John's Blog
Coppicing in Mexico
When I think about the Mexican countryside, environmental preservation isn't the first thing to cross my mind. In this country, you see once-pristine cenotes ringed with snack shacks and souvenir stands. This is a land where villagers take bribes to look the other way as illegal loggers cut old-growth timber in the Monarch Butterfly Preserve of Michoacan. An obscenity called Xel-Ha promotes itself as an ecological attraction, where visitors pay exorbitant fees to stomp around on coral heads and let their kids swim with captive dolphins.


And yet, serious conservation efforts are going on here. Mexico has set aside large amounts of land as Biosphere Reserves. There are reforestation projects and efforts to save wildlife such as sea turtles.

Farmers in the eastern Sierra Gorda are using a method of fencing their fields that is cheap, effective, and environmentally friendly.


They make fenceposts out of living trees. They are planted by jamming green branches into the ground in a row along the desired fence line. Farmers use species that readily sprout roots from fresh prunings. After a year in the ground, the branches develop strong enough roots that they become firmly anchored and can be used to support barbed wire.

Eventually, the fence posts sprout new branches that grow large enough to be usable as poles themselves, so the farmers harvest them, a process that can be repeated indefinitely. The technique of repeatedly cutting trees is called coppicing.


Coppicing is practiced all over the world. Talking about coppicing seems seems to be a peculiarly British activity. Google coppice and you get a whole bunch of pages from the UK offering nuanced commentary on methodology.

Rural British homeowners cultivate coppiced woodlots: ten acres provides a family with all the firewood it needs. It's the perfect pensioner's solution. He tells his wife, "Bridget, I'm going out to check on the coppice," before nipping down to the public house for a pint or two.

In the Sierra Gorda, farmers coppice fences instead of woodlots. Harvested branches are carefully stacked, ready for replanting or use in house-building.


Some cuttings are used for firewood.


Since so many households use firewood for cooking, a renewable fuel source is essential for conserving the jungle.

Some farmers, having coppiced their fences for years, have stopped pruning them and allowed them to develop into mature trees, giving roads in these parts a unique look.


Progress in caring for the environment is not as advanced in Mexico as in the United States; nor is economic progress for that matter, an impediment to conservation. Environmentalism seems to be the province of rich countries: when the basic needs of the people are met, then it becomes possible to divert funds to conservation.

I have to curb my Norteamericano judgmentalism when it comes to the condition of the Mexican countryside. After all, not so many years ago the Detroit River caught fire and large numbers of dead fish washed up on the shores of Lake Michigan. Even today, Southern California beaches are routinely closed because of pollution from sewage.

So I'm impressed when I see Mexicans, lacking wealth, using ingenuity to keep their world green.