How Mexico’s Vast Tree-Planting Program Ended Up Encouraging Deforestation

In the hills of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, the jungle abruptly stops and dozens of saplings grow scattered around charred tree stumps.

The seedlings are a sign of the government’s vast reforestation program known as Sembrando Vida, or Sowing Life. But so too is the burned out clearing; in this part of Mexico, the project is linked to widespread destruction as well as regeneration.

Under Mexico’s previous government, the owner was paid to care for the jungle on their land, but after President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took office in 2018 that program’s budget was slashed and Sowing Life was introduced. It instead pays farmers to plant trees for fruit or timber on small plots of land, with the aim of creating an industry in deprived rural areas for decades to come.

But a trip in late February to Yucatan and Campeche, two participating states in Mexico’s southeast, showed that flaws at the project’s inception risk undoing its good intentions.

“This is what Sowing Life does,” said Jose, a local farmer, kicking a blackened stump. He asked that his surname be withheld for fear of losing government funds for criticizing the program.

How Mexico’s Vast Tree-Planting Program Ended Up Encouraging Deforestation

Sembrando Vida is Lopez Obrador’s flagship environmental project, a $3.4 billion tree-planting plan intended to help meet climate goals while fulfilling his overarching aim of fighting Mexico’s rampant poverty and inequality. 

In Yucatan and Campeche, however, locals speak of uncertainty over the legal status of plots and of a dogmatic approach by some program administrators that fails to take into account basic agricultural practices. The principal charge, though, is that the system incentivizes farmers to clear land of jungle in preparation for planting. 

“In many cases people said, ‘Well, I have my hectare of jungle but the program is coming so I’ll cut down the jungle, use the trees for my house or to sell the wood or whatever, and when the program comes I’ll sow seeds again,’” said Sergio Lopez Mendoza, an ecology and conservation professor at the University of Science and Arts of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state.   

The previous program paid a lump sum to the community, which would be used to protect and maintain the jungle and ecosystems in their area. Sowing Life provides direct payments, a change that is seen in some areas as harming communal dynamics in favor of individualism.

The Welfare Ministry, which is in charge of Sowing Life, didn’t provide a response to detailed questions on the program. The president’s office declined to comment for this story.

The program is currently paying around 420,000 farmers 4,500 pesos (about $213) a month to plant trees, according to the government. The goal is to reforest a little over one million hectares of degraded land across Mexico and grow more than one billion plants by the end of 2021. The government says it’s on track to meet that target.

How Mexico’s Vast Tree-Planting Program Ended Up Encouraging Deforestation

That success may have come at a price, according to the World Resources Institute, an environmental non-profit that has worked with the Mexican government to monitor the results of Sowing Life. The Washington-based WRI estimates that the program may have caused the loss of nearly 73,000 hectares of forest coverage in 2019, its first full year, according to a study based on satellite images and shared with Bloomberg News.

That’s an area almost the size of New York City. It’s also nearly half the average annual amount of forest coverage lost due to land-use change and illegal logging in the same region, according to WRI calculations.

How Mexico’s Vast Tree-Planting Program Ended Up Encouraging Deforestation

Some on the ground think the devastation could be worse still. Juan Manuel Herrera, a forestry engineer from Campeche, said the state had potentially seen much higher losses than those estimated by WRI.

The monthly payments are a critical lifeline for some of the poorest communities of a country battered by the pandemic. Mexico’s economy plunged 8.2% in 2020, while formal employment has dropped in all areas outside the industrial northern border states. Social programs are central to support for the president’s Morena party ahead of June’s midterm elections, with polls showing that voters regard them as among the government’s best achievements.

How Mexico’s Vast Tree-Planting Program Ended Up Encouraging Deforestation

At the local level, however, the environmental damage threatens to outweigh the benefits. In just one village in Campeche, more than two-thirds of those on the program had chopped down forest to be able to take part, according to a participant.

Antonio, who asked to be identified only by his first name for fear of repercussions, showed where he and his relatives had cleared a dense area of trees including Tzalam, or Caribbean walnut, and Red Chaca, commonly known as gumbo-limbo, to qualify for payments.

A Sowing Life representative in the village denied that people had felled trees to enter the program, saying they had used former cattle grazing land.

Antonio, at least, said they had left the grazing land untouched because their cows needed it. He’d wanted to keep the jungle intact and take down some small trees to help the others grow, he said, but the program’s representatives were looking only for cleared land — and he needed the government money.

How Mexico’s Vast Tree-Planting Program Ended Up Encouraging Deforestation

Sowing Life’s inconsistencies add to Lopez Obrador’s poor track record on climate. The president has consistently favored state oil giant Petroleos Mexicanos, known as Pemex, and the state utility at the expense of private renewables projects. He’s attracted criticism from NGOs for building an oil refinery on the site of a mangrove forest and for a planned tourist railway through the rainforest. Mexico’s government has joined Russia and Brazil in failing to improve on its Paris climate commitments ahead of the COP26 summit in November.

Back in 2019, Lopez Obrador brushed off calls to declare a climate emergency by pointing to Sowing Life along with government moves to deny mining permits and conserve water, saying he was “very satisfied” with his environmental record. Mexico “is doing everything possible to stop the destruction of forests,” he said then. As recently as last month, he referred to Sowing Life as a “blessed program” and regularly says it is the most important reforestation plan in the world.

How Mexico’s Vast Tree-Planting Program Ended Up Encouraging Deforestation

The project can point to successes, with some 660 million plants in the ground or being nurtured by the end of 2020. Yet the ambitious targets are far from enough for the program to be the main factor in Mexico meeting its Paris goals, said Adrian Fernandez Bremauntz, executive director of the Mexican Climate Initiative, an NGO.

“These types of programs, if not well designed, can give birth to perverse incentives,” he said.

Certainly, the system of payments has effectively left communities that have lived in the jungle for centuries with a dilemma: Cut down your habitat or turn away much-needed income.

Bernardo Chankin, a village leader in the Lacandon jungle of Chiapas, said less than a third of the families from his village were able to enter the program because the community refused to fell trees. “In Lacandon, we dedicate ourselves to conservation,” Chankin said by phone. Now rivers and wells in his part of Chiapas are drying up due to deforestation he said was spurred by the project.

Others such as Jose, the Yucatan farmer, say their communities have no choice. “What can we do?” he said. “It’s the only opportunity there is.”

How Mexico’s Vast Tree-Planting Program Ended Up Encouraging Deforestation

The government seems to be doing little to ensure the project’s endurance. Farmers aren’t asked to sign contracts, only promissory letters, two participants said. The areas designated for timber haven’t been formally registered, prompting uncertainty over the awarding of permits required to log the trees once they mature. Some farmers pocket the payments and do the minimum to avoid ejection from the program, reasoning that they can simply plant more profitable crops when handouts dry up.

“There are young guys who say, ‘Oh lady, why are you watering? When the program ends, cut it down and start sowing soya,’” said Nancy Lopez, 57, a farmer in Yucatan, proudly showing off a small nursery of trees she’ll soon plant.

How Mexico’s Vast Tree-Planting Program Ended Up Encouraging Deforestation

The program’s chances of success may not be helped by some of the practices seen at local level. In trying to encourage fruit or timber yields, administrators often ask participants to plant non-native trees, which can struggle in alien environments. Forestry engineer Herrera and his team estimate that just 10-30% of the trees planted in some regions will survive.

All is not yet lost. Jose Ivan Zuniga, a manager on the forestry team at WRI Mexico, praised the government’s ambition, saying the problem was the rush to implement. If now done well and maintained through 2030, the program could capture two-to-three times the carbon that was lost at the start, he said.

It’s essential the government legally register the parcels of land and guarantee the hectares planted remain in the forestry system for at least 30 years, said Zuniga. Otherwise, he said, “it’s all going to go down the drain.”

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