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Climate Change, Forests and Rural Development in Highland Mexico

May 23, 2011

 

*Dr. Graham Woodgate

(Photo: The volcanic cone of the Nevado Toluca rising above the forests below)

Reducing carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) is a key plank of global climate change mitigation strategies. Opinion is divided on the efficacy and ethics of REDD+ mechanisms, in no small part due to the complexity of the two-way relationship between forests and climate and the structural characteristics of North-South relations.

A recent trip to highland Mexico provided some interesting insights into these issues and underlined the importance of ensuring that the local needs and capacities of rural communities are not forgotten in our attempts to address the most ubiquitous threat to human security in the 21st century.

Earlier this year, the Institute for Agricultural and Rural Sciences at the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico (ICAR, UAEM) invited me to facilitate a research workshop on climate change and natural resource policy and management.  After the workshop, I accompanied colleagues from ICAR into the field to observe and discuss ongoing research. My first trip was to the municipality of San Felipe del Progreso, to visit a project for the in-situ conservation of maize genetic diversity.

Maize was first domesticated in Mexico, which is the world centre of maize genetic diversity, representing a vital resource for developing new varieties that can help to ensure future food security in the context of climate change. Together with the farmers of San Felipe, who cultivate an impressive 30 plus varieties of maize in their small upland fields, the researchers at ICAR are helping to preserve this genetic heritage against a backdrop of agricultural modernisation that seeks homogeneity rather than diversity.

(Photo: Researcher and farmer with local maize varieties)

I carried out PhD field research in San Felipe in the late 1980s and was startled by the changes that have occurred since then.  In 1992 revisions to Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution brought an end to 60 years of state-led agrarian reform and provided for the division of community lands (ejidos) into individual private holdings in order to facilitate market-led agrarian restructuring.

The extent to which this has occurred is debated, but in the Valley of Toluca it is quite clear that significant areas of agricultural land, rather than shifting from subsistence to commercial agriculture, have been turned over to urban uses, with housing developments springing up along every newly metalled road.

As the terms of trade have declined for basic crops, it has become increasingly difficult to subsist in the countryside. Those that remain may receive remittances from family members that have migrated, but on a daily basis they depend on what value they can extract from available natural resources.

Some farmers have shifted into more lucrative livestock production. While Galicia and Garcia-Romero (2007) have suggested that this may reduce the pressure for deforestation, my recent visit suggested that other factors, including phenomena associated with climate change and rural poverty, are also influencing forest health and land cover.

The second field trip of my recent visit took me to the Nevado Toluca, Mexico’s fourth highest peak,  which was designated a national park in the 1930s in order to protect the volcano and its extensive pine-oak forests. As with maize, Mexico is the global centre of biodiversity for both pine and oak, making conservation a vital international, as well as local, issue.

ICAR’s research is generating important information in terms of the struggle to halt deforestation and forest degradation. Back in the 1980s the Nevado’s forests reached the limits of tree growth at around 3,800 m. One of ICAR’s most significant findings is the occurrence of small groups of young trees growing at significantly higher altitudes. This suggests that as global warming progresses, the tree line is advancing and the forests are expanding up-slope.

Unfortunately limited forest expansion at higher altitudes is more than offset by forest degradation further down slope. Unlike many national parks, the designation of the Nevado Toluca did not involve the expropriation of land. Agrarian reform communities and private land owners alike were allowed to retain ownership, although restrictions were placed on land use and support was provided for tree planting. Despite protected area status, however, forest cover within the park has dwindled from over 50 to less than 20 thousand hectares, while the density of tree cover has reduced, leading much of the remaining forest to be classified as ‘fragmented’.

The struggle for survival in the countryside leads people to engage in illegal logging, with individual trees fetching US$ 100 and more. The clandestine nature of this activity means, that in order to avoid detection, people come into the forest for short periods, cutting just a few of the larger trees, often with no more than hand tools. Along with a warming climate, illegal logging might also contribute to the increasing numbers of insect pests, such as pine bark beetles, which are attracted by chemicals released when trees are injured.

In particular, Mexico is seeing a significant loss of forest cover due to infestation by Dentroctonus spp. – the ‘tree killers’. These beetles bore in through the bark to excavate egg galleries. An early sign of infestation are the resin tubes that form on the bark at the entrance to the beetle’s tunnels. When the eggs hatch the larvae begin to devour the living tissue, destroying the trees’ ability to transport water and nutrients, ultimately resulting in premature death.

In addition to illegal logging and beetle infestation, the Nevado’s forests are also being degraded by the activities of livestock farmers. At the end of each dry season farmers burn off the dead vegetation beneath the forest canopy in order to encourage earlier and more nutritious grass growth for their sheep and cattle.  Although many species of pine growing at high altitude require periodic fires to release seed from cones for the regeneration of the forest, this burning destroys any young seedlings that may have been established during the previous spring and summer.

In concert, illegal logging, beetle infestation and forest fires all add up to a very alarming rate of forest degradation and have almost certainly caused the forests of the Nevado Toluca to shift from being net carbon sinks to net emitters, providing further positive feedback into the climate change equation.

It must also be recognised that illegal logging and forest fires are ultimately a result of poor people’s struggles to make ends meet.  Thus, if policies such as the UNFCCC’s REDD+ strategy are to achieve the desired results, close attention must be focused on mechanisms that can provide realistic and reliable alternative incomes for otherwise marginalised rural people.

*Graham Woodgate is Senior Lecturer in Environmental Sociology at the Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London.

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