Issue of March, 03, 2008
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Reforested mountainous terrain in Mexico.
Credit: Comisión Nacional Forestal
Report
Record Reforestation, But Still Some Discontent
By Diego Cevallos* - Tierramérica

An unprecedented budget for Mexico's forest policies and the government's goal to plant hundreds of millions of trees have not been enough to calm the debate about the scope of deforestation.

MEXICO CITY, Mar 3 (Tierramérica).- A year ago, Mexican activists criticized the national forest policy, saying it was deceptive and insufficient. Now voices are being heard that extol the government's effort and its goal to plant 280 million trees in 2008.

That figure is 30 million more than the total trees planted in 2007.

"They are doing some interesting things, with highly qualified people. We should be open to the changes," Sergio Madrid, spokesperson for G-Bosques, a coalition of 14 citizen groups and forest producers, told Tierramérica.

The government has not established special zones for reforestation, except for some special programs centered on threatened areas, especially in the country's southeast. The campaign operates mostly in response to requests from owners of rural land and from state governments.

Each state has set its own goal, and the combined total yields the total of 280 million trees to be planted across more than 600,000 hectares in a bid to halt loss of forest cover. In 2007, the governmental National Forestry Commission (Conafor), received 80,000 reforestation requests, but could only attend to half.

Of the 100 forest municipalities facing greatest marginalization -- located primarily in Guerrero, Chiapas and Oaxaca states -- 85 percent of the requests were fulfilled.

Among the dozens of species of trees, bushes and cactuses, pines are the most widely planted. In arid and semi-arid zones, examples of the species planted are: mesquite, nopal, agave and stone pine (Pinus pinea L).

In temperate areas, the trees being planted are the sacred fir (Abies religiosa), ash, cypress and oak; and in the tropical regions cedro rojo (Cedrela odorata), big-leaf mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), andiroba (Carapa guianensis) and trumpet tree (Tabebuia rosea), among others.

But environmental groups, like the Mexican affiliate of Greenpeace, say that the tree-planting project is a failure and hides an alarming rate of deforestation.

The Conafor general coordinator for conservation and restoration, Vicente Arriaga, told Tierramérica that those "acidic criticisms" from some activists are the result, in part, of their own lack of contact with foresters and the peasant farmers who receive or request official support.

The current rate of deforestation, according to Arriaga, is less than 300,000 hectares per year. In a decade reforestation "will have compensated the loss of forests," he said.

The conservative government of President Felipe Calderón has the backing of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the highest global authority on forest issues, to stop forest loss in Mexico and to reduce illegal logging to a minimum.

But Héctor Magallón, head of the Greenpeace-Mexico forest campaign, says the official deforestation figures are not credible, and that 600,000 hectares of forest are lost yearly.

Mexico's forests cover approximately 56 million hectares and play a fundamental role in channeling two-thirds of the freshwater consumed in the country.

According to Greenpeace, Mexico is one of the world's five leading deforesters, with Brazil in first place and India in second.

The G-Bosques spokesperson Madrid agrees, noting that the government figures on deforestation are doubtful. He believes there were "methodological problems at the moment of compiling them."

This year the government will spend some 500 million dollars on forest programs. This unprecedented sum is distributed among reforestation efforts, payments for "environmental services" to owners of forested lands, and soil conservation projects, among others.

But Greenpeace argues that planting trees does not solve the problem, because only a small percentage of the seedlings survive. "The program is a failure," Magallón told Tierramérica.

Arriaga accuses the activists of using data from the 1980s and erroneously focusing on tree survival.

In the agro-forestry sciences, it is expected that in a period of 30 years just 10 to 30 percent of the planted trees will survive, says Arriaga: "That is not failure."

Maximizing the density of trees per hectare is one of the program's objectives, because later the least thriving trees are thinned out, he said.

Between ages 10 and 15, trees have their greatest capacity to capture carbon, the main factor contributing to the greenhouse effect. After that, many trees should be cut, because if a high density of trees is maintained, they will lose their carbon capturing properties, he added.

G-Bosques' Madrid, who a year ago looked upon these government programs with suspicion, now sees them as the right approach, "although they remain insufficient."

He noted that the government earmarks some 100 million dollars per year to pay various sums to owners of forest totaling 8.5 million hectares to conserve and manage the forests.

"The support could and should reach 20 million hectares, but there is progress and I wouldn't want to put the accent on the strategy's weak points," Madrid said.

About the millions of trees to be planted this year, he commented that it is a valid program, "independently of the possible survival of the trees."

Furthermore, the fact that the government is publicizing the reforestation effort and proclaiming Mexico as a world leader on the issue "isn't a negative, because with this it has activated environmental awareness," he said.

Magallón, in contrast, sees it as "an embarrassment" that the government's support of conservation of existing forests is "so marginal" and that it is giving so much publicity to reforestation.

Arriaga refuted the Greenpeace assertion that the government spends more on reforestation than on soil conservation, payment to small farmers for environmental services and other areas. "We have met with them, and we have given them the figures," he said.

The U.N. Environment Program established a global goal for 2007-2008 to plan one billion trees per year. Mexico is the country contributing most towards that objective, say the authorities.

* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent.

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