Bursera glabrifolia, a dominant component of the tropical dry forests in southwestern Mexico, is used to illustrate the importance of a broader contextual framework for ethnobotanical studies. The species is currently used as a carving wood to produce small, painted figurines known as alebrijes. Over the past hundred years, however, B. glabrifolia also has been exploited commercially for resin and essential oil, and over-harvesting has pushed the species to the brink of local extinction several times. The destruction of tropical dry forests threatens the ability of the species to recover from the current wave of exploitation. Eight years of study have highlighted two major aspects of the life and times of B. glabrifolia. First, the ethnobotany of the species is extremely complex and, in addition to local artisans and collectors, involves pre-Columbian tributes, resource substitution, NAFTA duty exemptions, and the spread of cattle pastures. Second, a concerted effort to manage the species in its natural habitat would bolster the thriving alebrije market and provide a much-needed incentive for conserving tropical dry forests in Mexico.
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