Mexico is home to vast biological and cultural diversity, alongside a robust legal framework and body of research on biological conservation. Yet, the country has lost a quarter of its primary forests in the past 25 years, and half of its territory shows signs of either degradation or desertification.
Until recently, there had been no comprehensive analysis of legislative and applied research efforts’ impacts on ecological restoration initiatives. To address this gap, researchers from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and partners conducted a study that’s the first of its kind, examining 75 restoration programs encompassing more than 1.5 million hectares countrywide.
Lead author Moisés Méndez-Toribio, researcher at the Institute of Ecology A.C. of the Biological Diversity Network of the Mexican West and at the Autonomous University of Morelos, notes that Mexico has committed to restore more hectares of forest than any other Latin American country, including 8.5 million hectares by 2020 as part of the World Resources Institute’s Initiative 20×20.
“The first step to achieving international forest landscape restoration (FLR) commitments is assessing the current state, needs, gaps and opportunities for implementing FLR,” says Méndez-Toribio.
And this is precisely what the study does. It looks into the successes, lessons learned, and research and development gaps and will serve to inform a national restoration plan being developed by the Mexican government.
THE BIG PICTURE
The study, conducted in collaboration with the National Autonomous University of Mexico, examined a range of projects established in terrestrial ecosystems – including in temperate and tropical forests, swamps, mangroves and riverine ecosystems – since 1979.
In addition, researchers conducted online surveys on ecosystem restoration planning, implementation, monitoring and outreach among members of academia and civil society.
The picture that emerged from the research shows that government entities powered most projects, and that half of the initiatives were conducted in Protected Natural Areas, notably in lands held by communities.
Government institutions also funded about 98% of the overall costs, amounting to USD 298 million, while academia offered technical expertise and connections with various stakeholders. Fifty-seven percent of the projects examined are still active, and nearly 92% were established between 2004 and 2016, in line with the rise of restoration in Mexico in the past 15 years. This momentum, the researchers say, should be harnessed to deliver programs that are better planned, monitored and disseminated.
The study also illuminates defining factors of the Mexican landscape. The main driver of degradation: extensive animal husbandry. Ecosystems that are costly to restore: dry forests and inland and coastal swamps. And the role of local communities: involvement in the implementation of 86% of the examined restoration projects.
“It is crucial to start by diagnosing the causes of ecosystem degradation at the outset,” says Méndez-Toribio. “Then, it is vital to establish clear restoration actions and goals, and to pilot interventions before scaling them up.”
Although Mexico might not reach its restoration targets by 2020, Méndez-Toribio believes its FLR commitments have been key to getting the ball rolling: “The various stakeholders and social groups can now push FLR forward,” he says. “We have tried to both get closer to local communities and to reach out to FLR authorities, for example, by inviting them to academic fora. Bringing stakeholders around the same table is definitely a good start.”
BEYOND THE BORDER
For Méndez-Toribio, the eventual creation of a National Restoration Plan also offers an opportunity to reinforce technical capacities, emphasize the need for financial assessments and properly monitor the impact of interventions.
“Monitoring should come not only from a biological perspective, but also from cultural and economic ones,” he says. As the study points out, linguistic and biological diversity are highly correlated in Mexico, meaning that local cultures and livelihoods are set to benefit from healthier landscapes.
Reaping the full benefits of restoration also takes long-term commitment. As Méndez-Toribio notes, “FLR is a process that transcends presidential terms, something that decision-makers must take into account in further restoration targets.
On an international scale, he advises that each country should conduct a similar assessment ahead of a developing a national plan to deliver on FLR commitments.
“National-level assessments like the one we have just finished for Mexico – and a few years ago for Colombia – are paramount for guiding FLR planning, practice and policy with an inclusive, realistic, and science-based view,” adds Manuel Guariguata, CIFOR principal scientist and team leader on forests management and restoration.
“Our results,” says Méndez-Toribio, “show the urgent need to keep fostering restoration actions and programs, in light of the deterioration, fragmentation and pollution of ecosystems.”
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