Case StudiesCase Study 2    December 1, 2020  English (United States) Español (España)
CS2 Description


Forests play a critical role in balancing the global climate through carbon sequestration, serve as the repository for most of the planet’s terrestrial biodiversity, hold important economic activities (wood, forest fruits, medicinal products, grazing, food, fiber…), mitigate carbon emissions and provide environmental services (FAO, 2006). They house more than half of the worlds’ species of animals, birds and insects. In addition, forests help maintain the fertility of agricultural land, protect water sources, and reduce the risks of natural disasters such as landslides and flooding. All these reasons are in the origin of declaring 2011 as the International Year of Forests by UN. About 60 million people (mainly indigenous and tribal groups) are almost wholly dependent on forests and another 350 million people who live within or adjacent to dense forests depend on them to a high degree for subsistence and income. Some 1000 million people worldwide depend on medicines derived from forest plants or rely on common-pool forest resources for meeting essential needs (FAO, 2009). However they are usually valued solely for their main commercial resource, timber, which is why they are so wantonly logged and cleared. According to FAO, forest cover 31% of the Earth’s land surface. Only a third is primary forest and much of the rest is seriously degraded. In the past six decades the rainforest has been reduced by 60% and two-thirds of what remains is fragmented, which makes it even more liable to be cleared (The Economist, Sep 25th 2010). Deforestation and the change in the use of land (forests converted into agricultural land) represent nowadays an important threat to interventions to mitigate the effects of climate change. In the same line are the informal exploitation of forest and clandestine trade of wood. In some countries in the Asia-Pacific region, forest destruction is responsible for global biodiversity losses on the order of 2 to 5 percent per decade, resulting in inestimable harm to ecosystem stability and human well-being (FAO 2009). Climate change and forest dieback caused by rising aridity, drought, pests and fires, increase in human population and their food and fuel needs and biodiesel production are also expected to add increasing pressures to forest areas. These areas suffer the so-called ‘tragedy of commons’ (Hardin, 1968). Government mismanagement and lack of clear property and ownership rights open opportunities to big companies and local communities to unsustainable use them. However, some positive trends also emerge. In the past two decades the area of forest in developing countries that is wholly or partly controlled locally has more than doubled, to over 400 m hectares (27% of the total). The efforts to deal with the grievances of dispossessed indigenous people, especially in Latin America, and political decentralization schemes, especially in Africa and Asia, are in the origin of this shift. Different experiences show that local people tenure is an incentive to manage the forest sustainably. However, they generally need advice, training and access to credit to make a sustainable livelihood from it.


Mexico is a country with major forestry resources. At present, it has 128 million hectares covered with forests, jungles, and other kind of vegetation (SEMARNAT, 2002). At the same time, it suffers from one the highest rates of deforestation. According to FAO, the rate of deforestation reaches 600,000 hectares per year. More optimistic estimates point out that only 400,000 hectares are lost annually (CONAFOR, 2004).

Forestry represents an important means of living to many Mexican families. It is responsible for about 82,000 direct jobs and for more than 208,000 in the industrial sector. Industry, directly and indirectly related to forestry represents 7.4% of industrial GDP (INEGI, 2009). The property of forest resources in Mexico is basically social. About 95 million hectares of the 128 total are owned by “ejidos”F#F and communitiesF#F (Mota, 2006). The majority of them are diversified production units (forestry is combined with other activities like agriculture or mining). But this kind of property means an interlinking between productive activities and governance structure. For example, the mere and complementary authorities are elected in general assemblies.

A portfolio of public interventions encompasses the approach that the Mexican government has towards forests and the role assigned to them in economic and environmental terms. For example, Mexico has embarked on a program of paying environmental services to forest owners to enhance reforestation and water reserves. The strategic forestry program intends to reduce 75% deforestation by the 2025, and recover five million degraded hectares (SEMARNAT, 2010).


Calpulalpam de Mendez is a small forest community located in the State of Oaxaca in South Pacific of the Mexican Republic. It encompasses 3,850 hectares and it is inhabited by around 2,000 people (CDI, 2003).

Calpulalpam can be characterized as a community which has combined economic viability with social equity. Its paradigm consists of making possible that all actors participate in the running of the main economic activities but also that nobody profits unequally from them. A strong institutional arrangement is in place to make sure everybody complies with the rules, and at the same time, independence is kept, as much as possible, from external actors e.g. local and federal government agencies. It is a community where social capital plays a key role in their achievements and challenges.

Calpulalpam like other forest communities in Mexico suffers from a variety of phenomena which pose threats on the natural resources under their control. The expansion of agriculture and livestock activities are the most dangerous and common one. The assimilation of forest areas into urban quarters is another one. Overexploitation of wooden and non-wooden species is frequently carried out changing the dynamics of ecosystems.

By and large this community has managed to resist these impacts. The key factor has been the governance process. This consists of making the decisions of how to manage the natural resources a citizens concern and their right to decide on. The authorities are elected according to long established democratic procedures. But more importantly is what responsibilities are assigned to them.

The governance lies on three columns: i) the local government: the mere and the collaborators are elected in general assemblies to provide the community with basic services. The authorities and their deputies are elected for a period of three years and receive no payment for their work. However, each individual is in charge only a year and half. The other half is occupied by the deputies; ii) the Communal Authority look after the natural resources of the community and the use decided by the general assembly to manage the structure of property rights according to the agrarian law and iii) “el sistema de cargos” (the system of collectively decided responsibilities): individuals are assigned responsibilities in different areas of community concerns. They are not paid for them but are not allowed to refuse them unless their economic status does not allow it. These individuals combine these unpaid responsibilities with paid activities from which they earn their living.

The main purpose of this system is to create a network of responsibilities with assigned individuals which perform their tasks for the benefit of the community. It is a private effort for collective gain. These three columns on which community governance lies allow creating a standard welfare and more importantly a sustainable use of natural resources. However, there is another variable to take into account. An important actor which participates as a kind of positive externality is represented by nongovernmental organizations which provide technical and political advice.


Despite the so-called good example of sustainable development Calpulalpam de Mendez represents, several challenges are still in place that require research, such as enhancing community welfare without losing equity, increasing value added economic activities without creating a division between the industrial section and the primary one, increasing economic development, new institutional arrangements. These are precisely the areas of collaboration, which COMET-LA could help to extend and make deeper.


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Prof. Maria del Mar Delgado 

Directora del Secretariado para la Formación de Investigadores
Universidad de Córdoba





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