Celsa Baldovinos knew there was a serious problem when only about an inch
of water trickled from the irrigation hose. In the mountains of southern
Guerrero state where Baldovinos and her husband Felipe Arreaga lived during
the 1990s, the small farmers were becoming increasingly alarmed about water
supplies. “This was in January and by the next year it was gone,” Baldovinos
recalls. As the rainfall diminished so did the prospects of the mountain
residents. Animals died, crops withered, and the social fabric unraveled.

Baldovinos and her neighbors connected the environmental changes they were
witnessing to deforestation. More and more forest cover was disappearing every
year as farmers burned hillsides for corn patches and pastures, drug growers
torched forest cover to plant their illicit crops, and contractors felled trees
for a Boise Cascade Corporation mill that operated on the Pacific Coast at
the time.

Long before climate change became a trendy cause, the Campesino Environmentalist
Organization of the Sierra of Petatlan and Coyuca de Catatlan (OCESP), emerged
as a grassroots group dedicated to saving Guerrero”s forests. Soon, however,
the movement faced repression from loggers and the Mexican army. In 2001, jailed
OCESP leader Rodolfo Montiel and his friend Teodoro Cabrera were released by
Mexican President Vicente Fox after an international campaign was waged on
their behalf by environmentalists and human rights activists. Mikhail Gorbachev
and Hillary Rodham Clinton were among world leaders who raised their voices
for Montiel and Cabrera.

Other OCESP supporters were killed, arrested, or disappeared. Many like Baldovinos
and Arreaga were forced into temporary hiding in the mountains. Now, 10 years
after the OCEP burst onto the world stage, Baldovinos and a growing cadre of
poor rural women quietly carry on the work of defending and restoring Guerrero”s
forests, and are even taking the struggle to new levels. Once in the background,
women are now in the forefront of the movement.

Founded in 2001, the Women”s Environmentalist Organization of the Sierra of
Petatlan (OMESP) promotes sustainable and organic agriculture, forest fire
prevention, reforestation, water and soil conservation, and recycling. The
group has grown from 12 to 90 members, and Baldovinos serves as the president.
Infused with a strong self-help ethos, the women largely carry on their work
with little more than a great love for the land.

“There”s a lot of consciousness among the people. For example, the majority
of the people in our group dispose of their garbage properly and don”t allow
the children to trample too many trees,” Baldovinos says. “It”s not
uniform. We”re not going to change from day to night, but there is a lot of
progress among the people.”

Valdovinos” group can take credit for simple but groundbreaking accomplishments
during the past six years. In 2003 and 2004, members planted more than 175,000
red cedar trees in the hills. The seeds came from a nursery run by the Mexican
army. Some members of the group have found that they can earn a decent side
income of as much as US$3,000 annually from selling tree seeds.

Most of the women environmentalists have family gardens, and Baldovinos and
Arreaga are starting a new tree nursery. Beekeeping is another new project
viewed with great potential. “People are used to cutting trees and taking
away the hive and letting it go to waste,” Baldovinos says. “What
we”re going to do now is put the hive in a box; we”re learning how to reproduce
many hives from this box.”

An environmental outlook is apparent even with young mountain residents like
16-year-old Cristina Cabrera. A soft-spoken young woman, Cabrera says more
youth are hearing the green message she”s absorbed and put into practice.

“We can make compost with organic trash and dispose of inorganic trash,
and we can take care of the trees because they give us water,” Cabrera
says. “We have to plant a lot of them so there is a lot of water in the
future, and animals too.”

Outside support for the OMESP has been spotty. The organization has received
some funding from two German foundations but is now seeking additional sources
of support. Dealing with government agencies is difficult, Baldovinos says. “We”re
people who didn”t go to school,” she adds. “I, for example, didn”t
even study one year in school. The little reading I learned was because I forced
myself, asking others (for help) when I was 12 years old. I was 28 when I learned
how to do numbers. That”s why it”s difficult for us to make applications.”

But the OMESP”s luck with the bureaucracy could be changing. Salvador Anta
Fonseca, the director of Mexico”s National Forestry Commission (Conafor) in
Guerrero and Oaxaca, has pledged to help the OMESP access federal programs
that help finance tree nurseries and plantations, soil best online casino conservation, and reforestation.
Praising the work of the rural women, Anta adds that Conafor can also assist
groups like the OMESP with strategic planning. “We can support them in
doing studies on rural participation so they can organize and identify their
problems,” he says.

Forest conservation, which both former president Vicente Fox and his successor
Felipe Calderon have termed a matter of “national security,” remains
a critical need in Mexico. According to Inter Press Service correspondent Diego
Cevallos, more than 100 million acres of forest supply two-thirds of Mexico”s
fresh water supply, but the country has lost half its forests in the last 50

Interviewed by La Jornada environmental reporter Angela Enciso, Miguel
Martinez of the Biological Tropical and Conservation Association estimated
that only 5% of the nation”s tropical forests remain. Tourist development in
places like Acapulco, which was once covered with lowland tropical forest,
has contributed to the ecocide. The local consequences of tropical forest loss
were tragically borne out during tropical storm Henriette when mudslides and
flooding killed or injured victims in Acapulco. On a global scale, some recent
studies suggest that the cutting down of tropical forests could account for
upwards of 30% of global warming. The Calderon administration has set a goal
of planting 250 million trees this year.

Lorena Paz, an organizer for the Mexico City-based Maya Institute, lauds the
land-based OMESP for offering a shining example to city-slickers. “There
is a group of people that is taking action to protect the environment in the
zones where water and air is produced and where biodiversity is abundant,” Paz
says. “Informing the urban population about this has an enormous impact,
because it educates about the need to take care of the environment in the cities
too, of struggling against contamination, and above all of taking care of the
water, which goes to enormous waste in the cites.”

Despite growing recognition for the OMESP”s work, Mexico is still dangerous
turf for forest defenders. In 2004, Baldovino”s spouse and long-time forest
activist Felipe Arreaga was arrested on trumped-up murder charges and imprisoned
for nearly 10 months in 2004-2005 before he was acquitted and released. The detention severely
disrupted the OMESP”s growing work. Like the Montiel and Cabrera case, Arreaga”s
arrest sparked an international solidarity campaign. A free man, Arreaga nevertheless
has threats hanging over him.

In 2005, OCESP supporter Albertano Penaloza was ambushed while traveling in
the mountains with his family. Two of Penaloza”s sons were killed, and nobody
has been arrested for the crime.

“It makes me think that there is someone who”s getting revenge and wants
to kill them off little by little over sufficient intervals of time so the
crimes aren”t connected with one another,” says Yadira Rios of Petatlan”s
New World Environmentalist Group. “We live in a state of impunity. Crimes
are committed across Mexico and if you don”t have money or if you”re not from
the political class, the crimes go unpunished.”

It has been a bloody year in the forests. In March of 2007, forest guard Juan
Millan Morales was murdered in the Omiltemi reserve near the Guerrero state
capital of Chilpancingo. Known as a hot spot for illegal logging, the forest
zone was the scene of the 2003 murder of federal environmental official Wilibaldo

Acapulco”s El Sur newspaper recently reported that three murders last
spring in mountains of Coyuca de Catatlan were linked to decades-old logging
disputes. In one case, 16-year-old Justo Arroyo Salgado and a 14-year-old migrant
indigenous worker named Calixto were shot to death April 24 while trying to
put out a fire allegedly set by pro-logging forces. In neighboring Mexico state,
meanwhile, 16-year-old Aldo Zamora, the son of well-known forest activist Idelfonso
Zamora Baldomero, was shot to death in a May 15 ambush reminiscent of the 2005
attack on the Penaloza family in Guerrero.

Regardless of the setbacks and sorrows, Baldovinos is determined to forge
ahead with her fellow women environmentalists. “I feel very happy about
the organization. We have many problems and enemies, but I still feel content
because it”s work I”ve done for years and I feel that I cannot live without
this work,” Baldovinos reflects.

Never forgetting the big picture, Baldovinos urges governments and civil societies
everywhere to take immediate action in saving the earth”s resources. “I
invite people to become conscious of the grave problem we have on planet Earth
that”s affecting us all,” she implores. “We have to struggle to move
our planet forward because we have to leave something for those who remain,
for the children who are our going to live. What are we going to leave them?
We”re going to leave them nothing.”