Mexican forest communities seek business benefit from climate laws

by Talli Nauman | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 5 June 2014 13:25 GMT

Community member Agusto Torres works at the Ixtlán de Juárez tree nursery on seedlings potted with peat moss, tree bark and agricultural vermiculite, a heat-treated mineral that improves air circulation, water retention and nutrient uptake by roots. The tree farmers achieve an 80-90 percent survival rate of transplants in the wild. PHOTO/Marcia Perskie

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Mexico is a leader in legislating on climate change, but local forest enterprises want more tangible support

IXTLÁN DE JUÁREZ, Oaxaca, México (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In the mountain birthplace of Latin America’s venerated 19th century indigenous reformer and Mexico’s 26th president, Benito Juárez, Zapotec communities like his are distinguishing themselves with award-winning, world-class forestry projects regarded as vital for climate stability.

Yet Mexico’s trailblazing climate-change legislation, together with its reforms in forestry and energy, have done little to reward indigenous people for their contributions to curbing carbon emissions and keeping nature in balance, according to participants in community-managed forestry efforts.

“The climate change law isn’t disseminated - it isn’t something the community members know about, and it doesn’t take them into consideration,” said Oscar Méndez, an accounting adviser for Ixtlán de Juárez.

This community, named after the tough fiber ixtle obtained from native succulents and the only indigenous person to serve as Mexican president, is a pioneer among 38 that have got together to form a tree-farming association in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Congresswoman Yesenia Nolasco, who represents Oaxaca in Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies, is optimistic that federal lawmaking on climate change and sustainable development will have a positive impact here at the grassroots level soon.

Nolasco is one of four Mexican Congressional delegates who participated in the November launch of an international report recommending the implementation of national laws to promote the fledgling U.N.-backed scheme for “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation” (REDD+). REDD+ will compensate developing nations for protecting their forests and the carbon dioxide they store.

“The inhabitants of regions such as Ixtlán are knowledgeable about the land, because of their history and their needs, and they are the ones who can have the best influence in carrying out environmental rulemaking,” said Nolasco, who is part of the Global Legislators Organisation (GLOBE International), which commissioned the REDD+ report.

NO ACCESS TO FUNDING

The 19,310-hectare community of Ixtlán won the government’s 2000 National Merit Award for Sustainable Forestry Management, and its integrated wood products business  qualified for “Smart Wood” certification from the international Forest Stewardship Council in 2001.

The 4,000 Zapotec community members have used their forest enterprise as an incubator, turning the proceeds into employment opportunities scarcely imaginable a generation ago. The money has also helped put in place street lights, a water supply, sewerage, a bus service and electric power lines, as well as a grocery store, schools and a town hall for the municipality of Ixtlán.

Having raised education levels, wages and retirement benefits to at least twice the state’s average, participants in the community-managed forest enterprise are now applying their training in silviculture and meteorology to anticipate and cope with the predicted impacts of global warming.

They are painstakingly relocating precious stocks of native pine trees hundreds of metres above their historic growing altitude, to preserve the species threatened by rising temperatures. It’s a precautionary measure taken without government support, says Ixtlán forestry engineer Julio Ruíz.

The community wants to capture carbon in the short run and harvest mature timber in the long run, but there is a need to link funding sources with the local effort, he adds.

“The more industrialised countries are the ones that pollute the most, but it’s going to be hard for them to change. It’s easier for them to help communities like this with forests,” he said.

“Right now the (Mexican) government has the biggest interest in conservation, and legislators can make it all happen,” he added. But there is still no incentive because federal guidelines for REDD+ haven’t yet been handed down to the community, he noted.

The draft national strategy document for REDD+ is awaiting a second revision by a technical committee established in 2010, according to the non-profit Mexican Civic Council for Sustainable Silviculture, which has released recommendations for moving forward.

Mexico’s REDD+ proposal of “payments for results” will have to comply with climate change and forest development laws, says Lourdes Adriana López Moreno, president of the Chamber of Deputies’ Environment and Natural Resources Commission and representative of Chiapas, a woodland state adjacent to Oaxaca.

The role of forests and REDD+ in managing greenhouse gas emissions is scheduled for debate at the second World Summit of Legislators in Mexico City from June 6-8, according to GLOBE International.

López Moreno is a member of the group of lawmakers from more than 80 countries determined to promote, implement and oversee climate change and sustainable development measures. GLOBE’s work has helped Mexico’s lawmakers “generate broad agreement in both houses of Congress”, she said.

MEXICAN LEADERSHIP

In 2012, Mexico became one of the first countries in the world to promulgate a climate change law, following Japan’s example, Nolasco noted.

Called the General Climate Change Law, it complements other federal legislation, including a 2003 law on sustainable forestry development, in linking economic concerns with environmental issues so as to rationally allocate natural resources, Nolasco said.

“The law paves the way not only to fight for reaching acceptable standards of (climate change) mitigation and adaptation at the national level, but also for the benefits to be reflected at state, city and local levels,” she said.

Inspired by Mexico’s achievement, GLOBE launched a Climate Legislation Initiative in 2013, hoping to convince other countries to legislate for a positive impact on U.N. climate negotiators, who are due to  come up with a new global climate deal  to replace the Kyoto Protocol late next year.

When Kyoto was negotiated in 1997, the 66 countries surveyed in GLOBE’s most recent Climate Legislation Study had 47 climate-related laws. At the end of 2013, they had 487.

“In this sense, Mexico holds an important leadership position,” said López Moreno. Mexico’s Congress now has begun reforming its climate-related laws “with the goal of having timely legislation and without the need to be making little changes that erode solid statute”, she added.   

This work has included serious consultation with indigenous and other rural communities, producer associations, the private sector and the government’s executive branch, according to López Moreno. But Ixtlán’s leaders are not satisfied with the process.

TAX DISADVANTAGES

Ixtlán’s official historian Manuel Garcés recounts how government concessions to a private sawmill operator from the neighbouring state of Veracruz and to a nearby paper mill in the 1940s and 1950s constituted the first exploitation of the community’s lumber, leaving its woodlands in bad shape.

Since federal policy returned control of the resources to the community, “it has done all the work and has never received remuneration,” he said.

With its own proceeds from the community forestry enterprise, Ixtlán has built seven other businesses, which provide growing job opportunities for locals and residents of surrounding villages. The community has set up its own sawmill, furniture factory, outlet stores in different cities, an ecotourism business called Ecoturixtlán, a bus service, a restaurant and a water bottling company.

There is no drug trafficking or illegal logging here because the population as a whole benefits from protecting its lumber business, says Ixtlán Commissioner Jorge Melchor García Tamayo.

Having improved their quality of life by managing their resources for conservation and employment, community members want fiscal benefits in recognition of their work, he said.

They are calling for a reversal of recent fiscal reforms that tax community forest enterprises as if they were private businesses. “Tax reform has hit us hard. Revenue distribution doesn’t take the community into consideration,” García Tamayo complained.

For López Moreno, another major problem with the tax system is its inability to ensure that revenues are channeled towards protecting natural resources.

“We need an administrative structure that guarantees that taxes for environmental purposes go directly to the budget for attending to climate change and environment in our country,” she said.

Talli Nauman is co-director of the consulting firm Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness, based in Aguascalientes, Mexico.

For more photos from Ixtlán de Juárez, see an accompanying photo essay: Sustainable use of forests pays off for indigenous Mexicans

This story is part of a series of articles, funded by the COMplus Alliance and the World Bank, looking at progress and challenges in developing nations’ efforts to legislate on climate change, ahead of the June 6-8 World Summit of Legislators in Mexico City, organised by the Global Legislators Organisation (GLOBE International).

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