010.

***

At 5:00 am it’s just us and a young Purépecha woman setting out styrofoam cups in the darkness of Cherán’s cobbled plaza. As she stokes the fire beneath an immense black cauldron, we warm ourselves with instant coffee mixed into cinnamon water.

Slowly, the workers start trickling in - sometimes alone, occasionally in pairs or groups of three. The morning is crisp. Men come adorned with bandanas and balaclavas to cover their faces from the predawn chill.

One by one, they visit the cauldron and clasp their hands around the synthetic cups searching for warmth. They carefully select disks of freshly baked bread from a wicker basket set atop the checkered table cloth. They huddle together and laugh.

And then, as violet blue light begins to crawl over red-tiled roofs, the busses arrive; yellow school busses, one after the other. An organized chaos ensues. Men clamor and file onto the retired American fleets to join dozens already seated on the worn, leather benches.

***

As the forest thinned, the yellow school busses arrived with greater frequency, and urgency. They operate in droves, transporting men and women to neighboring strawberry and broccoli plantations.

During a 10 to 12 hour day of picking during high season, a worker might earn $400 pesos - about $20 U.S. dollars. More frequently, the earnings are less. But with the remaining productive community land cleared for avocado plantations and timber harvesting, there is little other choice.

And then word spread that in the U.S., migrant workers were making $400 pesos per hour.

***

A line of 50 mothers and wives stand outside a local tienda in Cherán each morning. For hours, they patiently await money transfers from their sons and husbands in the U.S. As Samuel explains, this is a daily ritual - an integral piece of the community’s economic structure. Families rely on the cash to buy groceries, gas for cooking, and clothes - including his own: Samuel’s son leaves each spring to work landscaping on a golf course in Florida. 

Despite the influx of cash coming from seasonal jobs in the U.S., the continued lack of opportunities at home are weakening indigenous autonomy. Outmigration has left community councils without the finances needed to effectively govern, or worse, the courage to resist political bribes.

Community members dress in a mix of traditional Purépecha embroidery and John Deere camo jackets - a contrast that characterizes the metronomy passing between cultural preservation and globalization.

Early morning in Patamban, Michoacán

Early morning in Patamban, Michoacán

The Purépecha language, which captures the intricacies and histories of La Meseta’s communities, is becoming more difficult to find. It is now listed as an endangered language by UNESCO, with the ratio of speakers to non-speakers in decline each year.

And of the forest: without financial incentive to protect it, without enough able bodies to patrol its borders, it continues to disappear. The pain is evident. Many elder community members who describe the forest in cosmic terms relay that it’s not just trees that are disappearing, it’s the roots of Purépechan identity - the part that is shaped by place, by the pride that comes with standing on soil that is so innately, undeniably yours.

***

“In the time that I was in Georgia, I was reforesting, pruning - doing work that protected pine trees,” Catarino starts, “One day I thought to myself, why I am I doing this work in another country? Why am I not doing this in my own country?”

It’s late on a January morning, and the fierce Michoacán sun is baking each remaining droplet of dew into a dense, faceless cloud. We follow Catarino’s waltz through rows of slender pines, a plastic bucket lazily swinging to the rhythm of his shuffle. In tow are five, young Cherán Atzicurín men and women, led by 24-year old Aimee Campos Alonso and her younger brother, Alex.

They are the son and daughter of Cherán Atzicurín’s current community council president, and, along with Catarino and a dozen other community members, are heading up a major reforestation effort on the town’s barren hillsides.

If forest loss is at the root of Purépechan outmigration and identity loss, then reforestation is at the tip of the solution But reforesting thousands of hectares is not something they can do on their own. Luckily, they’ve found a partner with similar goals.

***

Ejido Verde is a social enterprise with big aspirations for Michoacán’s forests and indigenous communities. Since 2009, the for-profit company has been working with rural and indigenous communities, government agencies, and refineries to revive the state’s deflated resin industry. Its goal, a modest one as CEO Shaun Paul will admit, is to plant 12,000 hectares of pine trees in Michoacán. But the amount of resin that will be produced, the amount of money that will be generated in the communities, is no small number.

Michoacán's state forestry agency pine tree nursery in Morelia

Michoacán's state forestry agency pine tree nursery in Morelia

Using outside investment and government subsidies, Ejido Verde supplies loans to rural and indigenous communities to secure, plant, and nurture young pine trees. During the 10 years that it takes a newly planted pine to mature, Ejido Verde offers education, consultation, and a competitive salary to provide a runway for future resin production. After 10 years, communities begin paying back loans in pine resin. Ejido Verde collects on 10% of the the resin produced, while the other 90% goes back to the community. After the terms of the loan have been paid off, communities keep 100% of the revenue.

We had Shaun break down the math for us, “So if you can imagine that each pine tree we plant will produce 4 kilos of pine resin, and each kilo costs about $1 USD…and we have 800 trees per hectare. This means that (over the course of 20 to 30 years) we can generate $305,000 - or 300,000 kilos - per hectare…and we’re planting 12,000. And the trees produce resin for 80 years!”

That means Michoacán’s rural and indigenous communities are set to produce $30 million of resin each year from pine trees planted with Ejido Verde. And with one full time resinero for every two hectares of pine trees planted, that's 6,000 jobs in communities where Ejido Verde is working - equal to nearly 5% of Michoacán’s indigenous population.

Ejido Verde has been working hard to develop and nurture relationships with indigenous communities, and they’re betting big on those relationships. The company operates as a purchaser of resin from the communities, but their loan terms do not require that the communities sell to Ejido Verde. Offering the market rate for resin, the company will rely on strong connections with the communities - its leaders and landowners - to outcompete other buyers.

***

Catarino spent six years working on commercial pine plantations in the U.S. before returning home to Cherán Atzicurín. The salary, he describes, could not replace a way of life that he knew and yearned for in Michoacán.

Catarino in front of year-old Ejido Verde pine plantation, overlooking Cherán Atzicurín valley

Catarino in front of year-old Ejido Verde pine plantation, overlooking Cherán Atzicurín valley

Catarino hopes that working with Ejido Verde will relieve his solitude as Cheran Atzicurín’s last resinero, “All of this barren land, now is the time to reforest it,” Catarino demonstrates with a sweeping arm, “But not with the old generation - with the new generation. Side by side with Ejido Verde.”

To date, Ejido Verde has planted over 3,500 hectares in rural communities like Cherán and Cherán Atzicurín. Many of the young men that would load yellow school busses each morning, or travel north to the U.S. each spring, are now working on pine orchards: clearing land, planting saplings, and collecting resin.

The hope is that replanting pine forests and resurrecting community resin operations will help indigenous languages persist, diversify rural economies, and allow a spiritual connection to the forest live on.

As Catarino stood proudly in front of a year-old sapling he planted with Ejido Verde, he addressed the group of young Cherán Atzicurín men and women, “These guys, the new generation - they need to understand it. Because the forest, it’s the most important thing we have in the world.”