Community forest management in Mexico: A viable strategy for entrepreneurial development and stewardship for conservation

Leticia Merino 1


Mexican forests present exceptional social and institutional characteristics, nearly 80% of them are legally common property. Forest use is often oriented towards commercial timber production. In addition forest management for this production is - by law and tradition - communally administered and implemented. This study analyses 11 forest communities in different regions, with different types of forest: semi-boreal forests in northern Mexico, temperate forests in the centre, and tropical rainforests in the southeast. In addition these communities present different socio-demographic, ethnic and economic conditions.

These communal forests are assets for communities´ development. The values of these assets vary considerably among these 11 communities. They have forests of different sizes, with different volumes of tree species of commercial value. All of them have developed forest enterprises with different levels of consolidation: some depend completely on the communal authorities, while others have professional administrations. Based on the investments of forest profits, these communities have acquired industrial assets whose value is also different.

Social capital has been a key factor for entrepreneurial development. For social capital analysis we have considered variables such as: local rules (institutions) for the governance of communities, forests and enterprises, shared visions of common resources and organizational experience. In spite of their differences, in all these cases successful experience of forest use and governance has enabled communities to resolve a variety of enterprises problems, invest in local well-being, and preserve and even enlarge the forests they own.

Communities' forest management and communal entrepreneurial development have proved to be a viable model for sustainability, development and governance in different forest regions of Mexico. This experience could be replicable in other regions of Latin America and the Third World, sharing fundamental conditions with Mexican forest regions, where forests constitute a key element for communities' survival.

1. Forest Communities

The nine communities considered are: San Juan Nuevo, Atzintlimaya and Sebastopol in Central Mexico, el Balcón and Platanillo, Capulapam and San Pedro el Alto in the mountainous regions of the South of the country, and Laguna Kana and Nohbec in the Yucatan Peninsula. The forest extension of these communities varies considerably, from San Pedro el Alto with 30,000 hectares of forestland, to Sebastopol with nearly 330 has. But must of them have forest areas of more than 5,000 hectares2.

Population sizes, as well as population density also differ. Density varies in a range of 2.34 hab/km2 in el Balcón, to 446.42 hab/km2 in Sebastopol. A remarkable fact shown by this sample is the weak relation existent between population density and forests condition. El Balcón has well preserved forests, but Platanillo with a similarly low population density (2.73 hab/km2) has the most deteriorated forest of the sample, and Sebastopol with the highest population density (446.42 hab/km2) has preserved its forest cover. Finally Capulalpam, with the largest forest reserve has one of the highest population density of this group.

Four of these communities are indigenous, while five are non indigenous. Ethnicity does not seem to be a factor directly affecting forest management, not even the existence of success of forest communal enterprises. In five of these nine communities the level of poverty is considered `medium' (by the National Institute of Geography and Statistics -INEGI 2000) differing in this sense with most of Mexico´s rural areas and particularly forest regions. These conditions of relative well being are directly related with the forest wealth communities have and the level of development of their forest activity. This relation is shown by the fact that the four communities with highest poverty level are those with the smallest forests areas and the lowest levels of timber production. Migration is low in most of these communities (6 of them), again a very remarkable data in the context of strong migration tendencies in the country´s rural areas. Migration patterns are directly related to the level of the forest assets these communities own. Two of the communities with stronger migration are also those with highest poverty, and the smallest forest areas. In five of these communities, local economies rely mostly on forest activities, and only in three of them subsistence agriculture maintains a strong importance. In six communities an increasing area of agricultural plots has been abandoned during the last decade. In any of them forests are cleared any more to establish agricultural fields.

2. Productive assets

Forests are the most important productive asset that these communities own. The actual economic value of the forests is mostly determined by the volume of commercial timber species they contain. Tropical forests considered in this study have a low actual economic value, in spite of their relative large extensions, as very few tree species have regional market demand, and market prices high enough to ensure the profit of the extractions3. The economic value of this "natural asset" is directly related to the development of the other productive assets (in the field of forest production) communities have been able to accumulate. All these communities have developed forest enterprises with different levels of consolidation, and different degrees of re-investment. As a result forest production presents different levels of vertical integration: some sale timber as stump, others sale round wood, others sale tables and some produce more industrialized forest products. The three communities with higher level of "vertical integration" are those with the richer natural assets. The access to these assets enable communities to invest, but also makes forest investments profitable. Nevertheless some communities with smaller natural assets have been able to make productive investments collectively, reach economies of scale and integrate forest production, based on the association of communities with similar conditions .

Investment in social assets (education, roads, health, public buildings, public transport, etc.) is also closely related with the development of forest production and its profitability. But the rate "amount of forest production profits/social investment" is far from being regular. In some of them part of the profits are also distributed among the families, while in others, assemblies opt mostly for social and productive investment (viewed as a way to create employment and benefit families on permanent bases).

The investment on forest protection and forest management shows a similar pattern, all of these communities invest in the preservation and the development of their resources, spending money and unpaid labor. Under different institutional arrangements all of them have mechanisms of monitoring and fighting forest fires and illegal cutting; in addition since they started forest operation they have reforested each year and developed practices to promote natural regeneration. They also invest in different studies and plans to guide forest interventions. Even if the rate of investment in forest preservation and management tends to be larger in the richer communities, it is possible to find large investments in the forest in communities with middle sized and small forest areas. In these cases unpaid labor and establishments of forest reserves are important forms of the investment.

3. Dynamics of forest use ande forest conditions.

There is a strong relationship between the history of forest use and the conditions of the forests. In spite of the communal tenure prevalent in forest regions, from the 1950 to the 1980, around 50% of Mexico´s forests were subject to concessions to private and public enterprises. In the rest of the forests areas extractions were performed under short term contracts or forest areas were subject to extraction bans. Forests areas under concessions tended to be better preserved, but their composition and structure was significantly altered. As a general tendency, forests under bans suffered higher levels of deterioration, as extractions did not stop, but persisted without following any type of restriction. Timber extractions under short term contracts usually had higher impacts on forests masses than those applied under concessions. Four out of the five better preserved forests of this sample were subject to concessions. The two forests that were banned, are well preserved, but have been under community management for more than 25 years and have conditions of strong biological productivity. In three of the forests of our group, extractions were performed under private contracts, two of them have the highest indicators of deterioration4.

All these communities have developed measures of forest protection with a high level of success:

As a result the forest cover of these communities is well preserved, but evaluating with more in-depth, different conditions among these forests are found. Forest used for timber production evidence the impacts of the sylvicultural methods that have oriented extractions. In all the cases selective cutting called "Mexican Method for Mountains Ordering" (MMOM) was the rule during the first period of communal operations and before (1950-1980)5. During the mid-eighties forestry turned to more intensive methods6 seeking answers to the economic inefficiencies but also to the ecological impacts of the MMOM7. In the places where Sylvicultural Development Method (MDS) has been in place for longer time, the composition of the forest has been altered towards its "simplification" , favoring the dominance of the few commercial species. This last situation is the case of San Juan Nuevo, the community with richer productive forest assets among this sample, but it is also the case of Atzintlimaya and Sebastopol with the smaller forest areas.

Two decades of community forest management have switch, in different cases, to a more balanced orientation; in the last years forest management plans have tried to respond to the variance present in forest areas, promoting intensive sylviculture in some of them, selective logging in others, and no extraction when it is requiered, depending on a set of ecological variables (soils, slope, existent species, closeness of water bodies). This practices are consistent with the emergence of communities territorial planning practices and capacities. Based on technical information about the different areas and resources they own, but also in traditional knowledge and values, and the evaluation or their own needs, communities decide which are the best uses to be given to the different lands and resources they poses. Among the sample this type of decision making and planning processes has been particularly strong in Capulalpam, where the community´s assembly has devoted 26% of its territory for forest protection and conservation, 11.55% has been defined as an area for low intensive forestry, and 6.6% for intensive extraction. Capulalpam shows such an strong commitment with the protection of it forest, even when the value of its forest productive assets is moderate, and the annual volume of timber extracted tends to be low8.

Other communities also show important commitment with forest protection. El Balcón reforests areas previously cleared to establish illegal crops, San Juan Nuevo has a program of reintroduction of some of the native fauna. In addition four of these communities have established forest reserves in areas of environmental fragility or conservation interests. The small size of the forests (as is the case in Atzintlimaya and Sebastopol) seems to be an important limit for a diversified and more conservationst territorial management. Intensive sylviculture tends to be the unique use of the forest land. The dynamics of land use and forest protection practices in tropical forests deserve an special mention. Both, Nohbec and Laguna Kaná have established permanent forest areas nearly 20 years ago, but only recently, Nohbec has recently settled a small reserve. Permanent forest areas in these communities are in fact close to reserves, in the sense that the intensity of timber extraction is remarkably low9 . Aside of these differences it is to be underlined that all these communities invest in forest resources in preservation and forest management. The investments made in the forms of unpaid labor and establishment of reserves and other restrictions to forest use are also important elements for protection. They have made possible the improvement of forest management practices, preserving and even increasing communal forest areas.

Until now, non timber forest products have been important in five of these communities. In Laguna Kaná and Nohbec the extraction of the latex of Manilkara zapota trees, used to produce chewing gum, was for decades the main source of income for local families, sustaining their interest in the preservation of the rainforest. During the last seven years the demand of this latex have been stagnant due to the increasing use of synthetic gum in the international markets. Capulalpam produces eatable mushrooms Matzutake sp. And Shitake sp.; during some seasons this harvest have generated an income similar to that of timber production. San Pedro el Alto has settled a plant where water obtained in various of the many sources existing in the community is bottled, this plant is completely assisted by women. San Juan has created an area devoted to eco tourism where animal species of local fauna are being reintroduced. In two of the cases non timber forest products collections is oriented to households consumption.

Communities commitment on forest protection is broadly based on the economic incentives they derive from forest use. In this sense the level of investment in protection is related to the degree of forest production integration, but this is not the sole determinant element. Their interest in conservation is also related to the domestic -often traditional- uses of the forest, and to their own perception and valuation of the "environmental services" forests provide: the concern to maintain water production, the perception of the forest as a patrimony for the new generations, and the pure enjoyment of forest areas are also effective factors. The analyses of these cases shows that the concern for conservation is far from being an exclusively urban or western attitude.

Environment al services such as biodiversity, carbon sequestration, water production and soils protection, are certainly the most valuable "goods" produced by these communities. As forest deterioration advances, there is an increasing awareness of the value of forest services among Mexico´s society and government. The roll communities play in forest conditions is much less understood, in consequence communities rights to benefit from potential payments are poorly recognized and proposed strategies risk to fail in providing incentives to those who have been key actors. Capulalpan is the only community that until know has proactively tried to get income for the environmental services provided by its forests. For three years Capulalpam sustained a contract for bioprospection with the Swiss pharmaceutical Novartis10, that was considered fair by commoners and by the enterprise, and left the community in possession of a biological laboratory managed by young biologist from the community, where among other uses the presence of transgenic corn in the region was detected.

Cartographic analysis shows that during the last 15 years forest areas have been preserved in Atzinlimaya, Nohbec, Sebastopol and San Juan and have increased in el Balcón, Capulalpam, San Pedro. A recent study carried on in Capulalpam also shows an increase in the bio-mass (and specifically timber) in this forest. On the other side it is also to be said that forest ecosystem with no commercial or domestic value or use, as it is the case of the deciduous dry forest of Platanillo, is not object of any protection effort. It is used with no restriction or rule, and shows increasing sings of deterioration.

4. Social capital, entrepreneurial development and conservation

Following Elinor Ostrom´ s proposal we use the concept of social capital from an expansionist perspective. In the use of the concept we include dimensions such as networks engagement (Fukuyama, 1994; Putnam, 1995) and relations based on trust reciprocity. We also consider experience of organization and shared vision of a common resource (Ostrom, 1998) as elements of social capital. Finally institutions for the governance and management of common pool resources are key dimensions of this type of capital (Ostrom, 2001). Institutions are understood as "rules in use" assumed by communities of users (Ostrom, 1991) for the collective management of a common resource. Social capital is a fundamental resource for communities sustainability and development, but it is far from being an static quality, it is permanently modified according with conditions and context of its use, and the use of common resources.

Eight out of the nine communities analyzed in this paper, started forest operations having already an important "stock" of social capital. This "original" social capital was particularly related to aspects such as experience of organization and the vision of the resource, on their turn this qualities were strongly related to the historic use of the forests. In this field, ethnic membership, but also public policies have been important factors. The experience of concessions favoring external agents demanded communal organization to regain control of forests resources, in this sense -as has already been mentioned- four out of the five most successful were subject to concessions. This prior experience of organization created bases for further accumulation/preservation of social, economic and natural capital. These communities have the better forest management practices, and enterprises with higher vertical integration. In addition two of them are indigenous communities. One of these five most successful forest communities, San Juan was not subject to concession, but is also an indigenous community.

On the contrary, forest bans11 in Mexico, have mostly had negative impacts on communities´ social capital. As they prohibited any use of the forest, they made unviable the local regulation of this use, and local uses of forests were defined as illegal and open access. Forest use prior to 1950 -when most of concessions and bans were established- had also an impact on the experience of organization and on the views of common resources. In five of this communities extractive activities played an important roll in local economies, and demanded local organization and regulation around forests use. The social capital found in Sebastopol and Atzintilimaya, subject to forest bans for more than two decades, is largely result of the successful experience of forest management after the ban, but it is also due to decades of the practice of resin extraction. The existence and practice of local rules around the use of a particular resource often favors institutional development around a new use of common goods12. Communities where resin extraction was practiced developed rules for timber production. As mentioned, in Southeast Mexico communities of collectors of the latex of chicozapote tree (Manilkara zapota) count today with the best preserved forests of the Yucatán peninsula, and have developed management schemes of the tropical forests around timber production.

The precedent presence of social capital, as functional rules for communities self-governance, have also played an important roll supporting further institutional development for forests and enterprises management. All of the nine communities have institutions of self-governance, often a "traditional form of social capital". They have internal rules regarding distinct aspects of the towns life, defining rights and responsibilities, and decision making process. They have also permanent assemblies where these rules can be defined, and modified, and where most of the internal conflicts are discussed, and decisions on sanctions are taken. Capulalpam and San Pedro are the two communities of this group with the strongest institutions for local governance. Both are old indigenous zapotec towns with strong self-governing traditions. Participation on local governance based on the "cargo system" represent a devoir as much as a right for all the family heads. "Tequios" unpaid collective labor for the maintenance and/or building of common goods and services is also an obligation for all the families that benefit from common goods. Both communities have also strong forest rules.

All of the nine communities have built forest enterprises that are new common goods. These new common assets demand the "craft" of new rules (institutions) to sustain economic efficiency, but also the social agreement on which social enterprises rely. Social capital has been also been a key element for the foundation of these "social enterprises", but their development poses new type of challenges, as specific managerial, business and accountability abilities are needed for entrepreneurial development. In this level access to a diversified external advisory and training, as well as to adequate financing and market conditions have proved to be rare but key factors for sustainability.

The experience of Mexico´s community forestry supports the validity of decentralization strategies, proposals that seek the concession of property rights (access, withdrawal, management, and alienation) to local communities of users as a pertinent policy for conservation of resources, highly valuable for the public services they provide13. This experience also show the value of the communal market oriented enterprises, as they generate incentives for conservation, but also demand investment in the development of local managerial, economic and tecnic capacities, generating social capital around collective assets building. This strategy has been successfully reproduced in some countries of Central Amercia and could prove to be viable in different contexts of the Developing World characterized by the presence of forests internationally valued and populations with high forest dependence.

1 Researcher, National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico City. [email protected]

2 Tables on the different variables analyzed in this document are attached at the end of it.

3 Until very recently only mahogony and cedar had regional market demand and adequate prices, while the forest inventory recognized 150 tree species.

4 These are the forests of Platanillo whit a degraded areas in the temperate forest and Laguna Kaná where the tree species with comercial value are almost extint.

5 Selective cutting in temperate zones was known as "Mexican Method for Mountains Ordering" (MMOM)

6 With the support of Finland Cooperation a more intensive sylvicultural meted called "Method for Sylvicultural Development" (MDS) was implemented in different forest regions. These method is also known as "seedling trees".

7 MMOM altered the composition of the forests, as it did not created the conditions hended for the development of sun-loving tree species. In consequence pines were substituted by oaks as dominant species in forests of Central and Southern Mexico. The way this meted was implemented also favoured the genetic impoverishment of the remaining populations of conifers, as the better conformed individuals were removed from the forest

8 Traditionally the communal assembly of Capulalpan does not allow to cut more than 50% of the volume authorized by the government

9 Around 1m3/hectare in Nohbec and .5 m3/hectare in Laguna Kaná.

10 See Kissling, Andreas and Merino "The UZACHI-Novartis Contract for Bioprospection", paper submited to the IX Congress of the International Association for the Study of Common Property. June, 2002.

11 We arte talking about bans imposed by the state, without the participation of local users or owners of forests.

12 If these uses do not result contradictory.

13 Services such as biodiversity preservation, water production, carbon sequestration, soil protection