“Community forestry can benefit from the knowledge, energy, creativity, diverse points of view, and cultural resources that young people provide,” says Constanza Mora Sanchez. However, this is hampered by the fact that young people are seldom included in the local institutions that govern community forestry. According to Sanchez this needs to change. Here she talks with Koen Kusters about the findings of her research on the engagement of youth in community forestry in Oaxaca, Mexico.
You interviewed young people in two communities, Jalapa and Analco, about their aspirations for the future. What did you find?
In both communities, many young people go to the city of Oaxaca for schooling. They want higher education. Many want to finish university and pursue a professional career. This goes for both boys and girls. They would mention psychology, engineering, computer science, etcetera. The role of their parents is interesting as well. I found that most parents expect their children to leave the village for schooling, as it is seen as the way to a successful future. So there is some social pressure to leave the village.
Does this mean young people are settling in the city?
Although most young people leave the community for schooling, they do not aspire to full-time city life. Most young people want to stay connected to their homes. In Jalapa, which is close to the city, young people can travel between their village and the city on a daily basis. Analco is further away, so young people that go for higher education may spend part of the week in Oaxaca city, and the other part in the village. Some of those who spend part of their time in the city for schooling said that this had only increased their appreciation for the community, in terms of access to nature, better air quality and less noise pollution, and because it feels a safer place to be.
Do some young people want to become farmers?
Actually, farming is not a main activity in these villages. In Jalapa people work in construction, or as carpenters, nurses, and taxi drivers. Analco has a bit more farming, but mostly for subsistence, and mostly part-time. Construction is probably the main source of income. Not many young people see themselves as farmers, at least not as their main activity.
Are young people engaged in community forestry practices?
I found a lack of youth involvement in both communities. Young people doubt whether community forestry can provide a meaningful livelihood. They show little interest. I remember once when the authorities organized a training workshop on how to use chainsaws, and youth just did not show up.
So that doesn’t bode well for the future of community forestry?
I am not so negative. My research shows that youth clearly value communal territories and forests. They just don’t know much about community forestry. They think of it as risky and heavy work. They don’t really have an idea of what it entails, and the possibilities that may exist, for example in processing, administration, marketing, and even tourism. Moreover, they are currently not involved in the decision-making processes. They feel left out.
Can this be fixed?
I think so. This concerns the community institutions that govern community forestry. Currently they don’t provide a place for young people. They don’t listen to them. And this is especially the case for girls. This will have to change. Youth cannot remain on the periphery of decision-making processes. They want to voice their thoughts and opinions. And this means that community institutions will need to become more flexible. They need to actively engage youth who are living in villages, but also those that are temporarily living outside but want to remain part of the community. Related to that, more can be done to involve young people that come back to the village after schooling. They bring valuable skills that can be used to set up enterprises, such as trade in forest products, and ecotourism. We already see this happening. For example, a group of young people came back from university and started a project to design and produce handicrafts, and sell them online. Community Institutions need to embrace such initiatives.
Will there be enough opportunities for youth in the villages?
It will be important to improve accessibility. To improve connections. So there is a need for better roads, and better public transportation. And, of course, there is a need for reliable phone and internet connections.
So rural-urban linkages may provide new opportunities?
I found that youth in Jalapa, the village close to the city of Oaxaca, appeared more excited about forest management. Jalapa’s proximity to the city may provide opportunities for timber sales as well as for other activities such as ecotourism. My only worry for this village is that the city is closing in on the community. It may even become a suburb, eventually. However, in this case the forest is still an hour’s walk from the village, so the forest might not be in danger.
Members of the Tropenbos International network support community forestry. What could they do to increase youth engagement?
Young people are an important source of societal change. As a start, it is crucial to look at the place and role of youth in community and societal spaces. We need to actively engage youth in discussions about the ways in which their lived realities, aspirations, and ideas fit within the communal context. Initiatives to engage young people in such discussions should be led by young people themselves. If young people’s own aspirations and capacities are taken as a starting point, I believe that community forestry can benefit from the knowledge, energy, creativity, diverse points of view, and cultural resources that young people provide.
Constanza Mora Sanchez has worked with many NGOs in Latin America and the USA on projects that raise young people’s environmental awareness. She recently received her master’s degree from the School of Environment and Sustainability of the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, with research on the engagement of youth in community forestry in Oaxaca, Mexico.