- In June 2018, a law was approved that, despite having some success such as boosting community forest management, also had serious omissions, while paving the way for land use change in forested areas around cities.
- Comprised of various stakeholders, the National Forestry Council has presented an initiative to reform this legislation.
- Mexican legislators will consider these changes in the coming months.
Mexico’s General Law on Sustainable Forest Development is once again in the spotlight. Despite being a recent law, approved on June 5, 2018, and applauded at the time for its promotion of community forest management, it now requires significant amendments to fix omissions and deficiencies. To that end, the National Forestry Council (CONAF) has presented an initiative to reform the law that considers 80 changes.
This initiative to reform the General Law on Sustainable Forest Development, which has already been submitted to the congressional commission overseeing environmental affairs, is the result of several months of work and a dozen workshops and forums, in which forest communities, nongovernmental organizations, industry representatives and CONAF authorities participated.
Since the publication of this law, several contradictions were identified regarding the competencies of the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) and the National Forestry Commission (CONAFOR).
According to Salvador Anta Fonseca, a member of the Mexican Civil Council for Sustainable Forestry (CCMSS) and a specialist in forestry issues and consultant for Política y Legislación Ambiental (POLEA), concepts such as acahual — vegetation that grows on agricultural land that is being rested — were not included; forestry information systems lacked clarity; and the issue of authorizations for changes in land use in areas around cities was ambiguous.
Since the beginning of 2019, nongovernmental organizations such as POLEA, the CCMSS, indigenous groups and forest communities throughout the country began to push the proposal to reform the law, which is an initiative that was embraced by CONAF, a legally recognized citizen advisory body.
After months of work, a dozen workshops and forums (which were attended by more than 500 people) and the analysis of 400 proposals, CONAF prepared the initiative to reform the General Law on Sustainable Forest Development, which has the consensus of various actors in the forestry sector.
CONAF’s proposal would amend 64 articles, add 14 new articles, and repeal two articles, according to David Cabrera Hermosillo, general legal coordinator of CONAFOR, an agency that supported CONAF with this process.
Why so many changes?
The General Law on Sustainable Forest Development has been controversial since its inception. When legislators presented the first proposal they received a negative response, as the legislation was considered regressive and did not include community forest management, among other things.
Following mobilization of nongovernmental organizations, communities and other forestry-related actors, the first bill was stopped, according to Fonseca.
In the end, the legislators approved a law that ended up being “a type of Frankenstein,” Fonseca says, due to its inclusion of necessary issues like community forest management promotion, removal of fundamental concepts such as the definition of acahual, along with flaws in its wording that have created confusion, led to duplicated actions of agencies, and left forest areas around cities in a vulnerable situation.
For CONAFOR’s Cabrera, some of the positive aspects of the law are that it facilitates the prevention of agricultural frontier advances, has improved the definition of environmental services, and includes the issue of indigenous rights. He says he agrees with Fonseca that several of the issues with the current law lie in how it was drafted, which has led to the unclear responsibilities and activities of CONAFOR and SEMARNAT.
This has caused delays in several procedures, one of which is the delivery of guides for verifying the legality of wood to those involved in forest management.
CONAF’s reform initiative proposes amendments to 20 articles, which aim to clarify the responsibilities of agencies that are involved in the forestry sector.
Another proposal aims to strengthen the inspection and surveillance functions of the federal prosecutor for environmental protection (PROFEPA) to tackle issues such as illegal logging. This is a priority issue for the entire country, but especially in areas where both authorities and nongovernmental organizations have reported that illegal logging is on the rise.
In states such as Michoacán and Jalisco, for example, it has been determined that illegal logging often occurs alongside avocado planting, while in the southeast of the country in states such as Campeche, it is linked to the advance of the agricultural frontier and illegal trafficking of precious timber.
The proposed reforms also include the reinsertion of 20 concepts that were abandoned in the 2018 legislation, such as the definition of acahual. For those behind the reform, this concept is key, as it would allow for adequate regulation to promote sustainable forest management of vegetation that grows on agricultural land that has been rested.
According to a CCMSS bulletin, this “will facilitate their legal and orderly management, promoting restoration and sustainable use. It will also prevent forests from being fractionated or deforested due to an inadequate definition of acahual.”
For experts and institutions involved in this initiative, something as simple as including an adequate definition of acahual could have a significant impact on the communities of Campeche and Quintana Roo that wish to make use of these forested lands and plant commercial species, Fonseca says.
Protecting forested lands around cities
For those driving the reform initiative, the current legislation makes land use change possible in forest areas around cities.
Fonseca says the problem is ambiguity in the law about which authority is responsible for granting permits for land use change in these forests. This responsibility, according to him, should belong to SEMARNAT. However, the current wording of the law means that this task can also fall to state or municipal authorities.
The lack of clarity makes forested lands around cities even more vulnerable, especially when there is a great deal of interest from real estate companies in these areas. The reforms to the law therefore include proposals to clarify this ambiguity.
The reforms also aim to improve the definition of the current law’s use of the general term “forest land,” as there are in fact different classifications at the international level, says David Cabrera.
As Cabrera notes, “[M]aking this distinction between the different classifications will allow for more adequate inventories and a better understanding of the country’s natural resources.”
For its part, the CCMSS says it believes having a better definition of forest land “requires anyone seeking to remove forest vegetation or change land use in any ecosystem to submit a land use change request.” This would also provide more tools to help protect forest land around cities.
Another point to be incorporated is how to mitigate carbon emissions when making changes in use on forested land. This would require authorities to consider the issue of climate change in the assessments to authorize land use change requests for the first time.
A further proposal of CONAF’s initiative is the definition and delimitation of the functions of the National Forestry Management System, which would facilitate the orderly management of all permit and authorization procedures for the sector.
This package of reforms is not the only one that has been presented. In fact, nine other initiatives have been created by various actors that seek to bring about significant changes in the current General Forestry Law on Sustainable Forest Development.
In the coming months, both houses of congress will discuss and potentially approve reforms to this law, though a proposal for a new regulation to implement the legislation is still pending.
Banner image of acahual, vegetation that grows on fallow land, in the shared lands of Nuevo Becal, in Mexico’s Quintana Roo state. Image courtesy of the Mexican Civil Council for Sustainable Forestry (CCMSS).