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Planting deforestation: The forests that Mexico loses to agribusiness

  • Every year in Mexico, at least 47,770 hectares (118,042 acres) of forests and jungles are cleared to establish agricultural fields. This forest cover is equivalent to the total area occupied by Cozumel, one of the largest islands in Mexico.
  • Territories previously inhabited by biodiverse forests are now dominated by monocultures such as avocado, soybean, sugar cane and palm oil.
  • Land clearing by agribusiness has progressed unimpeded for decades in various regions of the country. The engines that encourage it are, among others, government subsidies, a growing market, ignored environmental laws and, primarily, disdain for forested territories.

Satellite images give us a dimension of forest cover loss. From one year to the next, and sometimes in just a few weeks, a forest can be wiped off the map. The trees that gave identity to a hillside, a plain or the banks of a river cease to exist; they become a memory. In these images, the clearing has gray shades.

The same images allow us to see the gradual change of those lands that were previously forested. Many are transformed into homogeneous agricultural fields in which only one monoculture grows.

In Mexico, every year, 47,770 hectares (118,042 acres) of forest cover are turned into agricultural land, according to data from the National Forest Monitoring System. These lost forests and jungles are equivalent to almost the same area as Cozumel, one of the largest islands in the country.

According to the National Forest Monitoring System, the abrupt change from forestland to agricultural land is the second cause of deforestation in Mexico, after cattle ranching.

Between 2001 and 2019, the expansion of agriculture led to the country being left without at least 889,188 ha (2.2 million acres) of forest cover, representing flora and fauna habitats and ecosystem services. That surface is equivalent to 18 times the island of Cozumel.

Cleared area in southern Jalisco to install avocado orchards.

This journalistic investigation, which we have titled Planting Deforestation, takes a tour of regions where the country loses forests and jungles due to agribusiness. For this work, we review the official statistics of the Agro-Food and Fisheries Information System (SIAP) to identify municipalities with an increase in the production of the monocultures addressed here: avocado, soybean, sugar cane and palm oil.

We also use data on tree cover loss in those municipalities. This information was obtained thanks to an analysis by Global Forest Watch and the World Resources Institute (WRI-Mexico), which they shared for this research. In addition, we used Google Earth, Google Earth Engine, and Planet platforms to obtain satellite images of the sites where evidence of the illegal transformation of forestland into agricultural land was found.

These are some of the findings developed in each of the four texts that make up this collaborative journalistic work in which journalists from Mongabay Latam, Animal Político and La-Lista participated.

Hopelchén, Campeche
In several regions of the country, forestlands are burned down to transform them into agricultural fields. Image by Robin Canul.

More production, fewer forests

There are regions where this forest loss is more evident, territories where mechanized agriculture has left its mark and areas where a monoculture predominates or begins to gain strength.

Hopelchén, in the state of Campeche, is an example. This municipality in the country’s southeast is today the leading producer of soybeans in Mexico. It is also considered a critical zone when it comes to forest loss.

In the last 20 years, the municipality of Hopelchén lost 153,809 ha (380,070 acres) of tree cover, according to the analysis carried out by GFW and WRI-Mexico.

“What worries me the most is that if this continues like this, at the rate at which it is going, in 20 years from now, there will be no forest here on the peninsula,” says a beekeeper who was born in one of the Maya communities of Hopelchén and has suffered changes in his environment.

Hopelchén Campeche
Monocultures in Hopelchén, Campeche. Image by Robin Canul.

Before Hopelchén experienced the transformation of its territory, in other places it was already possible to observe the results left by decades of government policies that have prioritized agriculture and livestock over jungles and forests.

For example, in Othón P. Blanco, south of Quintana Roo, for 40 years, sugar cane fields have spread over what used to be a jungle. Deforestation has not stopped in this municipality on the border with Belize; it advances inside and outside the sugar cane area. Today the region is within the maps of critical points of the National Forestry Commission (CONAFOR).

The municipality of Bacalar did not appear in the official agricultural statistics. It was in 2013 when it began to report the planting of thousands of hectares with corn and soybeans. In this territory, the history already experienced in Hopelchén is repeated: The ejidal (common) lands are rented or sold to Mennonites, who install large agricultural fields.

Cleared area in the municipality of Bacalar, in Quintana Roo. Image taken from Google Earth.

Also, in the south of the country, in states such as Chiapas and Campeche, the federal and state governments vigorously promoted oil palm planting for several years. Today, these two entities occupy the first places as palm oil producers used in the processed food industry.

The enthusiasm for this monoculture led to the advance of the plantations in acahuales (vegetation covering fields after mowing or harvesting, wetlands), where the jungle or the forest seeks to recover. Oil palms, native to Africa, were planted within protected natural areas, including the La Encrucijada Biosphere Reserve.

Cartographic analyses carried out by the authors of a 2021 study on oil palms in Mexico show that between 2014 and 2019, at least 5,400 ha (13,343 acres) of forests and jungles were lost due to oil palm expansion in Chiapas, Campeche, Tabasco and Veracruz.

Palmas de aceite México
Fruits of oil palms planted in Chiapas. Image by Isabel Mateos.

In the state of Jalisco, every 75 seconds, a tree is felled illegally in the state’s mountains, and avocado trees take its place. Since 2019, at least 5,160 ha (12,750 acres) ceased to be forests to become avocado orchards. This was determined by a study by the state’s environmental authorities.

The satellite images allow us to see that in the south of Jalisco, the pine-oak forests, the mountain cloud forest and the medium and low-lying jungles are running out of space due to the advance of the avocado orchards.

In Jalisco, they are already living what they have been suffering for a long time in the neighboring state of Michoacán: the fever to plant avocados is accompanied by the territorial control of groups that present themselves as part of the drug trafficking cartels.

Clearings in the southern zone of Jalisco to plant avocados. Image by Abraham Perez.

“They are destroying everything. They have bought, by hook or crook, the wood and the ranches. They set the price, and if you don’t want to sell it (the ranch, the land), they take it anyway. Then, they arrive with the avocados. … It is a business that they completely control.”

Avocados harvested in places where the use of forestland was changed illegally could not, in theory, be exported to the United States, the primary market for these Mexican fruits. The rules of the Free Trade Agreement between Mexico, the United States and Canada (T-MEC) establish that a product that has violated the laws of the producing country cannot be exported.

Fulfilling this requirement presents Mexico with an issue that has been discussed for a long time in other nations: creating efficient certifications that make it possible to guarantee that a grain, fruit or oil does not come from deforested areas.

In Jalisco, there are conversations around the certification of avocados free of deforestation. Image by Abraham Perez.

The impunity that pays for deforestation

In Mexico, it is prohibited to cut down or clear land with forest cover, including acahuales. The only legal way to do so is with authorization to change the use of processed forestland before the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT).

Requirements that must be met to request this authorization include demonstrating that you are the legal owner of the land, presenting a supporting technical study — which assesses the environmental impacts that the removal of forest cover will cause — and, if SEMARNAT issues a favorable resolution, paying the amount established as compensation to the Mexican Forest Fund.

The General Law for Sustainable Forest Development establishes that a change in the use of forestland cannot be authorized on land “where the loss of forest cover was caused by a fire, felling or clearing without 20 years having elapsed and that it be accredited to the secretariat that the affected forest vegetation has regenerated.”

Cleared forestland in Laguna Om, Othón P. Blanco, Quintana Roo, in 2009. Image taken from Google Earth.

From 2015 to February 2022, the central offices and the state delegations of Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, Michoacán, Jalisco and Chiapas from SEMARNAT, received 1,218 requests for changes in the use of forestland, according to responses to requests for information made for this journalistic investigation.

The information provided by SEMARNAT does not allow for determining the reason for requesting a change in the use of forestland in 263 cases. Of the remaining 955, only five requested authorizations to transform forestland into agricultural land. The five applications were for properties located in Campeche. None were authorized; three were denied and two were rejected.

These data show that, in Campeche, all the clearing of forestland that has been recorded to transform those places into agricultural fields has occurred illegally for at least the last seven years.

Hopelchén, Campeche
Agricultural lands that previously harbored jungle. Hopelchén, Campeche. Image by Robin Canul.

Between 2015 and February 2022, the Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA), the agency in charge of monitoring compliance with environmental legislation, carried out 5,551 administrative procedures throughout the country for alleged illegal changes in the use of forestland.

The information that PROFEPA provided for transparency does not show how many of these 5,551 procedures are exclusive of changes from forestland to agricultural land since that number also includes cases where forest cover was removed to build on those lands or carry out other activities, such as land exploitation.

In that same period, throughout the country, PROFEPA executed only 1,915 sanctions (fines) for illegal changes of forestland. In 2,168 procedures, it was determined not to impose any sanction because an agreement was reached, and in 1,468 cases, no public information is available that indicates what happened.

For its part, the Specialized Unit for the Investigation of Crimes against the Environment included in the Special Laws of the Office of the Attorney General of the Republic, has opened 112 investigation folders for crimes of land use change throughout the country from 2015 to February 2022, according to a response to a request for information.

In 12, incompetence was declared; in four, it was determined that criminal activity was not exercised, one was added to an existing file and 95 are still pending.

Quintana Roo is the state with the most investigation files open for the crime of land use change (42). In all the others, there are at least 15.

In the other states where monocultures have advanced enormously in recent years, only a few investigation folders are open for the crime of land use change. In Michoacán, there are eleven; in Campeche, six; in Jalisco, nine; and in Chiapas, three.

Wooded area of the Meseta Purépecha affected by a fire. Image by Abraham Pérez.

And while the forests and jungles lose ground due to the advance of monocultures, PROFEPA receives an even smaller budget. In the last three years, it has been at most 800 million pesos, about $46 million.

In addition, the unit has only 303 inspectors to carry out surveillance work in the area of natural resources.

The number of inspectors pales in comparison with these data: Mexico has more than 138 million ha (341 million acres) of forest ecosystems, according to CONAFOR.

“The neglect of complaints is due, among other things, to the massive cuts that the environmental sector has had since Felipe Calderón, Enrique Peña Nieto and now Andrés Manuel López Obrador. … In addition, the law is not applied,” says David Linares, a lawyer with more than 10 years of experience in environmental issues. “In Mexico the value of nature is not taken care of.”

Trees surrounded by the sugar cane monoculture. Image by Robin Canul.

The disdain for forests and jungles

The data also show that Mexico is a forested country: Around 70.6% of its territory is covered by vegetation, according to the National Forest Monitoring System. That represents just a little more than 138 million ha where temperate forests, jungles, mangroves, scrublands and other forest ecosystems are displayed.

In Mexico, moreover, around 12 million people live in forested regions. Therefore, it is no coincidence that this country pioneered community forest management. This sustainable use model of forests and jungles began to be built a little more than 40 years ago.

In different regions of the country, community forest management has proven to be a way to conserve forest resources and simultaneously have labor and economic alternatives for those who live in territories surrounded by forests.

Even so, community forest management has yet to capture the same government support allocated to programs promoting mechanized agriculture and monoculture planting.

Soybean fields, and in the background, the Campeche jungle. Image by Robin Canul.

Researcher Edward Ellis, from the Center for Tropical Research at the University of Veracruz, who has studied the effects of forest and jungle loss in Mexico, especially in the Yucatan Peninsula, has documented how those regions where forest management is carried out in community forests and wilderness are kept in better condition.

In his latest research, he has also found that forests surrounded by extensively cultivated areas, where mechanized agriculture is carried out, suffer a process of degradation: “They lose their biodiversity, their biomass, their carbon retention capacity.” He explains that it is as if those forests and jungles were sick.

Ellis also gives two pieces of information worth remembering: It takes 40 years for a forest or jungle to recover its biomass, “but to recover its mature ecological state, it can take up to 70 years.”

When a forest or jungle is cleared, when they are left as bare land, biodiversity is lost and many species of flora and fauna are left without a habitat. The possibility of recovering soil is lost, and you destroy an area that helps regulate the climate and provides oxygen, which is vital for the water cycle. It is, ultimately, a way to compromise the future of a region.

Banner image: Forest area cleared to install an avocado orchard south of Jalisco. Satellite image taken from Google Earth.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on Aug. 31, 2022.

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