Mexico is well known for its hot food, fiery alcohol, and romantic music. Few people realize it is also a world leader in community forestry. Local villages and indigenous communities own well over half the country’s forest and somewhere between 300 and 500 communities legally harvest their own timber. No other country comes close.
The communities have officially owned most of their forests since the 1930s. But for years the government allowed private companies to log the communities’ forests without their permission. All the communities got was a small fee. That began to change in the 1970s. Nowadays no one can log a village’s forest unless it agrees.
"Mexico’s Community – Managed Forests as a Global Model for Sustainable Landscapes" by D. Bray, L. Merino, P. Negreros, G. Segura, J.M. Torres, and H. Vester describes the Mexican experience. It appeared in Conservation Biology and looks at both the temperate pine and oak forests of northern and central Mexico and the tropical forests of the southeast.
Most Mexican communities do not exploit their forests commercially. In some cases that is because the forests lack commercial value. In other cases the communities have had difficulties preparing forest management plans or simply are not interested.
Among villages that do have commercial timber production the majority still lease their forests to private logging companies. However, a growing number harvest their own timber and a handful of them compete successfully in the international markets for sawnwood, furniture, and moldings. That has allowed them to create new jobs, reinvest part of their profits, and build schools, clinics, and potable water systems.
There are also encouraging signs on the environmental front. Some 25 communities, which collectively own more than half a million hectares of forest, have gotten their forests certified within the framework of the Forest Stewardship Council. Back in the 1980s, 64 communities in Quintana Roo committed themselves to maintain an area of a similar size permanently as forest, and so far they have managed to do so. Many communities harvest fewer trees than their management plans allow them to and others have decided to leave part of their forest permanently untouched. Unsustainable logging and clearing forest for agriculture are still major problems; but there has been progress.
The Mexican example demonstrates that to promote community forestry successfully takes time and effort. Just as important, it shows it can be done. We can learn a lot from their example.
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