This is perhaps the least worrisome of the sustainability issues. I mean that factually, not as a matter of personal speculation or anecdote. I realize that much has been made about this issue in the mezcal community, but I submit that it is not an issue of primary importance, and in this post I explain why.
Oaxaca is densely forested (see map), and its forests are unique in the world. For example, its Sierra Madre is one of the world's most biodiverse pine/oak forests, famous for, among other things, its incredibly high concentration of fern species, and its inclusion of over 40% of endemic vertebrates of Mesoamerica(1). Its montane forests are known among ecologists for their rich herpetofauna diversity.(2) They are spectacular; a drive through the forests of Oaxaca is an experience you will not soon forget. Obviously, these forests merit rigorous protection policies. Fortunately, the people there know and understand this. The forests of Oaxaca are exemplars of sustainable forestry management practices, practices that are discussed and praised for their success on the world stage.
The forests of Oaxaca are managed in a style that mimics the ejido system--Community Forest Enterprises (CFE). Local communities manage their local hectares of forest, balancing harvest with replacement. Between 60% - 80% of Oaxaca's forests are managed in this manner (as of 2010). It works, and it works well. But, please, don't take my word for it. Simply do an internet search for "Oaxaca forestry" and see the vast number of scholarly journals making reference to this system. This NYT piece(3) enumerates the virtues of Oaxaca's forestry management program and lists a number of certifying agencies that extol it as "...the gold standard of community forest ownership and management." The agencys praising Oaxaca's CFE system include the Forest Stewardship Council (founded and originally located in Oaxaca), Center for International Forestry Research, and the Rainforest Alliance(4).
To pull a couple more quotes from the NYT article: ""It’s astounding what’s going on in Mexico,” said David Barton Bray, an expert on community forestry at Florida International University who has studied [Oaxacan CFE pueblo] Ixtlán." And: "“Things are working,” said Francisco Chapela, an agronomist who first came to Oaxaca 30 years ago and now works for the Rainforest Alliance in Mexico. “Forest management is a big success,” he continued. “If you look at old aerial photographs and compare it with what is now, the forest is increasing here." Read that again. Forest is on the increase in Oaxaca, contrary to what you may have been told.
Framing the Problem of Future Impact
Can sustainable forestry keep up with a rapidly-growing mezcal industry? Let's put it in perspective, because knowing the scope of the problem is always a useful exercise. There are approximately 9,000 mezcal producers in Oaxaca. They all have one, but some have two hornos. Let's call it 1.5 hornos per palenque (still high, in my experience). That's 13,500 mezcal hornos.
For comparison, in Mexico, there are 6,000,000 rural households, ~45% of which use wood stoves for cooking.(5) That is daily use. (Mezcal producers do not all use wood on a daily basis.) So here we have 2,700,000 wood stoves (comals) in Mexico that are used on a daily basis. But this is about Oaxaca, not all of Mexico.
My back-of-the-napkin math for Oaxaca: in Oaxaca *most households are rural* and even in the city center, wood stoves are ubiquitous. I am struggling to think of where I last saw a gas or electric stove in a Oaxacan household outside of the city *instead of a wood one* and I can't. (In addition, yes, but not instead.) Oaxaca's, population (state) is 4,000,000. The only city in Oaxaca to speak of, Oaxaca de Juarez, has a population of about 200,000. What percentage of Oaxaca would be considered "rural"? 62% of Oaxacan households fall below Mexican government poverty guidelines.(6) Absent another approach, let's assume 62% rural and that the 45% figure for all of Mexico holds (again, this is getting really conservative--the urban centers in Mexico are simply elsewhere). 4,000,000 x 62% = 2,480,000 "rural" households x 45% wood stoves = 1,116,000 households using wood stoves. (Moreover, among indigenous households--for which Oaxaca is famous--95% use wood stoves, so I suspect the number is much higher.) Even using what I suspect is a conservative number, the comparison of 13,500 mezcal hornos to 1,116,000 daily-use wood fired comals is what we are talking about here.
That's firewood. It is a by-product of the finished lumber business, or collected by hand from the forest by ejido families.* The vast majority of trees taken are being used for construction of finished goods, not firewood. I could find no percentage in my research, but it is safe to conclude that it is low, even if it is much higher in Mexico than in countries where wood stoves are uncommon.
If firewood use by mezcal producers is your concern, I submit that it is misplaced. In terms of attention-to-problem energy spent, you are stepping over dollars to pick up dimes.
Does it make sense to criticize mezcal producers for their for firewood use in this context? Yes. I'm not suggesting it doesn't. But it's not a problem because firewood is an issue now (it isn't), but rather, because it is wise to think about the future.
I suspect that a lot of the hand-wringing over the firewood supply comes from a concern for the future growth of the industry. This is a valid concern and one all responsible producers must consider. Oak and pine are the woods most mezcaleros prefer. Oak and pine are extraordinarily well-managed in Oaxaca. The answer is obviously to buy from certified suppliers. To do otherwise is pure laziness. Buying from certified sources not only preserves the forests, it preserves the livelihoods of Zapotec forest management communities.
Can mezcal producers replace the wood they use? Sure they can. But to me, a better question is: Can they do it effectively? It is not true that 1 tree = 1 tree. Planting the wrong species in the wrong habitat does environmental damage. It screws up habitats. There are 45 (!) species of oak in Oaxaca.(7) An introduced species may compete more successfully than a native species. An introduced species may simply die. Monocropping is rife with well-known problems. And I know of precisely zero mezcaleros who also have degrees in forest management.
Why not leave the forestry concerns to the forestry experts? Let's mezcal companies contribute to the forestry experts' expert-guided efforts rather than invent our own. At least, let's consult with the experts before acting. And before you ask, absolutely, Cuentacuentos is committed to sustainably-sourced firewood. Everyone in the industry should be. It's a minor issue and it's easily resolved.
Next post: Vinazas - A Problem That Scales with Growth
*The dissertation below describes the intricacies of social forest management. If you have read this far, please go to page 158 of this paper to see the three reasons why this author believes things work in Oaxaca.