Mexico’s REDD+ still highly centralized

Sharing governance roles and REDD+ benefits among entities at various levels remains a challenge, study finds
GCS-REDD+ activities in Latin America. Mexico National Workshop on REDD+ in May 2017. CIFOR/Yoly Gutierrez

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Mexico was among the first countries to launch a strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+). But the country still struggles to implement that vision, according to a study conducted in the states of Chiapas and Yucatán and published by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

The researchers examined the various levels of governance involved in Mexico’s REDD+ strategy and programs to understand how decision-making power is distributed at the national, regional and local levels.

“We wanted to understand how land use decisions are made and how REDD+ is intersecting with this complex, contradictory and multilevel arena,” said Anne Larson, CIFOR principal scientist. “One of our goals was to analyze the potential of REDD+ to bring about the kinds of changes needed for forests to mitigate climate change.”

The researchers found that a variety of players take part in land-use management decisions in Mexico.

Legally, decision-making power is divided among the national, state and municipal governments. Nevertheless, decisions about land use are still largely centralized in national government agencies. Those agencies sometimes have conflicting priorities, reflected especially in agricultural and environmental policies, which work against each other when those policies are put into practice, the study found.

Although state and municipal governments have the power to make or influence land-use policy, their effectiveness varies because of a lack of budget funds or skilled personnel and problems related to corruption, the study found. That leaves much of the power over forest governance concentrated in national government agencies.

The National Forestry Commission (CONAFOR) has overall responsibility for forests and has been responsible for launching REDD+ pilot programs. Those programs, however, have tended to focus on forest conservation, rather than on sustainable management and low-emission development goals that are set out in national policies, including Mexico’s national REDD+ strategy.

CONAFOR manages programs that provide payment for environmental services (PES), including watershed and biodiversity conservation. Besides providing payments, these programs also have sought to strengthen governance in local communities. Opinions vary, however, on how effective the PES programs are at reducing deforestation and forest degradation.

Other entities also play a role in forest management. Nearly two-thirds of the country’s forests are in the hands of local communities and several systems of communal landholding. The best-known is the ejido system, in which agricultural lands are worked by individual families but forested areas are held communally.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) often work with local communities on forest management and conservation, but their projects may not always reflect the communities’ interests and they do not necessarily guarantee full community participation.

Forestry technicians who advise communities are less visible but also important players, the study found.

“An unexpected finding lies in the crucial role that forestry technicians can play as brokers between forest communities and CONAFOR, the government’s National Forestry Commission,” said Libert Amico, a CIFOR consultant and co-author of the study. Technicians have “substantial discretionary powers” to determine what types of projects will be implemented, where they will be located, and who the beneficiaries will be, he said.

REDD+ has provided some incentive for collaboration among different players, but they often have different visions of how to reduce emissions, with some emphasizing carbon capture, while others promote forest management or other factors. REDD+ has also been slow to take root, further hampering cooperation.

The study highlights the importance of accountability — including transparency, participation in decision making, access to information and sharing in the benefits of REDD+ projects — on the part of all players involved in decisions about land use.

It also underscores the way in which a country’s history shapes attitudes and practices related to land use. There are differences even from one state to another, and it is crucial to adapt national policies to local needs, the authors say.


Chiapas and Yucatán, the two states examined in the study, are examples of how much local situations — and possibilities for REDD+ and low-emissions development — can differ from place to place.

“They are rather similar in land use, forest areas, collective landholdings and indigenous population, but they vary substantially in infrastructure, economy, education and governance capacities,” Libert Amico said. “The other forest regions and sites of early REDD+ actions in Mexico differ even more.”

Chiapas and Yucatán were among five states chosen by CONAFOR in 2010 for early REDD+ actions. Over the next five years, projects involving payment for environmental services (PES), reforestation and low-emissions development were implemented in those states, as well as in Jalisco, Campeche and Quintana Roo. A coalition of environmental non-governmental organizations also targeted Chiapas and Yucatán for programs to prepare for REDD+.

Yucatán has a history of deforestation for plantation agriculture dating to the 1800s. By the beginning of this century, it had one of the highest deforestation levels in the country. More recently, that rate has begun to decline as people abandon rural areas and migrate to cities.

One area in Yucatán that was targeted by the government and NGOs for early REDD+ projects shows how conflicting priorities of the agriculture and environment ministries can jeopardize REDD+ goals, said Tim Trench, a research professor at the Chiapas center of Chapingo Autonomous University and one of the study’s co-authors.

The 136,000-hectare Puuc Biocultural State Reserve, created in 2011, includes Maya archaeological sites and large areas of deciduous tropical forest, about two-thirds of which is in the hands of nine Maya ejidos. The decree establishing the park called for equitable sharing of benefits from environmental services, as well as support for regional forest governance. Progress has been limited, however, because of a lack of resources.

Meanwhile, commercial farming is encroaching on the reserve, spurred by cheap land prices, government farm subsidies and the gradual de facto privatization of ejido lands.


“As many examples show, the government’s right hand doesn’t appear to know what the left hand is doing,” Trench said of the contradiction between farm subsidies that promote commercial crops and incentives for conservation and sustainable use of the protected area.

Although the reserve recognizes the interdependence of biological and cultural diversity, “it amounts to fortress conservation, surrounded on the northern side by high-tech citrus farming and on the southeast by plantations of soy, sorghum and winter vegetables for export,” he said.

In many of the tropical regions of Chiapas, meanwhile, agriculture did not become widespread until the second half of the 20th century, but the state now has one of the highest deforestation rates in the country, largely because of cattle ranching and more recently an epidemic of coffee rust that has led to the removal of some shade-grown coffee plantations. Protected areas along the Sierra Madre in Chiapas have attracted REDD+ projects, but they have also suffered from a lack of sufficient funding, and some are overlapped by mining concessions. The expansion of oil palm plantations also poses a threat in the tropical lowlands.

A REDD+ program in the Lacandon forest, announced by the Chiapas governor when Mexico hosted the 2010 U.N. Climate Change Conference, provided payments to 1,700 members of the Lacandon Community without specific conservation criteria, links to carbon markets or mechanisms for measuring results. As a result, the study found, many people in Chiapas are dubious about the benefits of REDD+.

Indeed, the study found various obstacles to equitable distribution of benefits among ejidos that have participate in REDD+ actions.

“Equity makes sense as an ideal, but it doesn’t take into account different cultural situations,” Trench said. “Almost every case we studied involved an ejido, and every ejido is different.”

Because land rights within ejidos cannot be subdivided, the original settlers usually receive the greatest share of benefits, leaving later arrivals, children and women disenfranchised, Trench said.

Equitable benefit sharing and decentralized participation are areas that merit greater emphasis, the study’s authors say. Participation tends to be limited to consultation about specific issues, but decentralized participation is important for adapting REDD+ strategies and policies to local needs and situations.

“In light of the recent IPCC report, Mexico, like other countries, will have to take bold action to integrate forests into national development policy and planning,” Larson said.

Libert Amico sees this moment as an opportunity for Mexico.

“The country has vast potential to contribute significantly to the activities needed to respond to climate change and biodiversity loss,” he said.

This research is part of CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study on REDD+.

For more information on this topic, please contact Anne Larson at
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Topic(s) :   Climate change