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Clearing a path for Mexico's community forests

Mexico's vast forests provide many rural communities with food, fibre and medicine (World Bank)
Mexico's vast forests provide many rural communities with food, fibre and medicine
World Bank

While much of Mexico is semi-arid and characterised by desert scrub and cacti, one-third of the country (around 66 million hectares) is covered by diverse temperate and tropical forests. As in much of the tropics, deforestation has occurred at alarming rates with some 500,000 ha lost each year. But in comparison to other forested regions, the majority of Mexico's forests (around 60 per cent) are under collective tenure and recent studies reveal that 2,300 communities legally harvest their own timber.

Home to nearly 12 million people, Mexico's forests are highly productive and provide a variety of resources, including non-timber products for food, fibre and medicinal purposes. A high proportion of forest people are indigenous, many living in extreme poverty, but relatively few communities are entirely dependent on the forest for employment and income, and many are involved in subsistence agriculture. Consequently, forest production contributes little to Mexico's economy, accounting for less than one per cent of GDP, and until recently, little investment had been made by the government to improve the productivity of the sector.

Community - a long tradition

While communal tenure has a long history in Mexico, land reform dating from the 1920s created the eijdo and other indigenous community systems of common property ownership. But despite these designated property rights, communities were excluded from participating in commercial logging, and private companies were given long-term logging concessions to extract timber for only a small fee.

Pro-community forestry policy was not introduced until the 1970s, when village communities began to receive training that would allow them to form their own community forest enterprises. These policies were consolidated in 1986 by a forest law and, in 1992, by constitutional reforms that gave communities clearer ownership over their forests and new opportunities to manage them.

Today, although a significant proportion of forest land continues to be leased to private logging companies by communities who do not have the capacity to log them themselves, many communities harvest their own timber and several are successfully competing in the international markets for sawn wood, furniture and decorative mouldings.

One of the sawmills at the community-run CINSJP (David Bray)
One of the sawmills at the community-run CINSJP
David Bray

One particular community-run forestry operation in the central coastal state of Michoacán is demonstrating that communities are able to derive significant benefits from developing a forestry enterprise that is economically viable. The Comunidad Indígenade Nuevo San Juan Parangaricutiro (CINSJP) manages 14,300 ha of temperate pine and oak forests, and is renowned for its effective forest management: expanding forest cover, preventing illegal logging, increasing biodiversity and increasing community employment, partly through ecotourism developed on communal lands.

Established for over 25 years, the CINSJP-managed forest provides around 900 community members with their main source of income. Around 1,000 ha of timber is harvested each year to produce furniture and mouldings for export, lumber for secondary markets, and wood chips and pine resin for local markets. The community owns two sawmills, as well as drying kilns, manufacturing facilities, and a pine resin processing mill. CINSJP now collaborates with other indigenous communities to share its learning and technical capabilities for managing natural resources.

Consolidating communal success

Despite the success of CINSJP and other similar community-managed initiatives, however, illegal and unsustainable logging, and clearing forest for agriculture are still major issues in Mexico. But, with technical and financial support from the government, communities that collectively own over 800,000 ha of forests now have certification from the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC). In many cases, undergoing the certification process has enabled communities to strengthen their forestry management plans.

CINJSP's forest enterprise, for instance, includes planning, production, forest protection and fire suppression, as well as forest renewal. Two nurseries producing over 1.5 million pine, oak and other indigenous tree seedlings each year are used to regenerate the working forest in compliance with a FSC-certified forest management plan endorsed by the Environment Secretariat in Mexico. Over 1,000 ha have been re-forested in recent years.

The CINSJP is renowned for its effective forest management (David Bray)
The CINSJP is renowned for its effective forest management
David Bray

The importance of forest certification was recognised by the Mexican government in the most recent forest law dating from 2003, which formally recognises the public value of community forest management, and the need to sustain these areas, including introducing payment schemes for environmental services. More recently, in 2007, the new federal government doubled its investment in national forestry federal programmes. Despite this investment very little has been directed to strengthening local capacity in planning and management of forest resources.

It is evident that challenges remain if a greater number of community-managed forest enterprises (CFEs) are to become commercially viable. Mexican forest communities suffer from a high level of urban migration, with young people unable to gain property rights. High levels of illiteracy are evident in ageing and marginalised populations, and many communities suffer internal conflicts, which severely limit effective forest development. However, with the success of an increasing number of CFEs, there are undoubtedly positive lessons to be considered by countries that are just beginning to devolve their forests to local communities.

Date published: November 2008


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