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Sustainable forest development in Mexico:
a hierarchical system of criteria and indicators

C. Luján Álvarez, J.M. Olivas García and J.E. Magaña Magaña

Concepción Luján Álvarez, Jesús M. Olivas García and José Eduardo Magaña Magaña are Research Professors in the Department of Forestry and Agricultural Sciences of the Autonomous University of Chihuahua, Delicias, Chihuahua, Mexico.

A four-tier system of principles, criteria, indicators and verifiers was designed for evaluating progress towards sustainable forest development
and tested in a model forest programme.

Strategic evaluation is a basic and essential component of programmes aimed at sustainable forest development.1 Its purpose is to monitor progress in achieving objectives so as to enhance the chances of success either by guiding or correcting the process, or by changing the strategic plan (Sharplin, 1985). Strategic evaluation also assists in defining, identifying and detecting changes and dynamics within the system that favour sustainable development. The process of strategic evaluation must itself be dynamic, because organizations work in dynamic environments in which both internal and external conditions can change drastically and the organizations need to be able to react swiftly to take any necessary corrective action to ensure progress towards sustainable development (David, 1987).

This article describes a study carried out in Mexico to establish a hierarchical system of principles, criteria, indicators and verifiers to measure the progress of sustainable forest development in Mexico's cool temperate forest regions. The system was based on national and international benchmarks (including the Montreal Process on Criteria and Indicators for the Conservation and Sustainable Management of Temperate and Boreal Forests outside Europe, in which Mexico participates) and adapted for the social, cultural and ecological conditions within the reference area. It was then used in a strategic evaluation of sustainable development in the Chihuahua Model Forest Programme, in the Tarahumara range in the State of Chihuahua, Mexico. This 110 067 ha area comprises seven forest ejidos (communal landholdings) and has a population of 22 417 inhabitants.

A participatory strategy underpinned all decision-making in the study. The system was developed through partnership between forest communities and ejidos and a multidisciplinary team of researchers and experts working in forest development.


To construct the strategic evaluation model and hierarchical system, the researchers formulated a concept of sustainable development specifically for communities living in cool temperate forest regions in Mexico (Luján Álvarez and Magaña Magaña, 1999). The concept took into account the social, economic, cultural and ecological conditions of these regions. It included conservation and improvement of existing natural resources and the environment. It also recognized the central role of the people of forest communities in designing, implementing and controlling development plans, programmes and projects through an active, participatory decision-making process. The specific model designed for the strategic evaluation of the Chihuahua Model Forest Programme is shown in Figure 1.

Once the model was designed, a participatory workshop was held which brought together ejidos, forest communities and experts from various organizations working in the area to provide feedback on the components of the hierarchical system (Luján Álvarez, Olivas García and Magaña Magaña, 2001). The participants analysed and validated the hierarchical system and its indicators in terms of the community's vision of a desirable future. The workshop further defined the weighting that would be used to establish the contribution of each component in the system to sustainable development.

The model was designed to be flexible and dynamic for potential application in other regions, nationally and globally.

Strategic evaluation model for the Chihuahua Model Forest Programme

Hierarchical system

A four-tier system was adopted for the evaluation of sustainable development within the community. Its components were:

• principles of sustainable development;

• criteria of sustainable development;

• indicators derived from criteria;

• verifiers to measure specific strategic actions, whose qualitative or quantitative values allow comparison of results over time.

The next step was to identify the principles, criteria, indicators and verifiers covering the following three areas of evaluation: socio-economics; ecology and the environment; and community culture and self-management. Each of these three areas has its own respective principles of sustainability, just as each principle has its own criteria, each of which has its indicators and, lastly, its relevant verifiers (Figure 2).

A principle provides the framework for sustainable forest development. It constitutes a fundamental law or truth as the basis for a rationale or action, and provides the justification for the criteria, indicators and verifiers generated (Prabhu, Colfer and Dudley, 1999). For the purposes of the study, a principle was considered an achievable goal in the social and ecological process of sustainable development.

The hierarchical system in the evaluation model comprised the following basic principles of sustainability.

Principle 1: Respect and concern for community life favour sustainable development. This is an ethical principle. It means that development should not take place to the detriment of other external groups not linked to the community in question.

Principle 2: The harmonious development of people, natural resources and the environment is what sustains the quality of human life. What is really demanded of development is that it better the quality of people's lives. Economic growth is an important component of development, but cannot be a goal in itself. Sustainable development is only real if it makes the life of the community better in every sense.

Principle 3: Conservation and protection of biodiversity and the environment favour sustainable development. Conservation-based development necessarily includes deliberate action to protect the structure, functions and diversity of ecosystems and of the environment.

Principle 4: Forest ecosystem management must not exceed the capa-city of the ecosystem. The limits of ecosystem functioning vary from one ecosystem to another. Policies need to bring the number of people and their livelihoods into balance with the capacity of the ecosystem. This capacity must be developed through careful management designed to provide quality goods and services in a sustainable way. Furthermore, the continuous interaction among people, natural resources and the environment must be managed to cause the least possible damage to the ecosystem.

Principle 5: The culture of the community must be in line with sustainable development. People need to re-examine their values and behaviour. The community should promote values that support the new ethics, and do away with those incompatible with a sustainable way of life.

Principle 6: Community self-management and ownership are fundamental for sustainable development. Properly informed, motivated, committed and responsible communities can and must contribute to the decisions affecting them and play a crucial role in sustainable development.

A set of criteria, indicators and verifiers was defined for each principle, and these will enable reliable measurements to assess progress towards sustainable development (Table 1).

Hierarchical system for the strategic evaluation of sustainable development


Using the above structure, the level of sus-tainable development in the Chihuahua Model Forest community was measured by comparing community performance with desirable performance.

Data collection

Surveys were designed and conducted to gather data from primary and secondary sources to characterize the socio-economic, cultural and self-management aspects of the various development-linked sectors in the area covered by the programme. A questionnaire was designed to collect data for each of the verifiers of the socio-economic principles through personal interviews. The statistically determined sample for the survey included 150 people. Interviewers received training to ensure the quality and consistency of the data-gathering operation.

The researchers characterized the ecological and environmental aspects of the area through historical analysis of forest management in the area based on existing documents and reports. In the participatory workshop, the researchers, together with the ejidos and forest communities, defined the desirable level of sustainable development for each of the three areas of the hierarchical system.

Once the surveys were completed, the data on the variables under study were assembled in an Excel database.

Comparison of actual versus desirable performance

The data collected were used to obtain the values for each verifier within the hierarchical system. Each verifier was then qualified in terms of its contribution to sustainable development and rated according to the following scale: 90 to 100 percent was considered excellent; 80 to 90 percent, good; 65 to 80 percent, average; 50 to 65 percent, poor; and less than 50 percent was considered to indicate no development (Luján Álvarez, Olivas García and Magaña Magaña, 2001). For each verifier comparison was then made with the "ideal" sustainable development model to determine the actual level of progress towards sustainable development (Table 2). The sum of the contributions of the verifiers provides an indication of progress related to each indicator, the sum for the indicators provides an indication of progress related to the criteria, and so on.

In this way a sustainable development profile was developed based on the comparison of actual versus ideal for each of the three substantive thematic areas - socio-economics, ecology and the environment, and culture and community self-management - and their corresponding principles of sustainability (Table 3). For example, in the area of socio-economics, the actual value (25.7 percent) represents 64.3 percent of the ideal value (40 percent) - a poor ranking according to the above scale.

Generally speaking, this profile showed that the present level of progress towards sustainable forest development in the area under the programme was only average. Thus the programmes and projects implemented by the Chihuahua Model Forest Programme from 1994 to 1999 had not yet had the desired impact in favour of sustainable development. On this basis the community established new strategic actions for future sustainable development.

TABLE 1. Example of the structure and content of the hierarchical system for the strategic evaluation: Principle 1





1: Respect and concern for community life favour sustainable development

1.1: Autonomous community decision-making permits sustainable development

1.1.1: Mechanisms for decision-making offering community autonomy Number of mechanisms for decision-making Type of mechanisms for decision-making Operation of the mechanisms

1.1.2: Absence of participation of external sectors in making decisions fundamental to community life Types of community action undertaken in the absence of external intervention in decision-making

1.1.3: Internal organization favouring autonomy Identification of organizational aspects that favour autonomy

1.1.4: Community organizational structure respected Identification and classification of evidence from local people and external institutions

1.1.5: Community responsible for management and integrity of natural resources Type of responsibilities of providers of technical forest services in natural resource management

TABLE 2. Example of the calculation of verifiers, indicators, criteria and principles of sustainability: Principle 1

Level in hierarchical system

Ideal contribution to sustainable development

Actual contribution

towards ideal

Verifier Number of mechanisms for decision-making



36/40 = 90 Type of mechanisms for decision-making



27/30 = 90 Operation of the mechanisms



18/30 = 60





1.1.1: Mechanisms for decision-making offering community


24 x 0.81 = 19.4

81 (sum of the actual contributions of the three verifiers that correspond to Indicator 1.1.1)


1.1: Autonomous community decision-making permits sustainable development


30 x 0.65 = 19.5

65 (sum of the contributions of the five indicators that pertain to Criterion 1.1)


1: Respect and concern for community life favour sustainable development


18 x 0.64 = 11.5

64 (sum of the contributions of the four criteria that pertain to Principle 1)

TABLE 3. Ranking of sustainable development in the Chihuahua Model Forest Programme: profile divided by subject areas and their relevant principles of sustainability




Progress towards
the ideal

development ranking






Principle 1





Principle 2





Ecology and environment





Principle 3





Principle 4





Culture and community self-management





Principle 5





Principle 6










The prototype model and hierarchical system for the strategic evaluation of sustainable forest development elaborated in this study provides a solid basis for future development.

The following aspects were fundamental to the effectiveness of the strategic evaluation process: the analysis of the specific socio-economic, environmental and cultural situation (in this case, the Chihuahua Model Forest Programme); the design of the evaluation model and the strategic evaluation system, with the use of "ideal" weightings for sustainability principles, criteria, indicators and verifiers, defined through a broad-based participatory process; the participation of the community and development-linked institutions operating within the area covered by the programme; and examination of the actual values obtained in the application of the model.

An additional observation is that although the working philosophy of the Chihuahua Model Forest Programme includes the concept of "sustainable development", the community at large did not grasp the concept well enough to favour sustainability-oriented community development. Furthermore, the community had not participated actively in the design and implementation of sustainable development plans, programmes and projects to meet its needs, desires and preferences. Efforts should therefore be made to strengthen, and perhaps to modify, the ideas and attitudes of local people to heighten their sense of responsibility, commitment and involvement in the implementation of sustainable development projects.


David, F.R. 1987. Concepts of strategic management. Toronto, Canada, Merrill Publishing Company.

Luján Álvarez, C. & Magaña Magaña, J.E. 1999. Concepto de desarrollo sustentable. Delicias, Chihuahua, Mexico, Department of Forestry and Agricultural Sciences, Autonomous University of Chihuahua.

Luján Álvarez, C., Olivas García, J.M. & Magaña Magaña, J.E. 2001. Evaluación estratégica del desarrollo sustentable en el área de influencia del Bosque Modelo Chihuahua. In Taller Participativo para la Consolidación del Sistema de Información Estratégica: Principios, criterios, indicadores y verificadores. Technical Report. Delicias, Chihuahua, Mexico, Department of Forestry and Agricultural Sciences, Autonomous University of Chihuahua.

Prabhu, R., Colfer, C.I.P. & Dudley, R.G. 1999. Guidelines for developing, testing and selecting criteria and indicators for sustainable management. Criteria and Indicators Toolbox Series No. 1. CIFOR.

Sharplin, A. 1985. Strategic management. New York, NY, USA, McGraw Hill.

1“Sustainable forest development” is defined in this article as a dynamic process of interaction between the human dimension and the forest ecosystem and environment, and of its development with a vision of sustainability.

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