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Critics say proposed changes to Mexico’s Forestry Law threaten sustainable forest management by local communities

  • Mexico’s General Law of Sustainable Forest Development, more commonly referred to as the Forestry Law, has been criticized for not being sufficient to keep illegal wood out of the country, which imperils the sustainable forestry enterprises of ejidos, community-owned and -managed landscapes. At the same time, proposed changes to the country’s Forestry Law could put the entire ejido system in jeopardy, critics say.
  • The Mexican Network of Peasant Forestry Organizations (MOCAF), a coalition of rural farmers and indigenous organizations, says it is “urgent” that the Mexican Senate open up discussions on how the Forestry Law can be strengthened to halt the practice of “wood washing,” which refers to the process by which illegally sourced wood is made to appear to be legal.
  • Meanwhile, at a press conference held last month, MOCAF’s Gustavo Sánchez Valle warned that proposed changes to Mexico’s Forestry Law and General Law of Biodiversity would allow the government to grant to third parties, like mining companies, the rights to exploit natural resources on ejido lands without consulting the communities that own the land.

The call goes out over the radio: An unknown car has entered Ejido Cruz de Ocote, a community-managed forestry operation in the state of Puebla, Mexico.

A short time later, Constantino Cortés Martínez, chief of surveillance for the ejido, discovers what the occupants of that unknown car were after: “Tell Mario, and everyone else, to return here. Someone just knocked down a tree here,” he says into his walkie-talkie.

After inspecting the damage, Cortés Martínez concludes that, “I think they heard us and left. We did not see anyone.” The would-be illegal loggers didn’t even have time to harvest the tree they had felled.

The entire episode is caught in the short film “Ejidos,” produced by If Not Us Then Who?, a US-based non-profit that seeks to raise awareness about the important role indigenous and local peoples play as stewards of the natural world. Ejidos are lands that are collectively owned and managed by local communities in Mexico.

The ejido system is generally considered to be a successful means of conserving forests and providing economic opportunities in rural communities. But Mexico’s General Law of Sustainable Forest Development, commonly referred to as the Forestry Law, has been criticized for not being sufficient to keep illegal wood out of the country, which imperils ejidos’ sustainable forestry enterprises. At the same time, proposed changes to the Forestry Law could put the entire ejido system in jeopardy, critics say.

According to the “Ejidos” filmmakers, it’s been estimated that 70 percent of the wood on the market in Mexico is illegal. Luis Mario Moreno Ojeda of Ejido Cruz de Ocote says in the “Ejidos” film that the illegal timber trade impacts these communities by driving prices for legal wood down. “There are people who sell illegal timber and it affects the market because illegal wood is consequently cheaper,” he says.

A recent report by the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Investigation Agency found that Mexico is one of the main destinations for illegally harvested wood from the Amazonian forests of Peru, together with the United States, China, and more than a dozen other countries. But whereas the U.S. has taken steps to crack down on this trade in illegal timber exports through both federal law and its trade agreements with Peru, Mexico has yet to respond to the issue in a meaningful way, according to Lisa Handy, director of EIA’s forest campaigns.

“China and Mexico are fueling illegal logging and conflict in the Peruvian Amazon by turning a blind eye to their illegal imports,” Handy said in a statement.

In a blog post, the Mexican Network of Peasant Forestry Organizations (MOCAF), a coalition of rural farmers and indigenous organizations, says it is “urgent” that the Mexican Senate open up discussions on how the Forestry Law can be strengthened to halt the practice of “wood washing,” which refers to the process by which illegally sourced wood is made to appear to be legal.

MOCAF adds that “The ‘wood washing’ in Mexico not only harms the Amazon jungles, it also harms community forestry companies, encourages the illegal market in Mexico and causes the destruction of our forests.”

The illegal timber trade isn’t the only threat to the ejido system, however. At a press conference held last month, MOCAF’s Gustavo Sánchez Valle issued a warning about the potential impacts of changes that have been proposed for the Forestry Law and Mexico’s General Law of Biodiversity. The proposed changes would allow the government to grant to third parties, like mining companies, the rights to exploit natural resources on ejido lands without consulting the communities that own the land.

“This determination would cause a serious setback in the care and protection of the ecosystem,” Sánchez Valle said. “The experience lived almost 40 years ago tells us that the management of forest resources in the hands of private companies is not a guarantee of protection to forests.”

The ejido system first came about in the years after the Mexican Revolution, which ended in 1920 and was sparked, at least in part, by the fact that land ownership was increasingly concentrated in the hands of the country’s ruling class. The Mexican government began to expropriate large amounts of land and distribute it among local communities in the 1930s. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that ownership was transferred from single, private landowners to the peasants who lived and worked on the land.

Now, Sánchez Valle says, the proposed changes to the Forestry and Biodiversity Laws would essentially reinstate the pre-1980s system, when decision-making power did not entirely lie with the communities themselves. “We are aware that it is necessary to adapt the Law to new times and that without a doubt, the reform considers positive things as well,” Sánchez Valle said. “However there are proposals that, far from encouraging development, cause regression and affect the communities dedicated to the use of their forests.”

Edgar González Godoy, Rainforest Alliance’s director for Mexico, also says that the proposals to amend the Forestry and Biodiversity Laws, if passed, would mark an unwelcome return to how things were done in the past, when concessions were granted to private entities despite ejidos’ and communities’ ownership of the land. “After 1980 we did a lot of work on giving the ejidos and the communities the right of exploiting their own natural resources,” González Godoy told Mongabay. “So with this law, it’s just like going back in time 30 or 40 years.”

Ejidos own as much as 75 percent of Mexico’s forests, González Godoy says, and if the changes to the Forestry and Biodiversity Laws go through, he predicts that deforestation rates will skyrocket, as will the loss of biodiversity and environmental services like clean water and carbon storage.

“We don’t support those changes, we believe that ejidos and communities as owners of the land are the ones that have to make decisions about how they want to manage their landscape, their land,” González Godoy said. “They’re the ones who are entitled to decide where they want to go [to exploit resources on their land] and how they want to protect their land.”

Featured image: Screenshot from short film “Ejidos” by If Not Us Then Who?

Follow Mike Gaworecki on Twitter: @mikeg2001

CORRECTION: This article originally identified the Environmental Investigation Agency as being headquartered in the UK. The organization is actually based in Washington, D.C. and has a sister office in London. Mongabay regrets the error.

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