Since Manuel Jimenez developed the first Oaxacan alebrijes in the 20th century, the carving of these colorful figures has become an economic lifeline for the poor, rural people of the Central Valleys of Oaxaca. In towns such as San Martin Tilcajete, almost everyone makes a living, in whole or in part, by carving and painting figures destined for the collectors’ and tourist markets.
But there has been a downside. One reason for its success was that it took advantage of a tree/shrub called copal, which had always been a kind of weed in the semi-arid valleys here. The wood it produces is very soft, and trunks and branches grow in capricious shapes. Until Jimenez’s invention, there was simply no use for the plant that grew all over the hillsides.
The very traits that makes copal undesirable for any other use makes it perfect for the carving of these fantastic figures. Its softness means that carving can be done relatively quickly, and the twists and turns are taken advantage of to partially form the figure and its pose.
It certainly seemed that not only did copal provide a new source of income, the supply seemed endless. Alas, this is never the case with natural resources.
The hills around towns like Tilcajete (and Arrazola, etc) are now mostly barren. Much of the year only dry grass can be seen. Artisans must buy their raw wood from vendors who themselves must go further and further afield, often cutting illegally. This has not only made copal wood more costly, it has brought the attention of state and federal environmental authorities, who have been getting ever stricter about illegal harvesting.
The first efforts at reforestation were with the Rodolfo Morales Foundation, which has been running an annual reforestation event for about 20 years. About seven years ago, the Jacobo and Maria Angeles workshop, one of the biggest (and biggest employers) began their own efforts, even starting their own copal plant nursery. But this is not just a tree-hugging exercise, but rather a matter of enlightened self-interest. The long-term aim is to have a system of sustainable planting and harvesting to assure supply for generations to come.
The 2016 , the Foundation and the Angeles workshop together planted about 5000 trees. This year, the Angeles Workshop plans to plant 2,500 trees itself, with will include 1000 of other native species along with the copal.
Video of the 2016 event
The 2017 Festival del Copal is on 13 August and volunteers will meet at the Angeles workshop at 8am on that day. It is a family-oriented event, with children especially welcome so they can learn to appreciate the fragility of nature. Local cuisine will be provided to volunteers. It is recommended to bring a shovel or pick, wear comfortable clothes and shoes as well as a sombrero or cap for sun protection. Sunscreen is a very good idea as well. You can register for the event at https://goo.gl/oPs1gK, and if you have questions, you can contact the taller on Facebook. Their son Ricardo speaks English.
All photos courtesy of the Angeles Workshop with the exception of (1) which is courtesy of Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art (CC-by-SA 4.0)