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planting trees Sowing Life is the government's flagship environmental initiative.

Massive tree-planting program has contributed to deforestation

Employment program gives landowners incentive to clear land for planting

Its raison d’être is to reforest more than a million hectares of land in Mexico but the federal government’s tree-planting employment program is paradoxically encouraging deforestation.

A Bloomberg news agency journalist said in a report he saw evidence of deforestation associated with the US $3.4-billion Sembrando Vida (Sowing Life) program during a trip to Yucatán and Campeche in late February.

The federal government’s flagship environmental initiative is designed to help Mexico achieve climate goals while providing jobs and income – currently 4,500 pesos (US $212) per month – for some of Mexico’s most disadvantaged people.

But while the government said the program had planted or prepared 660 million saplings by the end of 2020 and is on track to grow a billion by the end of next year, Sowing Life is also causing environmental destruction.

The Bloomberg report said that forested land in Yucatán has been burned so that saplings can be planted where mature trees formerly stood.

“This is what Sowing Life does,” José, a Yucatán farmer, told the news agency while kicking a blackened tree stump. “[But] what can we do? It’s the only opportunity there is.”

The problem is that in order to participate in the reforestation program and collect a monthly wage from the government, farmers need access to cleared land where they can plant timber-yielding and fruit trees. Sowing Life thus incentivizes farmers to clear forested land.

“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 López Mendoza, an ecology and conservation professor at the University of Science and Arts of Chiapas.

According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), a United States-based environmental non-profit organization that has collaborated with the Mexican government to assess the results of the reforestation program, Sowing Life may have inadvertently caused the deforestation of 73,000 hectares of land in 2019, the first year the scheme ran.

The estimate came from a study that used satellite images to measure recent deforestation. In addition to Yucatán and Campeche, land in Veracruz, Tabasco, Quintana Roo and Chiapas has been deforested due to people’s desire to participate in Sowing Life, WRI found. Bloomberg noted that the estimated area of land deforested in 2019 is almost the size of New York City.

Some people in Mexico believe that the extent of the destruction could be even greater. Juan Manuel Herrera, a forestry engineer from Campeche, told Bloomberg that there has potentially been much more deforestation in that state than the WRI estimate suggests.

The president, center, inspects a tree nursery growing saplings for the tree-planting program.
The president, center, inspects a tree nursery growing saplings for the tree-planting program.

In one village, more than two-thirds of Sowing Life beneficiaries felled trees in order to participate, one participant said.

Antonio, who asked for his surname not to be used out of fear of repercussions, showed Bloomberg a parcel of land where he and other family members cleared a thicket of trees including Caribbean walnut and Red Chaca so that they could join Sowing Life.

A representative of the program in the village, which Bloomberg didn’t name, rejected the claim that trees had been cut down so that people could become participants, asserting that land on which cattle was formerly grazed was used.

But Antonio said that he and his relatives didn’t plant saplings on such land because their cows needed it. He said he only wanted to remove some small trees from the forested area and replace them with saplings that are part of Sowing Life but the program representatives were only looking for land that was cleared completely and he couldn’t afford not to participate.

“Sowing Life’s inconsistencies add to [President] Lopez Obrador’s poor track record on climate,” Bloomberg said. The news agency’s revelations come after the newspaper El Universal published a report last June that said the tree-planting program was riddled with operational flaws and corruption.

Despite the problems that have been exposed, López Obrador has described Sowing Life  as a “blessed program” and touts it as the most important reforestation initiative in the world.

For his part, the executive director of the Mexican Climate Initiative, a non-governmental organization, warned that poorly-designed environmental programs can have unintended consequences.

“These types of programs, if not well designed, can give birth to perverse incentives,” Adrián Fernández Bremauntz told Bloomberg.

In the case of Sowing Life, communities that have lived amid jungle for hundreds of years are left with a dilemma, the news agency said: “Cut down your habitat or turn away much-needed income.”

Source: Bloomberg (en) 

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