Communities cutting down trees can help confront climate change

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By David Barton Bray

To stop deforestation, mitigate climate change and help poor rural communities all at the same time, it’s time to examine a little-known experience in Mexico. Planting trees and protecting forests is a popular strategy for confronting climate change, and one such initiative emerged from the recent global Climate Summit. President Biden’s senior climate change envoy John Kerry announced the creation of Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest finance, or the LEAF coalition. The effort would join government and private sector resources to make intact and restored forests more economically valuable than clearing the land for timber and agriculture. Similarly, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador proposed an expansion to Central America of his signature tree planting program, called Sembrando Vida (Sowing Life), which he says has planted 700,000 trees. But what if logging — the actual cutting down of trees — could also stop deforestation and regenerate forests while also conserving biodiversity and generating incomes for poor rural communities? It’s working in Mexico, where little-known community forest enterprises (CFEs) are a proven strategy and a global model for accomplishing all these goals.

As a result of the Mexican Revolution, ownership of the majority of Mexico’s forests were transferred to communities, with successive degrees of control, from the 1920s to the 1990s. Nearly 60 percent of Mexican forests are directly owned by communities, a scale and current maturity unparalleled anywhere else in the world. Nearly 17 million acres of Mexican forests in some 1,600 communities are logged under formal government-approved management by the CFEs. A study of 733 municipalities in eight states found those with higher percentages of commonly owned forest and higher percentages of common forest under management plans reduced deforestation and increased forest recovery. Much of the forests in the CFE communities, in addition to being logged, are also under varying forms of conservation. Twenty-three CFE communities in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca, with a total area of over 500,000 acres, have zoned 36 percent of total territory for conservation, 37 percent for timber, 5 percent for restoration and 22 percent for agriculture and other uses, with 78 percent of the territory forested for both conservation and production. Over a 20-year period, this thickly forested landscape has produced 3 million metric tons of timber and carbon stored in furniture and construction materials, the so-called “long-lived forest products pool.” In this way, sustainably managed forests actually capture more carbon than strictly conserved forests.

Mexican researcher Juan Manuel Torres-Rojo and colleagues have also recently demonstrated government support to community forestry has reduced poverty. There are many hundreds of cases of successful sustainable forest management by communities in Mexico, although their single largest challenge is the impacts of organized crime, which range from having to pay protection money to CFEs actually being taken over by criminal elements.

Nonetheless, the majority of them are models of how to respond to the emerging climate stressors driving widespread concern over the possibility of catastrophic forest loss. In the Amazon basin, interactions between deforestation, fire and climate-driven drought could lead to a “tipping point” of rapid degradation of the Amazon forest. There is solid evidence that Mexican CFEs can increase resilience against these tipping points.

The proposals to protect forests and plant trees all seem to depend on large-scale external funding, and it is not clear who is going to protect the forests long-term, given the weakness of most developing country conservation and forest agencies, and the vagaries of international financing pledges. But the Mexican CFEs are self-sustaining profitable businesses no longer dependent on government subsidies. They are a market-oriented response that stops deforestation by mobilizing community collection action around management of valuable forest resources. However, it does require the political will to devolve forests and management authority to local communities, something that many governments have not been willing to do.

Mexican CFEs are a good news story from rural Mexico. Over decades, the Mexican Revolution gave ownership of valuable forests to local communities.  Mexican public policy supported these emerging CFEs through subsidies for equipment and training in logging and enterprise administration. Public policy opened spaces that were complemented by entrepreneurial vigor on the part of forest communities, providing the model for an effective community-based strategy to manage and protect forests. Current proposals need to study the Mexican model of community forest management instead of pouring billions of dollars into strategies that have failed in the past.

David Barton Bray is a professor in the Department of Earth and Environment at Florida International University and author of Mexico’s Community Forest Enterprises: Success on the Commons and the Seeds of a Good Anthropocene.