Mexican Common Property Forest Governance

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By David Bray:

'Formally, the Mexican model is based on common property governance over forested territories by legally recognized rights holders organized in long-standing communities tied together by kinship and mutual knowledge. These common property forests represent a third way of economic development, beyond just public property and markets. They depend on communities where organizational transaction costs are lowered because everybody knows each other. Economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis argue that, “far from being vestigial anachronisms, we think communities may become more rather than less important in the nexus of governance structures in the years to come, since communities may claim some success in addressing governance problems not amenable to market or state solution.”

Mexican community forest management emerged from a particular historical process.

It is based on

(1) the devolution of successively expanded property rights over forests;

(2) community-level governance institutions established by agrarian law, frequently intertwined with traditional governance practices and systematically linked with other levels of government; and

(3) government policies that have been, with some significant exceptions, supportive of community forestry.

In an important sense, Mexico has invested in its community forestry sector over time. Emigration and agricultural abandonment has also played a role in reducing the demand for land. This confluence of factors has resulted in several regions of the country where deforestation and degradation are nonexistent and forest cover and forest-carbon stocks have grown. A vigorous community democracy flourishes as well, even if it can be exhausting for its participants. Furthermore, alternatives for sustainable livelihoods exist and both managed timber areas and community reserves conserve biodiversity. Some parts of Mexico already exemplify what other parts of the world will look like if REDD+ projects are successful.

This successful model emerged from the ravages of the Mexican Revolution in the second decade of the twentieth century. For almost two decades after the end of the most violent phase of the revolution in 1917, agrarian elites saw common property as only a temporary way station to small, private landholdings based on the U.S. model. But the realities of a strongly communal rural culture, frequent eruptions of rural unrest demanding land restitution, and the return of migrants from the United States because of the Great Depression compelled the reformist President Lázaro Cardenas to take a different path. Instead of promoting Jeffersonian small farmers, he deepened and institutionalized land and forest distribution, which became a permanent feature of Mexican rural policy (with ups and downs in different presidential administrations) through most of the twentieth century. Forests were handed out almost as an afterthought, after all the good agricultural land had already been parceled out. Nonetheless, from 1940 to the mid-1970s Mexican forest policy did not vary much from that of many other countries. The government continued to hold the rights to give out concessions for timber on community lands, with the communities receiving only a modest payment that was sequestered in hard-to-access government accounts.

However, beginning in the mid-1970s reformers in the forestry department agitated for giving more timber harvesting rights to local communities. With groups of communities mobilized behind these reformers, the gains were eventually codified in a 1986 forest law that gave new rights for forest management to communities. A subsequent 1992 constitutional reform gave them a nearly full bundle of ownership rights over territories and forests. The neoliberal government of Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988–1994) was generally hostile to community forestry, despite the constitutional reform, and hoped to promote plantation forestry in Mexico. But, since 1994, successive Mexican governments have been generally supportive of the sector, although they have invested much more in payments for hydrological services than in community forest management. Mexico demonstrates how the democratization of forest governance and devolution of forest natural capital can produce striking gains in healthy forests for production and conservation. It can also generate a range of employment options, including for women, reducing the need for emigration.

Establishing agrarian community rights over a defined territory was one significant feature of the reform process that recognized two types of communities under the Mexican Constitution: the ejidos, established for dispossessed and landless farmers, and comunidades, or indigenous territories acknowledged by the Spanish Crown during the colonial period. The agrarian laws also established a structure of community governance across rural Mexico. In earlier decades, government supervision was heavily paternalistic, but the 1992 constitutional reform provided communities substantial autonomy in governing the forest commons. The governance structure includes assembly of all legally defined rights holders who democratically elect community leaders every three years (and can turn them out sooner for nonperformance). While this governance structure can easily be corrupted by authoritarian leaders, the strong incentive provided by access to valuable forests has encouraged broad community participation, establishment of rules through community statutes, and vigorous monitoring and sanctioning of rule breakers—pretty much the outcomes predicted by Ostrom’s research.

Some nine thousand communities in Mexico live with forests on their lands, but the vast majority of these manage small forest fragments.5 According to Mexican forest analyst Lucia Madrid, about one-third of Mexico, some 66 million hectares, is covered by temperate and tropical forests. Of this, some 60 percent, or nearly 40 million hectares, is owned by communities. By contrast, less than five million hectares of Mexico’s forests are in protected areas. Around 8 million hectares of the community forests, or around 20 percent, is under management plans for logging. This means that 80 percent of the community forests are not being logged; there is some evidence that much of this is under community protection, either informally or formally. Where logging is taking place, much is done in small forests and with only occasional harvests. Corruption and forest degradation through illegal logging are still serious problems, particularly in some regions. Extending the Mexican model of community forest management to these areas is the major challenge of Mexican REDD+ policy. However, the potential for what can happen is shown in the hundreds of community forest enterprises that manage forests democratically and generate income for impoverished communities. As recently as 2011, the Forest Stewardship Council had certified 31 communities as well managed. (This number has dropped dramatically recently since there are few national markets for certified timber, making certification cost-ineffective.)

There is increasing evidence that where these communities are managing their forests, there is little or no deforestation. For example, a recent study by University of California–Santa Cruz researcher James Barsimantov showed that, of 733 municipalities in eight states with at least 50 hectares of coniferous forests, municipalities with higher percentages of commonly owned forest and common forest under management plans reduced the rates of deforestation and increased the rate of forest recovery of coniferous forests. (This effect did not hold for nonconiferous forest, showing that forests are conserved when they are valued for their timber.) Studies have also shown that community forests perform as well or better than protected areas in reducing deforestation. For example, one of the regions, central and southern Quintana Roo, which is dominated by community timber production, has the lowest recorded rate of deforestation in southern Mexico—lower than that of any of the protected areas in the region. Another study that compared a community forest region with the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in Campeche found that the region of the reserve had a deforestation rate of 0.7 percent from 2000 to 2005, while the community forestry region had a vanishingly low rate of 0.002 percent from 2000 to 2004, even with twice the population density.

For purposes of REDD+, perhaps one of the most compelling pieces of recent evidence is also from Barsimantov. One of the biggest challenges for REDD+ schemes is having a price of carbon high enough to compete with such high-value crops as soybeans in the Brazilian Amazon. In Mexico, avocados are to the temperate forests of the state of Michoacan what soybeans are to the Amazon, the source of a wave of deforestation for a high-value crop dedicated increasingly to export. Barsimantov shows that the region of Michoacan he studied lost one-third of its forest cover in 16 years, mostly for avocado production. But a sample of forest-management communities showed only minor forest loss compared to devastating losses in avocado-production communities.

In addition to stopping or dramatically reducing ongoing deforestation, many forest communities appear to have informally placed large areas of forest under varying degrees of conservation—one of the hoped-for outcomes of REDD+. They do it to protect water sources, as wildlife refuges, because of inaccessibility, or due to relatively low population densities, which means these areas are not needed for agricultural production or other uses. In fact, research suggests that only modest percentages of total community forests are being logged, and substantial portions of the rest may be under informal protection. There have thus also been recent efforts to more formally recognize that community protection.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has formally recognized a category of protected area known as indigenous/community conserved areas (I/CCAs). Following this recognition, in May of 2008, the Mexican Congress passed new legislation approving a certification process to include I/CCAs as part of the federal protected areas network. To date, the National Natural Protected Areas Commission (CONANP) has certified 91 communities with over 231,000 hectares; and this only includes communities that have formally sought certification. An estimate by Mexican biologist Salvador Anta has suggested that there are some 640,000 hectares under community conservation, with the real figure almost certainly higher.

These Mexican accomplishments in reducing deforestation through community rights over resources, which include management for both timber and conservation, are backed by global studies. For example, a recent study of 80 forest commons in 10 countries across Latin America, Africa, and Asia showed that larger forest and higher degrees of rule-making autonomy at the community level are associated with higher rates of carbon storage and livelihood benefits.6 The authors go on to argue that “local communities restrict their consumption of forest products when they own forest commons, thereby increasing carbon storage.”

None of these community accomplishments in reducing deforestation, conserving forests and their biodiversity, sustainable forest management, enhancement of carbon stocks, or poverty alleviation came about because outside investors could make money off of the effort. And none was done through carbon markets. A recent analysis of REDD+ by the Munden Project argues that the forest carbon market initiative will fall of its own weight due to “major problems related to default risk, pricing power, operational complexity and oversight.” Further, it is unlikely that commodities markets in carbon will be any different than other commodities produced by poor rural communities, with the producers receiving only a small fraction of the final market value. “Forest carbon trading is unworkable as currently constructed,” says the Munden Project. Their conclusion is to “invest in tenure” and to “engage community-driven approaches, and do so more effectively.” This approach also resonates with other findings by the Rights and Resources Initiative that the cost per hectare of recognizing rights is far less than the estimated costs of REDD. Thus, the first investments should be made in “getting property rights right” as the foundation for getting governance right, which could eventually lead to forest carbon markets." (