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  • Increasing Inequalities in Access to Forests and Forest Benefits in Mexico
  • Margaret Skutsch, Marcela Olguín, Patricia Gerez, Carlos Muench, Gonzalo Chapela, Raúl Benet, Adolfo Chavez, and Rodrigo Galindo

The success of community level forest management in Mexico has been widely reported (Klooster and Masera 2000; Bray et al. 2005; Ellis and Porter-Bolland 2008) and annual deforestation rates have been falling steadily (INECC 2015). However, while forest products and benefits of various types (e.g. timber, building poles, fuelwood, NTPFs, grazing areas) remain important for rural livelihoods, there is evidence that access to these resources is increasingly conditioned by socio-economic status, both within communities and among smallholders.

To examine these trends in community [End Page 248] forest management, we draw on our recent experience as participants in the workshop, “Acceso Equitativo y Gestión de Bienes Comunes Naturales en México,” organized by Dr. Leticia Merino on behalf of Oxfam Mexico in August 2017. The views here expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the workshop organizers. We highlight two main issues: first, within communities there is an increasing concentration of rights to forest resources in the hands of more privileged families; and second, policies that are intended to maintain sustainability actually make it difficult for communities and small landowners to profit legally from forest management.

communities are experiencing rural class formation

Between 55–65 percent of Mexico’s forests fall within the territorial boundaries of ejidos and comunidades indigenas (CIs) (Madrid et al. 2009). Land is allocated to members for cultivation or grazing and the remainder (usually forest) is managed communally and cannot be divided, according to the agrarian law of 1992. However, not all people living within these territories, particularly in the ejidos, have equal rights to forest resources. The Procuraduría Agraria estimated that about one-third of families (the so-called posesionarios and avecindados) in ejidos do not have full ejidal land rights (Robles Berlanga 2000). They cannot vote in the Asamblea (communal meetings) and are excluded from profits made from commonly held resources (timber extraction or payments for environmental services, PES). The marginalized are either newcomers or descendants who did not inherit the ejidal rights, which under the agrarian law are limited in number and, in the case of ejidos, accrue to a single heir.

Landless families are less common in CIs than in ejidos, since rules regarding inheritance and circumscribed membership do not necessarily apply. On average, they have more territory per inhabitant than ejidos, so younger sons may be allocated new plots from the communally held areas. However, women in CIs are usually even more excluded from inheritance structures than they are in ejidos, as CIs tend to reflect more traditional internal social relations, with men dominating the means of production.

Despite the 1992 law, in many ejidos the commonly held forests have been informally divided between individual ejidatarios. Over the last 30 years there has been an increase in formal and informal sales of land and voting rights, resulting in the accumulation of land, including shares of the forest, by wealthier ejidatarios. Non-ejidatarios may be permitted to gather firewood or graze a few cows in the common forest, provided it has not been fenced into individual plots. In addition, buyers from outside are taking the opportunity to clear forests to invest in high value agro-industrial monocultures, often with indirect support from government programs, e.g. for avocados (subsidies by the Mexican Department of Agriculture to help the produce meet international phytosanitary standards) and palm oil (subsidies by the Fondo de Capitalización e Inversión del Sector Rural to construct processing plants).

Property statistics are not available for the forest areas outside ejidos and CIs, although [End Page 249] it is estimated that 30–40 percent is owned by small and relatively poor land owners with only 50–100 ha of forest each, which can be too little to qualify for support from government programs. These small “unmanaged” forests are often used for timber, charcoal, and firewood and as a result the owners are vulnerable to fines and confiscation of products and tools. In places like the Yucatán Peninsula...