Forestry, the Mexican way

By Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava
Last Updated: Friday 18 September 2015
Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters Photo: Reuters

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.

  "When the government gave private companies concessions over our forests, they rampantly felled trees. We moved court against the presidential decree and got the concessions cancelled"
—Juan Lopez, President of general assembly, La Trinidad, Oaxaca state

“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.

A sawmill at La Trinidad village situated on the Sierra Juarez mountain range of Mexico (Photos: Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava)

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.

  "After Mexican Revolution, the government handed over land to people, but not the rights"
—Paulina Deschamps, activist, Mexican Civil Council for Community Forestry, Mexico City

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.

Native entrepreneurs

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.

  "After being forced to end the concession policy, the authorities were in confrontation mood and did not extend any support to communities for forestry"
—Francisco Chapela, programme officer, Christensen Fund, USA

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.

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  • Excellent. We can learn New

    We can learn New ways of Biofuel/Biogas for power from Mexico.
    Companies all over the world are investing so much looking for a perfect crop but they see the leave and not the wood! Many existing crops can be managed and adopted for bioenergy production on marginal regions with potential of expansion in millions of hectares of several countries suffering from energy shortages and foreign dependency. Agave and Opuntia being care-free growth CAM plants offer promise.
    Agaves are perennial plants that produce large leaves in a rosette form. Their size and lifespan vary enormously between species, from 20 to 200cm in height and between 8 and 30 years old. Cultivated agaves benefit from adequate water from rain, but most are well adapted to arid conditions, and tolerate high temperatures and water shortages. This means they can be grown on land that would not be suitable for other purposes, and where soils are easily degraded by disturbance. Agave competitive advantages Thrives on dry land/marginal land. Most efficient use of soil, water and light. Massive production. Year-around harvesting. Very high yields with very low or no inputs Very high quality biomass and sugars Very low cost of production. Not a commodity, so prices are not volatile Very versatile: biofuels, bioproducts, chemicals World-wide geographical distribution Enhanced varieties are ready.
    Considered by the Aztecs and Mayans as a gift from the Gods, Agave has long been used as a food source, its fibres turned into fabric and its liquid fermented into Mescal/Tequila. Now some clever bods from Oxford University have discovered that the ethanol, derived from the fructose rich plants, is a rich alternative to current bio-fuels such as corn. Unlike corn, Agave grows in a deserts and marginalised areas ÔÇô as such it doesnÔÇÖt interfere with food crops. Agave ÔÇô Gift from the Gods. Experts agree that agave, a plant used in the production of tequila, can be a sustainable biofuel source because it would not compete with food crops or threaten water supply. A new report from the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment identifies significant advantages of using agave plants, such as those used in the production of tequila and sisal, to derive biofuels. Unlike other biofuel feedstocks, agave has the potential to grow on marginal agricultural land and so would have limited impact on global food production and biodiversity.

    Fourteen independent studies have concluded that the yields from two species of agave greatly exceeded to yields of corn, soybeans, sorghum and other feedstocks. More encouraging, there are additional species believed to be even more productive. Agave is an appealing feedstock because it is economically and environmentally sustainable. People in Chile are talking; they are getting 1,800 tons of green biomass per hector per year. In Mexico about 600 tons, but if we can rise that to 1,000 tons per hector per year, we could produce that to generate electricity via bio digester, and the cost of producing, generating electricity would be around $0.07 per kilowatt hour which is comparable to the price of electricity generated burning coal, fossil coal. So this is very important because over 5 billion tons of coal are burnt(Source:Bioenergy crops).

    Countries like India and China have great assets - Human Resources especially Youth.
    I have a novel scheme to provide nationwide employment and bringing waste land under cultivation.
    There are millions of hectares of wastelands in the country. Can't we put it to good use? There are care-free growth plants, regenerative and CAM like Agave and Opuntia which can be put to many uses especially for Biofuel/biogas power. Mexico is pioneer in this. A scheme YOUTH ECONOMIC ZONES(YEZ) on the lines of SEZ can be created where in unemployed youth trained in farming can each be allotted 10 acres each on lease basis. 10 such youth can form a co-operative. They can grow Fast growing ,care-free growth plants like Agave and Opuntia. From the output Biofuel/biogas power units can be set up at local level.

    Here are the many uses of Agave and Opuntia:
    For decentralised power generation as well as cooking, biogas is the best option.
    Biogas power from care-free growth ,regenerative CAM plants can be obtained on massive scale. These plants can be cultivated in waste lands. Being CAM plants they act as Carbon Sink. Crassulacean acid metabolism, also known as CAM photosynthesis,is a carbon fixation pathway that evolved in some plants as an adaptation to arid conditions.[ In a plant using full CAM, the stomata in the leaves remain shut during the day to reduce evapotranspiration, but open at night to collect carbon dioxide (CO2). The CO 2 is stored as the four-carbon acidmalate, and then used during photosynthesis during the day. The pre-collected CO 2 is concentrated around the enzymeRuBisCO, increasing photosynthetic efficiency. Mexico is pioneer in Biogas/Biofuel production from Agave/Opuntia.

    Every village can be provided a Big Biogas plant and gas supplied through pipes to houses.Biogas power plants from KW size to MW size are available commercially.

    The main drawback for wider application of Biofuels is input. There was a big movement for biofuel from Jatropha in India but in reality not much has been achieved. Agave(Americana),Sisal Agave is a multiple use plant which has 10% fermentable sugars and rich in cellulose. The fibre is used in rope making and also for weaving clothes in Philippines under the trade name DIP-DRY. In Brazil a paper factory runs on sisal as input. A Steroid HECOGENIN is extracted from this plant leaves. Since on putrification,it produces methane gas, it can be cut and used as input in biogas plants. Also in Kenya and Lesotho dried pieces of Agave are mixed with concrete since it has fibres which act as binding. Here is an excellent analysis on Agave as a biofuel: Agave shows potential as biofuel feedstock, Checkbiotech, By Anna Austin, February 11, 2010: 'Mounting interest in agave as a biofuel feedstock could jump-start the Mexican biofuels industry, according to agave expert Arturo Valez Jimenez.

    Agave thrives in Mexico and is traditionally used to produce liquors such as tequila. It has a rosette of thick fleshy leaves, each of which usually end in a sharp point with a spiny margin. Commonly mistaken for cacti, the agave plant is actually closely related to the lily and amaryllis families. The plants use water and soil more efficiently than any other plant or tree in the world, Arturo said. 'This is a scientific factthey don't require watering or fertilizing and they can absorb carbon dioxide during the night,' he said. The plants annually produce up to 500 metric tons of biomass per hectare, he added. Agave fibers contain 65 percent to 78 percent cellulose, according to Jimenez. 'With new technology, it is possible to breakdown over 90 percent of the cellulose and hemicelluloses structures, which will increase ethanol and other liquid biofuels from lignocellulosic biomass drastically,' he said. 'Mascoma is assessing such technology.' Another plant of great use is OPUNTIA for biogas production. The cultivation of nopal((OPUNTIA FICUS-INDICA), a type of cactus, is one of the most important in Mexico. According to Rodrigo Morales, Chilean engineer, Wayland biomass, installed on Mexican soil, 'allows you to generate inexhaustible clean energy.' Through the production of biogas, it can serve as a raw material more efficiently, by example and by comparison with jatropha.

    Wayland Morales, head of Elqui Global Energy argues that 'an acre of cactus produces 43 200 m3 of biogas or the equivalent in energy terms to 25,000 liters of diesel.' With the same land planted with jatropha, he says, it will produce 3,000 liters of biodiesel. Another of the peculiarities of the nopal is biogas which is the same molecule of natural gas, but its production does not require machines or devices of high complexity. Also, unlike natural gas, contains primarily methane (75%), carbon dioxide (24%) and other minor gases (1%), 'so it has advantages from the technical point of view since it has the same capacity heat but is cleaner, 'he says, and as sum datum its calorific value is 7,000 kcal/m3. Biogas power generators from KW to MW size are available from China and Vietnam. Agave and Opuntia can be grown on a massive scale in wastelands in developing countries.

    The cultivation of nopal((OPUNTIA FICUS-INDICA), a type of cactus, is one of the most important in Mexico. According to Rodrigo Morales, Chilean engineer, Wayland biomass, installed on Mexican soil, ÔÇ£allows you to generate inexhaustible clean energy.ÔÇØ Through the production of biogas, it can serve as a raw material more efficiently, by example and by comparison with jatropha.

    Wayland Morales, head of Elqui Global Energy argues that ÔÇ£an acre of cactus produces 43200 m3 of biogas or the equivalent in energy terms to 25,000 liters of diesel.ÔÇØ
    With the same land planted with jatropha, he says, it will produce 3,000 liters of biodiesel.
    Another of the peculiarities of the nopal is biogas which is the same molecule of natural gas, but its production does not require machines or devices of high complexity. Also, unlike natural gas, contains primarily methane (75%), carbon dioxide (24%) and other minor gases (1%), ÔÇ£so it has advantages from the technical point of view since it has the same capacity heat but is cleaner, ÔÇ£he says, and as sum datum its calorific value is 7,000 kcal/m3.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    Posted by: Anonymous | 4 years ago | Reply
  • ROFR enables Chenchu PVTGs to

    ROFR enables Chenchu PVTGs to continue their possession of water bodies for fishing
    Nallamala forest in the midst of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh states is habitat of PVTG Chenchus. The defeated kings used to take shelter in these forests. During their stay, tanks were excavated, temples were built, and lands were brought under cultivation. During the British rule the forts were demolished as they were shelters of rebels.
    In the 100000 square kilometer reserve forest in Nallamala, 3500 sqkms is wildlife sanctuary and tiger reserve. In the Mahaboobnagar District part of Nallamala 70 habitations of Chenchus are covered by VSchedule of the Indian Constitution protecting rights of tribes on natural resources.
    Rasool tank popularly called as Rushula cheruvu (tank of seers) is the biggest one in the above Chenchu habilitations. In 1992 the Minister of Fisheries requested the forest Minister to allow commercial fishing of a non tribal fisher folk society in the tank. SAKTI, NGO working with the tribes , expanded its activities to this forest area, came to know about this fishing , which is against both the laws of tribal and wildlife protection .Responding to the representation of SAKTI, Commissioner of Tribal Welfare instructed the District administration to protect the rights of Chenchus evicting the fisher folk. As there was no response, SAKTI supported Chenchus to approach High Court, which directed the Govt not to allow any other community , the Chenchus picked up courage, took possession of tank for fishing. But the Court in 2007 closed the case observing that the District Collector is the authority under Wildlife protection act to decide the rights.
    The Chenchus without giving up their possession approached Secretary Tribal Welfare. He instructed the District Collector to form fishing cooperative of Chenchus and recognize their rights as soon as the ROFR comes in to force,
    The success of Chenchus in Rushulacheruvu motivated the neighboring habitations Yerrapenta SriRangapur, Appayapalli etc to drive out the illegal occupation of tanks, though police booked cases against them as trespassers .The Chenchus who used to collect the fish by poisoning, now collecting fish without dropping any outside feeds, to increase fish production.
    TV 9 news channel in 2012 honored the Chenchu women of Yerrapenta habitation conferring an award recognizing their courage, in a function chaired by actress activist Nanditadas. But so far the District administration did not recognizes their occupation due to political pressures. However, Chenchus organizing themselves to take possession of the tanks one after another. Please see Chenchu in www.Sakti. In

    Posted by: Anonymous | 4 years ago | Reply