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‘Unless impunity is fought, we will not get anywhere’: Q&A with community forestry expert Lucía Madrid

  • Lucía Madrid works with communities in Mexico to implement and improve natural resource management programs.
  • Madrid says community-led forest management programs have the power to both reduce deforestation and promote rural development on communal land.
  • However, she says environmental law and enforcement must also be strengthened to effectively tackle the illegal deforestation plaguing the country.

Lucía Madrid spent her childhood in a land of trees and a time of flux. It was the 1980s in Mexico’s Sierra Norte de Oaxaca region, and communities were organizing to stop the government from giving away their land to logging companies. These efforts were successful, and Madrid witnessed the birth of what is now known as community forest management.

Madrid left Oaxaca, but the kernel of community organization stayed with her. She studied political science at the Monterrey Institute of Technology in Mexico City, then completed a master’s degree in environmental policy at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. For the past 15 years, she has worked with communities to strengthen their natural resource management programs both as a consultant and through NGOs such as the Mexican Civil Council for Sustainable Silviculture (CCMSS).

Through her work and travels, Madrid says she has learned the importance of effective community organization, especially when developing sustainability projects that allow people to both make a living from their forests as well as conserve them.

Mongabay spoke to Lucía Madrid about her thoughts on enabling proper forest management, boosting rural development and combatting deforestation.

Lucía Madrid works to promote integrated land management in communities in the municipality of Amanalco, Mexico. Image courtesy of CCMSS.

Mongabay: How did you, as a political scientist, decide to focus on community forest management?

Lucía Madrid: Having grown up in the countryside and been familiar with the community work carried out in Sierra Norte de Oaxaca, it was clear to me that I wanted to devote myself to rural development issues. I didn’t want to do it from the technical side; that’s why I didn’t study agronomy. Nor did I want to do it on the basis of sociology or anthropology. I wanted to be more on the side of community organization. I decided on political science in order to influence public policies and development programs.

How does community forest management help conserve forests?
Oil needs millions of years to renew itself, so we will never see how it is renewed. On the other hand, you can use a tree [and it can be replaced] in 30 years. That is the essence of how forest management can be sustainable. In forest management, an estimate is made of how much timber can be extracted from the forest without damaging it; a complete strategy is designed so that the extraction is carried out in an appropriate way … Even reforestation work is not necessary. Forests have regeneration in their DNA; you take out a few trees and new ones are born, as long as the harvest is sustainably done.

Is it possible to conserve biodiversity through forest management?
As long as you do not carry out illogical reforestation. Much of the criticism about forest management is actually criticism about reforestation. There are practices that promote the natural regeneration of the forest and allow for a variety of species without needing to reforest. What needs to be done is to promote and allow the natural regeneration of forests. That involves carrying out work to maintain adequate soil and water [conditions]. It is not necessary to reforest. That is difficult, because Mexico’s Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) always forces communities to reforest.

Community forest management in Corral de Piedra, municipality of Amanalco, Mexico. Image courtesy of CCMSS.

In your work, you’ve assessed and monitored programs that pay for environmental services. How has this mechanism developed in Mexico?

The first payments for environmental services were given at a national level in 2003. In 2002 there was already one in Coatepec [in Veracruz state], but it was local. Those first payments were exclusively [used as incentives for] not felling timber. At that time there was a technical advisory committee, in which many nongovernmental organizations participated. Then civil society began to point out that the scheme just created dependency on the part of the communities and achieved nothing in the long term; when it was over, people were going to continue to fell timber. As a country we should not imagine that we will stop deforestation through schemes like these. We have to build sustainable rural economies that sustain themselves, not on never-ending payments from the government.

That is why investment in better forest management practices should be encouraged. After many years of pressure, success was achieved in that payment was given for environmental services on land where forest management is carried out.

You have supported the work of forest communities in the municipality of Amanalco in the development of a more comprehensive payment scheme for environmental services. What was that process like?

That work was done by the Mexican Civil Council for Sustainable Silviculture (CCMSS). Amanalco was chosen because it is in the upper basin of Valle de Bravo, which provides a very significant proportion of the water for Mexico City through the Cutzamala system. It looked like a promising site for the payment of environmental services, because it provides hydrological service for the most populated area of the country. At that time, payment for environmental services was still quite new, but we believed that the approach should go beyond a simple payment for not touching the forest. We wanted to demonstrate that this mechanism could be used to bring about good forest management.

The challenge was to have a payment for environmental services that would enable better management of forests, that would go beyond wooded areas and strengthen community governance. So we started to set it up with the communities. In 2013 we were able to consolidate a payment for environmental services for the integrated management of the land. We partnered with the National Forestry Commission (CONAFOR) to implement the program, which is not based on the number of hectares, but on a plan in which the ejidos [areas of land used communally for agriculture] collectively improve the management of their land.

Has paying for environmental services stopped deforestation?

Several assessments have been done to determine this, which found that there is effectively no deforestation happening in places where payments were made for environmental services. However, that does not mean deforestation has declined in this country. For example, Hopelchén [in Campeche state] is one of the municipalities that has received most payments for environmental services. It is true that there is no deforestation in areas that registered for payments; but in the surrounding area, there is. Deforestation has not been stopped in the region.

The ejidatarios of Rincón de Guadalupe in the municipality of Amanalco, Mexico, have organized to carry out sustainable forest management in their area. Image courtesy of CCMSS.

What steps would have to be taken to achieve zero deforestation?

It is a combination of things that need to act in concert. But there is one aspect on which we must work hard, because it’s worse than ever: the rule of law should be strengthened. Deforestation is prohibited in this country. You cannot go and clear the forest unless you have a land use change authorization. However, forest in the middle of the country is being cleared to plant avocado. In the southeast, they are clearing the forest to sow sorghum, soy and citrus, and raise livestock. That is done illegally and nothing happens. The authorities do not have the capacity to tackle the problem. Every year around 250,000 hectares (618,000 acres) of forest are lost. Unless impunity is fought, we will not get anywhere.

What has worked to stop deforestation?

Several studies show that community forest management does help stop deforestation. That is why we have to facilitate and promote it. Communities that have made continuous use of the forest do not have deforestation.

Does Mexico have the potential to increase the amount of land that can be incorporated into forest management strategies in a stable and continuous way?

Where forest management can be done, there is still much progress to be made. Quintana Roo and Campeche are states that are well below their potential use. It should also be taken into account that not all forests in this country are commercially viable, especially as far as timber is concerned. In those places you have to develop other things, other options.

What are the keys to successful community forest management?
The first are organization and community governance. You have to invest a lot in that. For years, the Project Conservation and Sustainable Management of Forest Resources (PROCYMAF) promoted community organization and it was successful. But now we have to develop new programs; today there is no public investment for governance.

Governance consists of the procedures that a collective develops in order to come together, to reach agreements and enforce them. In the case of forest management, the ejidos – which each comprise between 50 and 2,000 people – have to agree how to use a single collective holding of land because they are the joint owners of that land. If they fail to have effective procedures to reach agreements, forest management does not work.

Strengthening governance in communities is one of the keys to sustainable forest management, according to Lucía Madrid. Image courtesy of CCMSS.

What makes for good governance in a forest community?

Some have managed to achieve great cohesion because of the collective struggles they have been through. For example, in the northern highlands of Oaxaca, having worked together to revoke the concession from the logging company contributed to their sense of identity. In many of these communities there was already a tradition of organization, especially in indigenous communities. In other places what we have seen is that forest management provides a reason to organize.

What should Mexico do to improve forest management?

You have to have better forestry law. The 2018 legislation contains very interesting things, but the procedural side of it was very bad. It is necessary to improve that. In addition, current officials in Mexico’s Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) need to better understand community forest management.

What would Mexico gain by committing to forest management?

It would reduce one of the most serious problems we have: deforestation. In these forest management schemes, progress is being made in raising awareness about care of the forest, about biodiversity and about high conservation value areas. They are sites that generate environmental services.

In addition, rural development would be promoted, because not only does one person or company benefit, the thousands of forest ejido members also benefit. It is a little engine that pulls other things: the ejidos that use forest management invest in having better streets, schools, health and pensions. Community forest management enables the development of prosperous and autonomous rural economies, which do not depend on financial handouts from the government.

Banner image of community organization in San Jerónimo, Amanalco municipality, Mexico, courtesy of CCMSS.

This article was first published by Mongabay Latam. Edits by Morgan Erickson-Davis.