Forestry, the Mexican way
Mexico has made great strides in democratising its forest governance. More than 70 per cent of the country's forests are controlled by 35,000 indigenous and rural communities. They are running successful forest enterprises while checking deforestation that was once rampant in the country.
Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava travels to the forested states of Mexico to document this turnaround and brings home lessons on forest governance
The view of Sierra Juarez is breathtaking. Located in southern Mexico, the heavily wooded mountain range remains permanently shrouded in mist. Smokey white clouds descend into its deep ravines to envelope the dense pine forests. The slopes are dotted with tin-shaded houses, surrounded by flower gardens and neatly connected to each other by concrete pavements. Amid the tranquillity is located the busy general assembly office of La Trinidad, a village with just 215 households.
Painted bright yellow and orange, the office has a vibrant ambience. It is equipped with laptops, a printer, a facsimile machine and has WI-FIaccess. A three-dimensional map of La Trinidad’s community forest hangs on one wall. Wooden racks on the facing wall are packed with thick files. The assembly members are busy in a gregarious conversation.
“We like to shoot for the stars,” Juan Martinez, chief of the assembly’s vigilance council, says with a grin. “Why else do you think we named our lumber mill after President José López Portillo?” Everyone else in the room breaks into laughter.
Naming a lumber mill after the country’s president may seem laughable now, but four decades ago, it was part of a well-thought-out strategy aimed at protecting the forests and help farmers and indigenous people escape the poverty trap.
The historic Mexican Revolution of 1910-17, in which landless peasants and forest-dwellers fought an armed battle against the three-decade-autocratic regime of Porfirio Díaz, had brought about massive land reforms in the Latin American country.
Before that a handful of foreign companies and Mexican elites, accounting for 0.2 per cent of the population, controlled 87 per cent of the country’s lands and over 95 per cent of the rural households were landless, says David Barton Bray, professor at Florida International University, Miami, who has extensively studied community forestry in Mexico.
Following the revolution, the governments handed over about 100 million hectares of farms, pastures and forests, or more than half of the country’s territory, to the communities. But the land reform failed to bring respite to forest dwelling communities, at least until the 1980s.
The problem lay in the Mexican Constitution, drafted soon after the revolution, explains Ivan Zuniga of Mexican Civil Council for Community Forestry (CCMSS), a non-profit in Mexico City. It gave communities control over land but allowed the state to regain control over such lands if required for the public good. The government used this provision to retain control over the vast forests—according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, 33 per cent of the country is under forest cover—and its resources such as timber and non-timber forest produce (NTFPs).
In 1940, it went a step ahead and introduced a policy to grant private companies concessions for exploiting forest resources. “Vast tracts of forests in Chihuahua, Durango, Oaxaca, Chiapas and Quintana Roo states were leased for up to 60 years, without consultation with communities,” says Paulina Deschamps of CCMSS. In 1956, the government leased most forests in Sierra Juarez to a paper mill for 25 years. This included the 805 ha of pine forest that the La Trinidad community had received during the land reform.
The paper mill based in Tuxtepec town rampantly felled trees and destroyed the forest. Many logged forests remain degraded till date, says Juan López, president of La Trinidad’s general assembly. The government had asked the mill to share the benefit with the community. “But it offered 300 Mexican pesos (Mex $300 is US $25 or Rs 1,500) per cubic metre of wood as the stumpage fee, against the market rate of Mex $800 (about US $66 or Rs 4,000). Worse, all we received was 25 per cent of the promised money. The rest went to the government coffers,” says López. So in the early 1970s, when plywood company Toreo approached La Trinidad residents for timber, they decided to grant it the forest lease. “The paper mill, however, did not allow us to sign the deal with Toreo, claiming that it had exclusive legal rights over our forests,” recalls Martinez.
People’s anger reached the flashpoint. In 1975, La Trinidad and three other villages in Sierra Juarez—Ixtlan, Capulalpam and Xiacui—whose forests had been leased to the paper mill, resolved to exercise their rights over forests. They organised rallies and blocked roads, protesting against the government’s concession policy. In 1978, they set up a lumber mill to process wood from their forest. “This is when the community leaders named the lumber mill after the then president José López Portillo to make their demands heard by the authorities,” says Martinez. Portillo’s office, instead, renewed concessions of the company over Sierra Juarez forests in 1982 for 25 years.
The communities lost their patience. Within a year, 30 communities in Sierra Juarez, including La Trinidad, moved the Agrarian Superior Tribunal of Mexico (apex court that decides matters related to community land and agrarian reforms) against the presidential decree. “The tribunal in 1984 declared concessions to private companies on community land illegal. The government had no choice but to withdraw the concessions. For the first time we were free to exercise our rights over our forests,” says López. In 1986, the next government amended the forest laws to abolish the concession policy and allowed communities to manage their forests as per their plans. By 1990, management rights over 70 per cent of Mexico’s 65 million ha of forests were handed over to 35,000 communities (see ‘People get forests’,).
But the battle was far from over.
With rights came challenges. Managing forest required capital, technical expertise and a robust plan, and the communities had none. “After being forced to end the concession policy, the authorities were in a confrontation mood and did not extend any support to communities,” says Francisco Chapela, programme officer with US-based Christensen Fund, who has been working with Mexican communities for 30 years. But the communities were determined to make it work. They approached universities for forest engineers. Some voluntarily helped communities. Chapela, then a fresh graduate, was one of them.
La Trinidad raised the initial capital by signing a contract to supply wood to a furniture factory. Its community leaders decided to train the village youth in forestry. In 1991, La Trinidad got its first forest management plan approved. “The paper mill had felled most trees. We protected the father trees (pine trees that produce seeds), harvested timber only from select patches and reforested the logged areas.
We surveyed the diversity of tree species in the surrounding forests and reforested accordingly,” says Abel Martinez, technical head of La Trinidad’s forestry unit, as he walks through hundreds of pine trees that are 30 metres tall. The patch was a barren land just 30 years ago. Martinez, a school drop-out, is one of the village youths who were trained in forestry by forest engineers his village had hired.
As income started pouring in, the community set up saw mills. It also established guest houses in the forest to earn from eco-tourism. The general assembly of La Trinidad is now in talks with domestic companies and government for selling the carbon dioxide sequestered by the forest as carbon credits in the international market.
The community operates these businesses through a community forestry enterprise (CFE) (see ‘Strong grassroots’). “The forest unit of CFE is responsible for forest management and sale of its produces and ecosystem services. The saw-mill unit manages the mills and sells the processed wood in the market,” informs López.
While the first CFEs emerged in Sierra Juarez, so far about 500 forest communities across Mexico have formed CFEs with diverse business models. “While most CFEs own saw mills, about 200 are operating at industrial scale and can compete in international markets,” says Ximena Pelaez, assistant manager of international affairs at the National Forestry Commission of Mexico, or CONAFOR, responsible for community forestry. One such enterprise is by the residents of Ixtlan de Juarez. Its CFE owns a factory that supplies furniture to most government schools in the district, runs a gas station and a high-tech nursery that grows plants with improved genetic stock. It also earns Mex $500,000 (US $41,666 or Rs 25 lakh) per year under the government’s Payment for Ecological Services scheme for protecting water bodies in 1,000 ha of forest. Another 2,500 communities are earning from NTFPs, bottling of spring waters, charcoal production, ecotourism and ecological services, while some manage forests just for protection.
Ensuring social welfare
Through the businesses, CFEs generate employment for the communities. The La Trinidad CFE offers employment to 40 households a day on a rotational basis to ensure that every family benefits from the forest. “But individuals are hardly allowed a share of the profit, which is either spent on social welfare of the community or reinvested in the business,” says Chapela. In 2013, La Trinidad CFE made a profit of Mex $1.46 million (US $0.12 million or Rs 73 lakh). It spent Mex $1 million (US $0.08 million or Rs 50 lakh) on improving health facilities, schools, roads, public buildings and water and sewage structures and supporting athlets. It also disbursed Mex $1,000 (US $83 or Rs 5,000) as monthly pension to those above 80, Mex $5,000 (US $417 or Rs 25,000) for medical emergencies to each family and Mex $850 (US $70.8 or Rs 4,250) as food gifts to each family during festivals. The rest has been kept to reinvest in the forests and the business. Unlike La Trinidad, the CFE of Ixtlan de Juarez reinvested most of its profit. “When I assumed office, I told people that we are going to invest everything back so that we become more efficient, earn more profit and create more jobs,” says Melchor Garcia Tamayo, president of the village commons. Of 1,000 households in Ixtlan de Juarez, CFE directly employs 300 people and offers indirect employment to another 200.
Increasing employment opportunities from forests has slowed down migration from villages, says Martinez. “Though Oaxaca is a rich state, the distribution of wealth was skewed. Lots of youth used to migrate to the US. We could not have asked them to stay back if we did not have anything to offer.”
But one wonders how does a community ensure that there is no corruption or politicisation in CFE?
“CFE is accountable to the general assembly. Once in every four months, the financial report of the company is audited and presented before the assembly. People holding key positions are replaced every year so that no individual becomes powerful,” says Martinez, chief of vigilance council of La Trinidad.
Communities also have internal laws to incorporate collective responsibility among members. For one, says Lopez, every adult in the village must participate in the general assembly which is held once in every three months. A fine of Mex $250 (US $20.8 or Rs 1,250) is imposed on those who fail to attend the assembly meeting without a valid reason. Every member must also take up at least 10 tekio (voluntary community service work of five hours) in a year. A fine of Mex $180 (US $36 or Rs 900) or a punishment of spending 24 hours in the community jail is imposed on those who do not abide by the rules. Communities’ internal laws and institutions are governed by the Constitution and the agrarian laws that have been drafted based on the country’s indigenous past.
It is on this “social capital” that Mexico’s community forestry model thrives, says Jim Smyle, former World Bank employee who has been following community forestry in Latin America and Asia.
The change in government's role from a controller to a facilitator of community forestry is a remarkable story
THE STRUGGLE of communities no doubt heralded a new era in the forest governance system in Mexico, but its success would not have been possible without the government, which brought about a sea change in its attitude.
Though the government granted community rights over forests in the 1980s, anxiety prevailed in a section of bureaucrats and politicians about devolving the authority to the grassroots level. “They feared that people would destroy forests and the government would not benefit from the vast resource,” says Miguel Angel Rios, acting state forester of Oaxaca.
The first push in the favour of community forestry came in 1986 when the government disbanded its forest technical service monopoly and allowed communities to hire the service and prepare and implement their management plans.
Then in 1992 “reformist” President Carlos Salinas de Gortari amended the Constitution to remove the reference that community land originally belonged to the state. The amendment granted absolute rights over forests to communities, though it barred them from privatising or selling forest land (see ‘Policy evolution’,). “Legal rights alone were not sufficient to make community forestry successful,” says José Carlos Fernández, former international affairs head of CONAFOR, the National Forestry Commission of Mexico responsible for community forestry.“We needed ways to directly support community forestry,” he adds.
The government initiated national schemes to provide financial and organisational support to communities on forestry. But the schemes failed as they did not prove suitable for community needs. By the mid-1990s, forestry was seen as an unproductive sector.
In 1994, the government created a separate ministry, Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMERNAT). Before that the agriculture ministry was responsible for environment and forest-related matters. Julia Carbias, an ecologist, was appointed as the secretary of the ministry. She roped in professionals from various fields to chalk out a community forestry programme and implemented it in Oaxaca on a pilot basis. The team surveyed communities in the state to assess their resources and capabilities and held discussions to understand their needs. “This was never done in Mexico before,” says Gerardo Segura, senior rural development specialist with the World Bank, who was part of the team.
“We started with the understanding that communities were the owners of the forests, and any support we provide should be based on their collective decision. It took us three years to design the community forestry programme and secure funding for it,” says Segura.
In 1998, when the programme, titled Conservation and Sustainable Management of Forest Resources of Mexico (PROCYMAF), was launched it focussed on strengthening the tenure rights and community institutions and provided technical and financial support to the communities. “Commercial forestry, such as harvesting and processing timber, was not possible in many communities. We trained those communities for other businesses like ecotourism and bottling spring water,” says Segura, who headed PROCYMAF.
In 2001, the government created CONAFOR that extended PROCYMAF to all the 12 forested states. Today CONAFOR supports close to 5,000 communities in forest management, and the government has increased its budget from US $22 million in 2001 to US $635 million in 2014. Under an internationally acclaimed mechanism, Payment for Ecological Services (PES), CONAFOR pays an additional US $100 million a year to communities for conserving forests and ensuring its ecological services, such as protecting water bodies and allowing free flow of streams.
“Today, PES is the fastest growing forestry sector. Communities and private parties that benefit from forest ecological services ensured by other communities are approaching the government to contribute to PES fund,” says Fernández. While commercial community forestry is being done on 9 million ha, PES is being implemented on 3 million ha.
In 2012, the government amended its national climate change law to ensure that communities who own forests benefit from the emerging international mechanism, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, popularly known as REDD+. The mechanism aims to provide monetary incentives to forested countries for conserving their forests, which are major carbon sinks. “Communities have the rights over the carbon sequestered by their forests. Once we start implementing REDD+ projects, they will benefit by trading carbon credits in the international market. The government will charge just the administrative cost,” says Fernández.
A win-win situation
For the past two decades Mexico has been implementing its forest-related policies and programmes, keeping communities as the main stakeholder, says Segura. What probably has inspired the government is that community forestry has helped restore the forests that had severely degraded after the government granted concessions to private companies. Satellite data of Mexico’s forests shows that between 1990 and 2010, the national deforestation rate has reduced from 354,000 ha per year to 155,000 ha per year. This is the period when community forestry expanded in the country.
Several studies show that deforestation in community-managed forests has reduced at the same rate as in protected areas. In some cases, community forests have fared better than the government-controlled forests.
In many cases, the diversity of flora and fauna in community forests is more than in the natural forests, claims Julio Aquino, chief forest engineer of the CFE of Ixtlan De Juarez. “In natural forests certain species are so dominating that they do not allow the other naturally existing seeds to regenerate. But in community managed forests, we use scientific silviculture to grow seedlings of these native tree species and plant them on the logged forest patches, creating diversity,” Aquino adds.
David Barton Bray, professor at Florida International University, agrees with Aquino. Scientific evidence shows that careful logging of natural forests is compatible with most ecosystems. In fact, studies have shown that Sierra Juarez, which has the highest concentration of CFEs, is also one of the most biodiverse regions in the country, he adds. Forest Stewardship Council, an independent agency that certifies forest management practices globally, certified over 1.2 million ha forests in the country for sustainable management. More communities are approaching it for sustainability certification as it increases the value of their products.
While promoting community forestry, the government has introduced strict regulations to check rampant logging. No community can harvest timber without a management plan approved by the environment ministry, SEMERNAT.
Despite logging by communities, the United Nations Environment Programme identifies Mexico as the fifth most biodiverse country.
“Major parts of community forests are under varying degrees of protection because of either inaccessibility or relatively low demand for land due to low population densities,” says Bray. A 2009 study in 733 municipalities of the country showed that while 62.8 per cent of coniferous forests were owned by communities, only 9.6 per cent were being logged. A 2007 study estimated that communities in Mexico were voluntarily conserving more than 640,000 ha. Several other communities which own small patches of forests cannot take up timber trade. So they are protecting the forests and earning from NTFPs, selling bottled spring waters and charcoal and through eco-tourism,” adds Bray. This, by default, protects the water sources and wildlife habitats.
Community forestry in Mexico still has a long way to go. Of the 35,000 communities owning forests, only 5,000 are managing them as per approved plans, says Victor Hugo, assistant manager of community forestry, CONAFOR. Disputes, chaos and politicisation still exist in many communities, he adds. “These are the regions where deforestation is prevalent and migration is high. It’s a major challenge for us to streamline forestry management in these villages.”
Chapela says despite the scope of forestry, commercial community forestry spans only 8 million ha. The government can promote it by relaxing the tax on CFEs, that pay on a par with companies. This puts them at a disadvantaged position because the market for community products is still in a nascent stage, he says. Leticia Marleno, professor at National Autonomous University of Mexico, says the government still over-regulates community forestry. Agrees Segura. “Getting forest management plan prepared from accredited engineers and approved by SEMERNAT requires a lot of human capital and finance. The government needs to relax this requirement.”
Mexico aspires to expand its economy and the government knows it very well that without investing in forest conservation through community forestry, it will be difficult to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, says Fernández. He adds that community forestry provides a win-win situation—socially, economically, environmentally and politically.
It's time India turned forests into assets
Globally, forest governance is undergoing reforms to benefit from community forestry
MEXICO AND India are worlds apart, both in terms of geography and forest governance. While Mexico has earned socially, economically and environmentally by promoting community forestry, India continues to follow the colonial forest regime that has alienated communities from their land and resources.
At present, the Indian government recognises community rights over their forests under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006, and empowers the gram sabha (village council) to protect and manage them. But the law remains poorly implemented as forest departments continue to resist ceding control over forests. The Forest Survey of India’s (FSI’s) report in 1999 shows that 31 million ha of forests lay within revenue villages. “This should be the minimum area over which community forest rights need to be recognised,” says forest rights activist Madhu Sarin, who was part of the drafting process of FRA. But the government has so far recognised rights over only 2.5 million ha (see ‘Rights wronged’). Worse, this hardly includes community forests.
This makes India a laggard; other countries have made far greater progress in forest governance reforms. In Papua New Guinea, about 95 per cent of forests are under community control while in Mexico, China, Bolivia and Brazil, about 70, 55, 35 and 13 per cent forests, respectively, are owned by communities. A study by Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), a global network of non-profits, shows that forestland designated for and owned by communities has increased from 11.3 to 15.5 per cent worldwide between 2002 and 2013. “More countries are realising that lack of tenure security is a hurdle to economic growth in rural areas,” says Claire Biason, networking support manager of RRI.
While India needs to implement FRA in earnest to secure tenure rights for its forest dwelling communities, this may not be enough to turn its 76 million ha of standing forests into assets. Consider this. Under FRA, the government allows communities to harvest and trade non-timber forest produce. Yet more than 200 million people, including tribals, who depend on forest produce for a living remain neglected and impoverished. An estimate by India’s Union Ministry of Panchayati Raj shows that communities in India can earn Rs 4,000 crore (about US $667 million) a year from non-timber forest produce alone. But most of the produce is traded by corporations owned by forest departments and the revenue goes to the government coffers.
Besides, FRA does not provide communities explicit rights over timber, the most lucrative forest resource. “One of the key reasons Mexican communities could organise themselves and wrest control over forests from the government was the potential profit from timber trading,” says David Barton Bray, professor at Florida International University. But the Indian government’s only initiative to share timber profit with communities so far has been the Joint Forest Management programme, which was introduced in 1990 to defuse movements by forest dwellers, demanding recognition to their traditional forest rights. The communities, however, abandoned the programme within a few years as they did not receive any benefit. The programme now remains only on paper and the forest department uses it to subvert FRA.
“There is a stalemate in the forest policy in terms of understanding the economic benefits of standing forests,” says MadhuVerma, coordinator, Centre for Ecological Services Management at the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal. “We do not realise what we will lose by losing a forest. This is because hardly anything except for timber and NTFPsare currently traded in the market,” she says. There is no mechanism to recognise and trade the whole bundle of ecological services from forests such as watershed protection, generation of water, prevention of soil erosion, gene pool development and landscape value (for eco-tourism). This will help people to earn while protecting or conserving the forests, she adds.
A study by World Resources Institute in 14 forest-rich countries shows that deforestation in community forests is much less than in those outside community control.
The government is not benefitting from the vast stretches of standing forests either. Of the 76 million ha of forests, the Indian forest department manages 17 million ha for timber production, as per the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This is double the area under commercial forestry in Mexico, yet its produces only 2.5 million cubic metres (cum) of timber a year—one-third of timber produced by Mexico, according to the 2010 report by the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE), Dehradun. This is meagre to meet India’s soaring timber demand, which is expected to increase from 74 million cum in 2005 to 153 million cum in 2020, according to a report supported by the erstwhile Planning Commission. At present, most of the country’s demand is met by private plantations that produce 44.3 million cum a year, and through imports. India imported 6 million cum of timber, worth Rs 7,688 crore, in 2010.
The forest departments take a high moral ground of prioritising conservation over production and cites it as reason for low productivity of Indian forests. But this does not sound convincing. An analysis of FSI data by Down To Earth suggests that India might have lost 9.4 million ha of government-managed forests between 1999 and 2013. The loss has been masked by the 12.7 million ha increase in green cover outside government-managed forests during the period.
The other arguments put forth by the forest departments are low productivity of Indian forests and a Supreme Court ban on felling trees without a working management plan. “Most of our forests have long gestation period, and face anthropogenic pressures such as grazing and fuel wood collection. All this affects productivity,” says an official with the FSI. Going by FSI’s estimates, the annual productivity of Indian forests is 0.7 cum per ha compared to the world average of 2.1 cum per ha. Even at this rate, the area set aside for commercial forestry should produce over 11 million cum of timber. But this is not the case. Though the Supreme Court ban came in 1996, the forest department is yet to prepare working plans for the 17 million ha set aside for commercial forestry. Clearly, something is wrong with the way forests are being managed in India. “The forest departments have neither been able to increase the productivity of forests nor check deforestation,” says an analyst who works with a forest certification agency.
Two decades ago, forest governance in Mexico was in an equally chaotic state. The first important step that the government took to promote community forestry was to devolve its forest management authority and responsibilities to communities. It did not stop there. It introduced reforms in forestry governance. It disbanded old agencies and created new ones to support and facilitate community forestry and ensured that management skills are not restricted to government foresters.
Such reforms are urgently needed in India, says C R Bijoy of Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a network of organisations working on forest rights. By shifting forest governance authority to gram sabha, FRA aims at democratising the system. But forest and other departments cannot understand its spirit without significant capacity building. “The forest and the tribal affairs departments should go through institutional reforms keeping FRA at the centre of policies,” Bijoy suggests.
Sarin says India should also look beyond the idea that only forest department is capable of managing forests. “Other departments need to pitch in to support community forestry.”
An empowered community is responsible for the success of any type of community forestry. There have been several instances in India where communities have tried to trade in forest produce such as bamboo and tendu but failed due to lack of government support and marketing linkages. “This failure is then used as an argument to not allow them to manage forests,” says Subodh Kulkarni of Jnan Probodhini, non-profit that works for community rights in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district.
The Mexican government had realised this at the outset. “So the new agencies first focussed on building the organisational capacity of communities,” says Bray. When villages got community forestry rights, politicisation, corruption and disputes were rife within and among communities. It monitored general assembly meetings and imposed strict conditions to ensure proper functioning of grassroots institutions before granting them government aid,” says Bray.
The contexts of forest governance is changing, says Arvind Khare, executive director of RRI. “Forest-governing agencies seem to be losing their economic influence and political constituency. This is because in most developing (and quite a few developed) countries, the fate of forests is intricately linked with communities. This is a major reason for insurgencies in countries like India.” The real test for forestry now is to regain this constituency.
The reporter’s travel to Mexico was supported by Society for Promotion of Wasteland Development in Delhi and Rights and Resources Initiative in Washington DC