In the world of forest management, the stakes are usually pretty high. Short-term decisions and long-term planning can have huge environmental and ecological impacts—on everything from wildfires and wildlife habitat to local jobs and sustainable construction materials. When Julie Baroody started her field research in Mexico, though, the situation was put more simply (and a bit more personally): Do a good job, or a local villager goes to jail.
“Oh man,” she remembers thinking, “that’s a big responsibility.”
Baroody, a graduate student at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS), had just arrived at a village in the highlands of Mexico’s Chiapas state. Lázaro Cárdenas is a self-governed indigenous community, or ejido, based on subsistence farming and the milpa system of crop rotation. As the population has grown in recent years, the demand for new households has put greater pressure on the available timber stock, and also led to more permanent agriculture.
Each year, villagers have had to travel farther and farther to find oak for firewood—their primary source of energy, including for cooking. Community leaders were concerned they would soon run out of firewood entirely, and that only pine would remain in their traditional pine-oak forest
“Pine takeover” of the pine-oak forest is common in the highlands of Chiapas, but Baroody wanted to know how much was due to firewood harvest and how much to villagers’ prioritization of pine, which can be used as timber. So began the field portion of her thesis project—with a little more than a degree on the line!
The Root of It All
Baroody moved to Seattle to start graduate school in the fall of 2011 after six years working with the Rainforest Alliance on sustainable land use. She had helped launch a program to enhance their work mitigating climate change, and part of her role involved traveling to different sites around the world.
During international trips, Baroody says she would walk through all sorts of forests and wonder about their dynamics and health—why one forest needed thinning, for instance, while another was not dense enough. Those questions eventually triggered a new plan: Find a graduate program where she could deepen her understanding of how forests work. She didn’t necessarily want to be a forester, she says, but Baroody wanted a practical background in forestry to inform her project management experience.
She was living in Portland, Maine, at the time, not far from where she grew up in Blue Hill along the state’s coast. Baroody then started reaching out to SEFS students and faculty who were doing work similar to what she had in mind. She ended up connecting with Jason Scullion, who was wrapping up his Master’s project in Mexico (and is now working on his Ph.D.), as well as Professor Kristiina Vogt. Those conversations eventually led her to Professor Greg Ettl. “I wanted to learn about sustainable forest management, and I thought Greg would be the best person to teach me that,” says Baroody. Just as important, he took her on with the understanding she would be looking for a research site abroad.
Working through her Rainforest Alliance contacts, Baroody explored a few potential options in Ghana and Peru but eventually decided on the firewood project in Mexico.
It seemed like the best opportunity for her research to have an impact on how forests are managed, but the program almost never got off the ground. Baroody often waited through long weeks of radio silence from her contacts and barely had any details finalized before flying down for several months of field work. Yet in the end the arrangement came together, and Baroody says Ettl was extremely patient and gave her the space—even when the plan seemed on the verge of collapse—to set up the project. “Greg has been really terrific,” she says. “He stood by me the whole way.”
Independent by nature, Baroody says she has a knack for stranding herself in tricky situations with minimal support—and then making the best of it. First there was an iffy study abroad program she survived in Peru, but a stiffer test came after she graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont.
Following an internship in her hometown with the Marine Environmental Research Institute, she arranged to teach Spanish literacy to kids on a local coffee farm in the Dominican Republic. Julia Alvaraz, a Dominican author of magical realism, and her husband had purchased Café Alta Gracia to transform it into a sustainable coffee business and writing retreat. It certainly sounded like a romantic adventure.
The reality for Baroody, however, was that she found herself teaching out of a shack for several months, cut off from nearly all communication with home and the outside world. Back copies of The New Yorker were her only English-language reading, and she remembers riding a guagua (basically the back of a truck) down to town to find out the results of the 2002 elections back in the United States.
She discovered a few things about herself, including that teaching might not be her true calling. Yet Baroody says she also got to live in a beautiful place near the Haitian border and came away with a memorable experience. So in the end, definitely worth it.
For this next project in Mexico, Baroody was relieved to know she would have a more extensive support network. In addition to her contacts at ProNatura Sur, the NGO she originally worked with to set up the research, Baroody would be collaborating with a local university, ECOSUR, the Colegio de la Frontera Sur. One of their professors, Dr. Neptali Ramirez Marcial, was an expert on the region’s ecology and ecological transition, and he would sit on her graduate committee and assist her research.
So with her project mostly organized, Baroody arrived in Mexico in April 2012. Professor Greg Ettl flew down to Chiapas shortly after to spend a week with her and give her a crash course in field research and equipment training. Then she had her first meeting with the community leaders in Lázaro Cárdenas, the study village. “They were very concerned about their firewood use and wanted to know when it was going to run out,” she says, and they were looking to her for analysis and answers. ProNatura Sur had established the relationship with Lázaro Cárdenas through a staff member who was an ejido member, and it was his freedom on the line if she made any missteps. Though the community leaders approved of the project (and sealed the deal with a shot of local liquor), it was an intimidating experience.
The Research Grind
Lazaro Cardenas is fairly isolated and self-managed, which Baroody says made the project a good laboratory experiment. Her research primarily took two forms: data collection in forest plots, and interviews with local residents to see how they use the firewood (how often they harvest, where they gather wood, how much they use, etc.).
For the latter task, she had four village elders assigned to be her research assistants and facilitate the interviews (in some cases, people they encountered only spoke the Maya language traditional to Lázaro Cárdenas, so they also served as translators from tzotzil to Spanish). Since Baroody wasn’t living in the village—she rented a room in the nearby city of San Cristobal and commuted up to Lázaro Cárdenas every day—she felt the elders were indispensable for earning trust and legitimizing her work. “I couldn’t have done it without them,” she says.
Each morning, she and her team would head out into the field from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Later that evening when back in her room, Baroody would then set to work transcribing the day’s interviews and entering data. It was an exhausting, around-the-clock schedule, and just about her only socializing came via Skype with her boyfriend back in Maine.
By June, Baroody had completed her field work and headed back to Seattle. In her final assessment, she wasn’t able to tell the village exactly how long their firewood supply will last, but she collected enough information to help them create a plan to start reforesting some of the oaks, and to do more selective harvesting. She believes that as the town becomes more accessible by road, as well, increased availability of propane—which has a comparable cost of firewood—will additionally reduce some of the ecological pressure on the forest.
Jail time, in the end, was averted, and Baroody says she came away far more confident in her research and interviewing, and feeling capable of leading a team in her field. “It was trial by fire,” she says, and there were times she grew frustrated with hitches and challenges beyond her control. “But I learned to be more patient and go with the flow a little bit.”
This summer, Baroody is putting the final touches on her research and will be defending her thesis, “Firewood Extraction as a Catalyst of Pine-Oak Forest Degradation in the Highlands of Chiapas, Mexico,” on Monday, August 12 (the public portion of her defense begins at noon in Anderson 22). She’s also completing a final class before earning a nonprofit management certificate from the Evans School of Public Affairs.
After that, she plans to move back to Portland early this fall. She’ll be taking her new puppy—a 7-month-old hound mix named Beatrice—and rejoining her boyfriend on the East Coast. The only questions left by then will be, ‘Which organization will she be running, and when?’
Photos © Julie Baroody.