- Leticia Merino began studying community forestry 30 years ago, a management approach developed in Mexico that involves communities organizing to conserve their forests and at the same time generating income from it.
- The best way to conserve and regenerate these ecosystems is not reforestation, says Merino, now a renowned anthropologist.
- Community forest management has been proven to be an effective and non-exclusionary method of maintaining biodiversity, she says.
- Merino spoke with Mongabay Latam about her life and her award-winning work in the field of community forestry.
Leticia Merino graduated from college with a degree in social psychology. But her plans to continue her studies in that field were thrown into doubt after she encountered a community in Mexico’s Michoacán state fighting to keep its land. Merino returned to the city and studied the dynamics of auto unions; but she wasn’t hooked. She went to India to study, and that’s when environmental issues began to crop up among her academic interests. She returned to Mexico and, in the state of Quintana Roo, learned how Mayan communities ground their traditions in land management. It was here that she finally found the field of study that captivated her.
Today, Merino has worked for more than three decades with forest communities, in particular those living in Quintana Roo and in the Sierra Juárez mountains in the state of Oaxaca. She says that if we want the tools to confront the environmental crisis, we need to learn more about “the commons” and how these communities organize to sustainably manage their forests.
Merino is the founder of the Mexican Civil Council for Sustainable Forestry (CCMSS by its Spanish acronym), an organization that in 2013 won second place in the Land for Life Award by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. She is also the coordinator of the University Seminar on Society, Environment and Institutions at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Merino spoke with Mongabay Latam about the enormous challenges for forest conservation in Mexico and the environmental crisis we face today. The interview was conducted in Spanish and has been translated and edited for length and clarity.
Mongabay: What is your outlook for Mexico with regard to the environment?
Leticia Merino: It is a very threatening situation. Our legal framework is one of the worst in the world. Ecosystem degradation is horrifying, it goes very deep and is much accelerated. We are experiencing an environmental emergency that has also turned into a public health problem. Mexico is broken on many fronts, but I think that the matter of the environment is trivialized. One of my colleagues said, and I agree, that we are the last generation that can change things and we have 10 years to do it.
Ten years? What can we do so that, facing this prospect, despair does not win?
Recently, at a forum I attended, the rector of the University of the Andes said: “At this moment in humanity, what’s revolutionary is to try to be optimistic.” I believe that hope is found in social action and self-management projects. As a generation we have to be tireless. We have to build hope and mobilize ourselves.
And a tool against despair would be to give more weight to concepts like the “commons”?
Within this topic are a series of virtuous experiences in Mexico. Across the globe — Indonesia, India, and also in Europe — there is a whole revindication of the natural and cultural commons. For example, there is an entire movement to defend and create new cultural commons, like free software. This is a response to the privatization of knowledge, which is very exclusionary.
And regarding the natural commons, we must strengthen and highlight experiences like those of community forest management. We have to show how valuable they are. They have an important impact on conservation, but they also contribute economically to their region. Well-managed community forests are an opportunity for carbon capture, providing environmental services, climate change mitigation, and reducing deforestation.
Promoting community forest management
Mexico is considered a pioneer in community forest management. What conditions gave rise to this?
First, land tenure. Mexico recognizes collective land ownership, which is the result of the Mexican Revolution and agrarian reform that provided lands to communities and ejidos [communally owned land for agriculture and forestry]. Ejidos and communal lands contained 75% of forested lands. Nevertheless, the right to use these forested lands was taken from their owners; concessions were granted to companies so that they would be the ones to take advantage of the wood. There was strong resistance against forest concessions, above all in Oaxaca and Durango.
Last year, in the Sierra Juárez in Oaxaca, they celebrated 35 years of having regained control of their forest resources. After regaining control, they started to work on community forest management, with advice from forestry experts, academics and nongovernmental organizations. At the start of the 1990s, there was the Conservation and Sustainable Management of Forest Resources Program (PROCYMAF), with resources from the World Bank, which allowed for the training of communities, the formation of regional committees, generating support networks, and strengthening community assemblies. But this program was ended during the presidency of Felipe Calderón [from 2006 to 2012]. It has not been revived. Well, only briefly during the last presidential term.
Although recent administrations did not support it, community forest management has proven to be a way to conserve biodiversity and forests. And it is not an exclusionary type of conservation. If biodiversity conservation ignores the social aspects, it generates marginalization and conflict.
See related: ‘Unless impunity is fought, we will not get anywhere’: Q&A with community forestry expert Lucía Madrid
In today’s context, what are communities that sustainably manage their forests confronting?
Many communities are facing the issue of mining concessions. They are not consulted and only learn that there is a concession on their land when the exploration work is already beginning. Mining concessions include 33% of forested, mountainous areas in Mexico. Given this, we want to influence and be a part of the process of changing mining laws in Mexico. We already have a book showing evidence that the current laws are atrocious. For example, neither the violation of human rights nor extreme environmental degradation are sufficient reasons to withdraw a mining concession. Mining is supported by many subsidies and very lax regulations. Meanwhile, the communities managing the forests face excessive regulation; the studies asked from them go unused; they face unfavorable laws, and many requirements. For example, they are asked for absurd levels of reforestation that make no sense.
A while ago I put out a book called Encuentros y desencuentros: Análisis de los subsidios forestales (Encounters and Disagreements: An Analysis of Forest Subsidies) and there I show that reforestation has always been subsidized. Right now, we see it with this government. The problem is that reforestation is done from the simplistic idea that it’s all degraded, so they go and plant trees, when things are much more complex. The point is not to reforest for the sake for reforesting, it’s to restore (ecological) productivity, sustainable production. It has been shown that the forests that are most maintained are those where the communities earn income by managing them.
Communities that manage forests are also required to pay taxes as if they were any other company, without taking into account that they contribute by repairing roads and constructing schools and other services. The tax regulations don’t take into account the social character or the ecological benefit of these communities. There is a blind spot when it comes to community forest management. The challenges are many and a visionary policy is needed that views community forest management as a huge potential for the country.
Does reforestation ever work?
It is important to reforest areas that do need it, but it must be done with native seeds and trees. In ecological terms, when possible, promoting natural regeneration is much more viable than reforestation. Promoting natural regeneration also means maintaining seed banks through mature trees. Community forest management systems replicate, in a way, the forest dynamics of growth and death at different stages, and from this they obtain wood. It’s sustainable management endorsed by experts in forestry and biology.
Where there are no more trees and there is no other land use, like in agriculture, there can be reforestation. However, it needs to be mixed plantings and near natural forests, and have productive purposes. Where there is forest, reforestation is not necessary. Reforestation, as Elinor Ostrom would say, is a panacea of the urbanites who do not understand natural systems.
Editor’s note: Ostrom was a winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics, with whom Merino collaborated.
What needs to be done to promote community forest management?
The current government faces a challenge. The current secretary of the environment has declared that he admires the experience of community forest management, but doesn’t have the budget. There is much to do. To start, there must be staunch political support for community forest management. After 25 years of free trade and devaluations, there are sectors that must be protected, and forestry is one of them. Why protect mining? Our dream is for the law to consider community forest management an activity in the public interest in Mexico.
Research for change
In addition to research, a good part of your work has been advising forestry communities and promoting policy and legislative changes in environmental matters. Why did you decide to go beyond academia?
Elinor Ostrom insisted that research must have utility. She put forward that our research had to influence public policy. I inherited this from her. Governments must consider our research in their decision-making. Matters like water quality or watersheds. Or from the social sciences, for example, they could consider the work on rights, incentives, or conflicts.
But the exact opposite happens. We see various governments ignoring scientific work on topics like climate change, deforestation, and many others. They even disdain it.
This is a difficult time. Sometimes scientists are very naïve and we think that having evidence is enough, that the decision-makers or politicians will accept our recommendations or are going to implement them. If politics is the exercise of power, then it is not just a matter of providing knowledge, it is also a matter of disseminating the knowledge we generate in society.
We, in academia, together with society and organizations have to pressure the government to create other laws, to change the way decisions are made and address the problems that are going unaddressed. Without social mobilization there is no sustainability. We can have all the scientific evidence, and that is very important, but it is only a part of the process of change. As academics, as scientists, we must have the humility to learn and work with other sectors. Influencing public policies, laws and programs is much more complex than generating knowledge.
What do you think of the environmental projects of the current government?
I don’t think they have made the environment a priority. The problems have not been laid out, nor is there a diagnosis. Víctor Toledo, the current secretary of the environment and natural resources, has one, but he doesn’t have the budget.
Teachings of a Nobel Prize winner
How was your work influenced by the thinking of Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012), who was recognized for her study of the commons and who won the Nobel Prize in 2009, and with whom you collaborated?
When I did my doctorate I used her book, Governing the Commons, as an analytical framework. A while later, I met her and she invited me to do post-doctoral research with her. It was a great experience because Elinor understood very well the topic of governance and the factors involved for people to cooperate, organize, and relate to the state. I met her about six or seven years after she published her very famous book in which she analyzes 90 cases of the commons in various places across the world, like Indonesia, India, Spain and Turkey. I took classes with her, and learning how she thought helped me to organize many of the intuitions I had during my field work.
What were those intuitions, and what approaches did Ostrom observe in Mexico?
Putting collective rights above individual rights is what allows the protection of resources held in common like a forest or a watershed; these are shared goods that require coordination and cooperation to be managed with a long-term perspective. To sustain cooperation it is necessary to generate “social capital” or trust. The conditions or norms for generating this trust are established through social participation. Only this way can they be recognized, accepted, and legitimate. The trust is not at a personal level, it is at the group level. It is a commitment to the common good. In addition, there must be spaces for conflict resolution. I have seen all of this in communities. I have also seen what happens when some part of this was missing.
We hear increasingly about the commons and collective rights, particularly when speaking of indigenous communities.
But it goes beyond indigenous peoples. It is human circumstance. It’s just that indigenous communities have interacted and generated culture, rights and heritage from the commons for a long time.
What is the greatest lesson community forest management has given you?
Two things: the value of cooperation and the possibilities of dreaming. Dreaming of utopias, of the things you like. They become projects, and after that they become possible.
See related: In Mexico, community forestry boosts conservation, jobs, and social benefits
Banner image of a forest in the Sierra Tarahumara, courtesy of Thelma Gómez Durán.
• Merino Pérez, L. (2014). Perspectivas sobre la gobernanza de los bienes y la ciudadanía en la obra de Elinor Ostrom. Revista mexicana de sociología, 76(SPE), 77-104.
• Bray, D. B., & Merino-Pérez, L. (2004). La experiencia de las comunidades forestales en México: veinticinco años de silvicultura y constucción de empresas forestales comunitarias. Instituto Nacional de Ecología.
• Merino Pérez, L., & Hernández Apolinar, M. (2004). Destrucción de instituciones comunitarias y deterioro de los bosques en la Reserva de la Biosfera Mariposa Monarca, Michoacán, México. Revista mexicana de sociología, 66(2), 261-309.
This article was first published by Mongabay Latam on November 20, 2019.