Forestry, the Mexican way

By Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava
Published: Saturday 31 January 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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