Grappling with youth outmigration

An ejido is essentially an area of communally owned land used for agriculture and forestry purposes, but the term also refers to the community itself and the people who not only work the land but live on it as well. In many cases, the people of an ejido have lived on the land for generations. The ejido system dates back to the 1930s, when the Mexican government first began to distribute land amongst local communities in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution, which was sparked, at least in part, by anger toward the increasing concentration of land in the hands of the elite and wealthy. In the 1980s, title to those communal lands was officially transferred from private landowners to the communities themselves, giving rise to the ejido system as it exists today.

Ejidos now control more than two-thirds of Mexico’s 64 million hectares (158 million acres) of forest. They have generally proven to be an effective means of preserving those forests while creating economic opportunities for local communities through sustainable farming, ranching, and forestry operations.

David Barton Bray, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environment at Florida International University and an expert in Mexican community forestry, told Mongabay that multiple studies have shown that ejidos have lower deforestation rates even than many protected areas. “Specifically studies in southeastern Mexico show that they generally have deforestation rates equal to or lower than public protected areas, while at the same time generating more income for local communities,” Bray says. “So you get both conservation and income-generation.”

But ejidos themselves face challenges that must be overcome in order to ensure their sustainability. Chief among them has been the lack of inclusion of youth and women, an issue many ejidos have begun to seriously address over the course of the past decade.

The structure of ejidos reflects the patriarchal society within which they were created: Each ejido had a certain number of founding members, all male heads of households, known as ejidatarios. These ejidatarios were each granted a parcel of the community’s land upon the creation of the ejido, though the lands are managed and the profits are shared collectively (in some cases families do manage and work on their own individual plots). Ownership of a parcel of an ejido’s land is typically inherited by the eldest son upon an ejidatario’s death.

Not only does that leave all but the oldest male offspring with no official role in the community enterprise to look forward to, it also means women have traditionally been excluded from ejidatario assemblies and thus from positions of authority in ejido communities, as well. There are instances of land ownership having been inherited by the widow or daughter of an ejidatario, so there are a number of ejidatarias, but they make up a small fraction of the decision-makers in Mexico’s ejido communities.

Seeing few economic opportunities within their own communities, many young people leave, migrating to big cities or the United States. Mexico is not the only country where youth out-migration poses a significant problem for rural areas: According to a report by the Global Migration Group, more than 28 million migrants in 2013 were between the ages of 15 and 24. But out-migration of young people does pose a uniquely severe threat to the future of the ejido system and, in turn, Mexico’s relative success at conserving its forests.

As Rainforest Alliance notes in a white paper: “Without a robust younger generation to uphold the tradition of forest conservation, ejidos may sell off land to private owners disinclined to use the land sustainably; a decrease in population also makes the forest more vulnerable to fire and illegal logging activities.”

Many ejidatarios are keenly aware of this problem and have sought solutions. Guillermina Hernandez Cruz, an agave farmer at Ejido Cruz de Ocote, located in the municipality of Ixtacamaxtitlan in the state of Puebla, says that her community is working to create more economic opportunities for young people as a solution to the problem.

“Many people migrate because of lack of work,” Hernandez Cruz says in a short film titled “Ejidos” produced by If Not Us Then Who?, a US-based non-profit that seeks to raise awareness about the critical role indigenous and local peoples play as stewards of the natural world. “Our plan is that [by] having employment here — in my case it will be my grandchildren because my children are already grown up — they will no longer emigrate, nor their families.”

As Mongabay witnessed firsthand on a recent trip to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, many other ejidos are taking a similar, proactive approach to preparing the next generation of leaders for their community-based enterprises by enticing their young people to get the education they need and then return to the community. And they’re finding crucial success in that endeavor.

Take Ejido Nuevo Bécal, for instance. The only FSC-certified ejido in the state of Campeche, Nuevo Bécal owns a total of 51,800 hectares (128,000 acres) of land. The ejido’s primary for-profit endeavor is the harvesting and selling of timber — 25,000 hectares of its land are approved for forest management, though only 10,000 hectares are actively managed at any given time. The rest of Nuevo Bécal’s management area is allowed to regenerate, either naturally or through the community’s reforestation program — 200 hectares of the community’s land are set aside specifically for harvesting mahogany seeds. Another 2,346 hectares are enrolled in a Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) program.

Most ejidos employ an outside technician to mark trees for harvest, but Nuevo Bécal has Luis Alfonso Guzmán Sanchez, the 26-year-old son of an ejidatario and the community’s own forestry technician. He told Mongabay that he learned how to do the job by working his whole life in Nuevo Bécal’s forests and by taking classes through a program subsidized by Mexico’s National Forestry Commission. Since he is not one of the community’s 84 ejidatarios, Guzmán Sanchez doesn’t get to vote in the ejidatario assembly, but as the community’s forest technician, he says his opinions carry weight nonetheless.

Luis Armando Tamay Yah, the president of Ejido Nuevo Bécal, told Mongabay that three other children of ejidatarios are currently studying forestry while simultaneously working in the ejido. But forestry is not the only option Nuevo Bécal makes available to its youth. Harvesting and selling mahogany and other tree species may be the community’s main for-profit venture, but Nuevo Bécal also sells chicle (the sap of the chicozapote tree, which is used as a natural chewing gum), has two apiaries, and makes charcoal from waste wood leftover from its forestry operations.

Charcoal is the community’s main non-timber product; young people are employed to dig the earthen ovens and women to pull the charcoal out of them when it’s ready. “There’s something for everyone to do if they want to work,” Tamay Yah says. He notes that the charcoal business has helped create opportunities that keep Ejido Nuevo Bécal’s kids from leaving the community and that an ejidataria named Emma is the community “champion” of the charcoal-making enterprise.

Bridging the generational divide

Before launching the forestry workshop in partnership with Carmelina Martinez’s high school in Zoh Laguna, Rainforest Alliance (RA) studied the causes of youth outmigration in three ejidos in the Calakmul region. The group discovered that there seemed to be a profound misunderstanding between community leaders and youth:

“[A]dult leaders felt that there were abundant opportunities for youth involvement in local governance, but that youth lacked interest and motivation to participate,” according to a report summarizing the results of RA’s study. “Meanwhile, youth expressed sincere interest, but perceived a lack of opportunities and support from elders.”

A young man takes a break from digging an earthen oven for charcoal production in Nuevo Becal, an ejido in Campeche whose forestry operations include FSC-certified timber, charcoal, and honey production. Photo by Michael Toolan.

There are many benefits to bridging this generational divide, as the report states: “The older generation brings an in-depth knowledge and understanding of the local environment, forestry trends, and traditional practices while the younger generation has greater experience with technology, climate-based science, and marketing strategies. With more specialized skills, youth can help propel their community forward to a more successful future.”

Edgar Gonzalez Godoy, RA’s Director General in Mexico, started working with ejidos 15 years ago, when he was with Mexico’s National Forestry Commission. He says that the ejidos and communities of the Yucatán Peninsula have been particularly successful at preserving forests, noting that the three big Yucatán Peninsula states — Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Yucatán — have rates of deforestation well below the national average due, in part, to the new “climate-smart” models of production they’ve adopted, often under the guidance of younger community members who left the ejido to get an education and then returned to apply what they learned.

Mexico’s national deforestation rate is about 50,000 hectares a year, Godoy says, but only two or three percent of that occurs in the forests of the Yucatán Peninsula, which are part of the second-largest contiguous forest in the Americas after the Amazon.

The conservation success in the region is due to “all the history that ejidos and communities have on managing their landscapes, managing their forests,” Godoy explains. He also gives much of the credit to ejidos’ move away from conventional agricultural and ranching practices: “By implementing climate-smart production models on their landscapes, they are not letting the agricultural frontier to grow, but instead they are recovering forest coverage.”

That change has developed over the course of the past decade, Godoy says, as youth have become more involved in managing the natural resources of ejidos. But they were not always afforded the opportunity to participate in such a meaningful way: “Many years ago, ejidatarios were not very convinced [about] including youth and women into their ejidatarios assemblies.”

Add in the fact that many young, rural residents of the Yucatán Peninsula, like rural populations in many parts of the world, did not have sufficient access to higher education, and it’s easy to see why youth were often unable to see how they might contribute to their community’s future. But a number of programs administered by the Mexican government, NGOs like RA, and international sustainable development bodies like the World Bank’s Forest Investment Program have helped them get the education and skills-training they need.

“I think that, from different sides, there has been a lot of information and a lot of capacity-building for these youth,” Godoy says. “I think this is very important because we are giving youth the tools that they need to keep living in their communities.”

Godoy has seen this lead to a change in how the ejidatarios and elders view the young people in their communities: “As they are seeing that kids — and most of these young people are girls, women — as they are seeing that they have the capacity and they have the knowledge to make things different, they are trying to bring them up into the ejidatarios assemblies. And they are taking into account all the comments and observations that these young people are having on how to manage landscapes or the forest, or biodiversity.” For example, he adds, “Instead of hunting, they are having this new vision of making ecotourism.”

Diversifying markets

That’s not to say the generational divide has been fully bridged, of course. At Ejido Petcacab in Quintana Roo, a traditionally Mayan community, for instance, only elders speak Mayan. The younger kids have no interest in learning the language, ejido president Rogelio Balam Aifaro told Mongabay. But that hasn’t stopped the community from finding ways to provide economic opportunities to its younger members: Balam Aifaro estimates that 85 percent of Petcacab’s community members are employed in the ejido’s various enterprises, which include forestry and two sawmills.

Another challenge Balam Aifaro says Petcacab is working to overcome is gaining access to new markets for their products and thus increasing profits — which are re-invested in the community in the form of schools, roads, and hospitals. “Our projects don’t only impact the environment, they also have social impact,” he explains.

Petcacab’s 206 ejidatarios manage 41,000 hectares of the ejido’s 50,000 hectares of forest and turn harvested trees into timber at their two sawmills. The ejido maintains a forest management certification from the FSC, and is hoping to be granted Chain of Custody certification from FSC next year for their sawmill so they can expand their ability to sell their wood in international markets. Right now, the ejido sells to a middleman in the city of Chetumal who pays them less than they would make if they sold directly to end users — Balam Aifaro mentions that US-based Gibson Guitars was paying $4.50-per-foot for the same wood his ejido sells to the middleman for $2.50-per-foot.

Eventually, the ejidatarios of Petcacab want to start making furniture from their wood, as these kinds of “value-added” products are where the real money can be found. In fact, all of the ejidos Mongabay visited are looking to expand their revenue streams. Another community in Quintana Roo, Ejido Caoba, for example, has been FSC-certified for the past 25 years and already sells timber milled at its own sawmill directly to Gibson Guitars (the ejido sold the guitar-maker $173,000-worth of certified mahogany in 2016), so they are looking to expand into ecotourism (you can see a collection of camera trap videos from a wildlife preserve maintained by Ejido Caoba here).

Expanding economic opportunities and market access is exactly why the Alianza Selva Maya was formed. A partnership between five ejidos with Mayan constituencies — Ejido Bacalar, Ejido Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Ejido Noh-Bec, Ejido Petcacab, and Ejido X-Hazil — the Alianza has in turn partnered with the Institúto Tecnológico Zona Maya (ITZM), a technical forestry and agriculture college near the town of Bacalar in the state of Quintana Roo, to found a woodworking shop. Alfonso Arguelles, the head of the Alianza, an ejidatario from Ejido Noh-Bec, and the FSC representative for Mexico, personally recruited 27-year-old Yuriria Hernández Velasco to supervise the woodworking shop. Arguelles told Mongabay that the Alianza plans to open a showroom in Chetumal in order to sell the hardwood flooring, furniture, and other wooden goods made at the shop directly to consumers.

Here, as well, according to Arguelles, the new perspectives and experience of young people and women is proving invaluable in helping create the enterprises that will ensure the future of ejidos. His dream is that the Alianza will eventually help all of its member ejidos build the capacity to create value-added products right in their communities, and sell them through the Alianza’s showroom as well as in other domestic and international markets. The Alianza’s “industry,” Arguelles said, will be owned 51 percent by the ejidos, and 49 percent by youth and women.

Arguelles also says that youth and women will be essential to building this industry from the ground up. That’s got to be good news to the students of ITZM, many of whom come from or work on ejidos. It also means that there are likely to be a number of employment opportunities awaiting younger people like Carmelina Martinez, the student at the technical high school in Zoh Laguna, whenever they finish their studies.

That the younger generation is poised to avail themselves of these opportunities seems fairly certain, given the enthusiasm Mongabay witnessed. One of Martinez’s classmates, 18-year-old Espiridion Gomez Jimenez, is so enamored of his forest studies that he wrote and recorded a rap song called “Rap de Calakmul.”

You can listen to Jimenez’s rap on a recent episode of the Mongabay Newscast; here are the lyrics in Spanish and English:

Calakmul es una zona de mayor diversidad
flora y fauna y bellas ruinas que son de antigüedad
habitadas por personas increíbles que tenían capacidad
de crear arquitectura de mayor diversidad
Calakmul es el hogar de muchos animales
por montón y cantidad
que se encuentran alejadas de la gente
por causas sorprendentes como el gusto de matar
o el trafico ilegal y otros porque no tienen cerebro
que son peor que el animal

[Calakmul is an area of great diversity
Flora and fauna and beautiful ruins that are of antiquity
Inhabited by incredible people who had ability
To create architecture of great diversity
Calakmul is home to many animals
By lot and quantity
Who keep away from people
For surprising reasons such as the pleasure of killing
Or illegal traffic and others because they have no brain
They are worse than the animal]


• Cooper, L., & Huff, E. (2017). Sustainable Forests, Sustainable Communities: A Case Study of the Forest Investment Program in Mexico. Climate Investment Funds.

• Rainforest Alliance. (2017). A Reason to Stay: Combating Youth Outmigration in Rural Mexico’s Sustainable Forest Communities.

Featured image credit: Baby spider monkey spotted at Ejido Noh Bec’s protected forest area. Photo by Michael Toolan.

Editor’s note: Rainforest Alliance facilitated Mongabay’s trip to the Yucatán Peninsula, but had no editorial control over this reporting.

Follow Mike Gaworecki on Twitter: @mikeg2001

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