Credit: Claudio Contreras.
Forests The Battle of Statistics
By Diego Cevallos
Authorities say that deforestation in Mexico has been reduced by nearly 100,000 hectares annually since 1990 and could be halted in five years. But environmental activists refute those figures, saying forests continue on the road towards disappearing.
MEXICO CITY, (Tierramérica).- Mexico has reversed the destruction of its forests, and in five years could reduce its deforestation rate to zero, say the authorities. But according to activists and civil society groups that is false. Some even say that if the situation isn't changed, the country's area covered by forests and jungles today would disappear in just over a century.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the highest global authority on deforestation, approved the latest studies by the Mexican government on the issue and went so far as to congratulate it for its achievements.
The official figures, presented in December, indicate that deforestation fell from 401,000 hectares a year in the 1990-2000 period to 314,000 hectares a year from 2000 to 2005.
Hosny El-Lakany, the FAO's assistant director for forests, said that "we should congratulate Mexico for its exemplary report for 2005 and especially for having achieved this reduction in deforestation rates in the country."
However, the official statistics generate suspicions among eco-activists, because in 2001 the Mexican government itself talked about an annual deforestation rate of 1.1 million hectares, then it lowered it to 631,000, and later to 600,000.
"The situation of the forests is critical," and that is proved by the different studies, evidence and the attitude of the government, for which the forest issue is now "priority number 40 or more," Sergio Madrid, spokesman for G-Bosques, told Tierramérica. This new coalition of 14 civil society groups and forestry producers was created in September.
For G-Bosques ("bosques" means forests in Spanish), the forests and jungles, which cover some 56 million hectares in Mexico and capture two-thirds of the freshwater that the country consumes, continue on the road to extinction.
The activists argue that the government budget for forestry is just 0.01 percent of the overall budget, and that the support programs target just 13 percent of the jungle and forested areas.
Furthermore, they maintain that although the productive potential of Mexico's forests is more than 30 million cubic meters of lumber, current commercial output doesn't reach eight million cubic meters.
Mexico, which in the past 50 years has lost half its forest cover, maintains its place as the fifth country that most deforests its territory, says the international environmental watchdog group Greenpeace.
Meanwhile, the World Rainforest Movement warns that local jungles will disappear in about a half-century and the forests in little more than a century.
Manuel Reed, director of the government's National Forestry Commission, Conafor, applauded the activists for their concern about the forests, but considers their point of view disturbing.
"We have scientific and comparable data," obtained under the parameters of the FAO and of other recognized experts, which demonstrate that in the last five years the destruction of the forests was halted and reversed, the official said in a
Mexico is no longer the fifth country in terms of deforestation rates -- that figure is from five years ago, said Reed. It is his understanding, he said, "that in the new report that the FAO is now preparing, we will be in a much better position."
"The doors of Conafor are open. We don't hide anything. If they (the group G-Bosques) don't agree, they should come and we'll talk," he said.
"It's true that we continue to lose forest, but there is already a very important turning point, and it is going to see a strong decline. We believe that in five years more, we could have a rate of zero deforestation," Reed said.
G-Bosques spokesman Madrid refutes those statements: "Today we have no reliable data from the government about what is happening with the forests. First they tell us a million hectares, then 300,000 and other figures. This is a joke."
Greenpeace paints the official figures as "happy tales" and accuses the authorities of pretending "to end deforestation through equations, decrees and speeches, without taking the measures that truly protect our country's forests."
When the administration of President Vicente Fox got under way in 2000, the forests and water were raised to the category of "national security issues". Under that banner, the government took up the Forestry Strategic Plan, which sets goals and objectives up to 2025, promotes new legislation, and created institutions like Conafor.
"I believe the government is trying to give a greater push to forest preservation, but unfortunately there is never a budget that reaches," Rufino Meraz, leader of the Pueblo Nuevo ejido (rural cooperative), in the central state of Durango, told Tierramérica.
In that community of 243,000 hectares there is lumber production over an area of 84,560 hectares. The activity is considered sustainable by the government and is certified as such by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international agency that grants its seal, which ensures that the cultivation and harvesting of trees is environmentally and socially friendly.
"The government support that reaches us here is for the education of the people, to plant the idea that we have the resources and should take advantage of them. We have here almost a century living from the forest, and the forest is still here, which proves that it can be done," Meraz said.
From 1997 to 2005, the total area of Mexican forests with FSC certification grew from 110,000 to 651,000 hectares.
G-Bosques points out that 80 percent of the forested lands in Mexico are in the hands of communities, but denounces that the government provides little or no help to that sector.
Conafor director Reed responded that the allegation was false: "Most of the budget goes to the communal areas and ejidos."
About the forestry budget, the official admitted that little is invested in the sector, but stressed that the current expenditures -- around 318 million dollars a year (which includes funds from federal and state governments -- grew more than 1,000 percent since 2000.
"Of course we are not going to fix the forestry sector overnight, but we can guarantee that now there are very clear policies for Mexico's forests," which did not exist in the past, he said.
Nevertheless, G-Bosques ends up with a bottom line that is completely different.
"All of the available diagnoses, whether from G-Bosques or from other institutions, show that our country's forestry resources are in grave danger. It is worrisome that while Mexico possesses such an important natural resource the government agencies don't make the problem a priority, and don't take effective action towards a solution," said the group in a statement.
* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent.