Many of us are familiar with the conventional wisdom that shared resources, like a forest full of valuable lumber, are inevitably depleted by people narrowly looking out for their own self-interest, unless a public or private authority steps in and manages the resource.
Elinor Ostrom overturned that notion of the “tragedy of the commons” in a study that earned her a Nobel Prize in economics in 2009. She showed that a group of people can successfully manage a shared ecological resource, like a forest, fishery, oil field, or irrigation system, over the long term.
Our grantee partners dedicated to sustainably harvesting the bounty of Mexico’s forests illustrate her claims beautifully. In community-based forestry, residents treat the forest like an endowment for their future. As forester Adolfo Chávez López explains, “We cut the new growth. That’s like saying, we only harvest the ‘interest.’ We maintain the ‘capital’ as it is.”
Foresters like Filiberto Cerón seek environmental and social benefits for all: “Our use of natural resources must be technically viable, economically profitable, and environmentally friendly.” Critical to such efforts is governance: how communities and their organizations operate, how they establish and regulate rules and norms, and how they interact with local officials. Nowhere has governance been so crucial—and successful—as in Mexico’s forest communities.
Sustainable forests, better livelihoods
In the 1980s, Mexican community organizations began reclaiming the management of their forests from outside interests. The IAF has supported local innovation in community forestry in Mexico for decades. We played a key role in supporting Consejo Civil Mexicano para la Silvicultura Sostenible, which is now a nationally-recognized leader in community forestry.
Today, nearly two-thirds of the country’s forest lands belong to the people who live around them. And this arrangement has been working for nearly four decades. Some 12–16 million people live in these forests, typically indigenous communities such as Zapotecs, Chinantecs, and Mayas and resource-poor farmers who largely depend on them. Steeped in local history and traditions, community councils and assemblies guide forestry activities, enforcing rules and investing profits.
Of course, local governance doesn’t magically solve every challenge. Although frequent elections help ensure collective ownership of decisions, rotating leaders makes it difficult to maintain continuity over time. Entrenched systems have traditionally impeded women and young people’s full and valued participation, with tremendous social and economic costs. We are accompanying our grantee partners in making these spaces more inclusive. While acknowledging the challenges of collectively managing the forest, foresters like Francisco Ruiz Anguiano note that their mindset fundamentally shifted “when they saw results” from working together.
Bringing Forest Governance to Scale
Our grantee partner Estudios Rurales y Asesoría Campesina, A.C. (ERAC) supports grassroots organizations in the states of Oaxaca, Michoacán, Guerrero, Tlaxcala, Veracruz, Quintana Roo, San Luis Potosi, Chiapas, and Chihuahua in implementing sustainable forest management techniques adapted to local conditions. ERAC maintains a network that shares best practices and advocates for regulations and norms that reflect regional contexts.
ERAC also uses its IAF funding and its own resources to help forest communities analyze potential commercial enterprises. ERAC anchors its collaboration with these enterprises in their forest communities’ governance structures. To date, ERAC has jump-started or strengthened 14 social enterprises working on coffee farming, beekeeping, musical instrument-making, flagstone production, and sustainable lumber. These businesses have generated more than 100 jobs and more than 2.4 million pesos (US$131,000).
The negotiating skills our grantee partners have honed in governing their own resources serve them when engaging with a range of private organizations and public authorities to ensure their long-term success. Michelle Sánchez Luja liaises between her women’s forestry group and community authorities, negotiating their access to shared charcoal production equipment like ovens and warehouses. In coordination with the municipal authorities and the local “Pueblo Mágico” tourism program, a group of women from the community of Capulalpam de Méndez is producing an innovative line of art for sale, JugueteArte, that incorporates aspects of their local Zapotec culture. Sotero Quechulpa Motalvo, whose organization has been planting lumber trees in southern Mexico for 25 years, inspired the national government’s signature program for that region: Mexico: Sembrando Vida (Sowing Life).
At the national level, ERAC recently secured the support of the Mexican Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources to promote community forest management in Mexico. This is of massive importance. As a result, more small business owners will be able to draw on Mexico’s renewable forests for years to come.
How forest communities adapt to these opening possibilities and ongoing challenges may determine their ultimate success at stemming deforestation and ensuring opportunities for all people to thrive in their home communities. For two generations now, they have been proving that managing a common resource can lift everyone involved.