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Mexico’s tree-planting program actually results in less forest in Yucatán

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A trail through the rain forest leads to the ruins Sayil, part of the pre-Hispanic Town of Uxmal. Photo: Getty

An investigation into a program meant to preserve Mexico’s forests shows how good intentions can result in unintended consequences.

Dozens of saplings grow scattered around charred tree stumps in the hills of Yucatán and Campeche, thanks to Mexico’s vast reforestation program, Sembrando Vida, or Sowing Life. But so too is the burned-out clearing. In this part of Mexico, the project is linked to widespread destruction as well as regeneration, reports Bloomberg.

Under Mexico’s previous government, landowners were paid to care for the jungle on their land, but after President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office in 2018 that program’s budget was slashed and Sowing Life was introduced. It instead pays farmers to plant fruit or timber trees on small plots of land to encourage industry in deprived rural areas.

But a trip here by a Bloomberg reporter in late February showed flaws in the program.

“This is what Sowing Life does,” said a local farmer, kicking a blackened stump.

Sowing Life is described as Lopez Obrador’s flagship environmental project, a US$3.4 billion tree-planting plan that inadvertently incentivizes farmers to clear the land of jungle for planting trees. 

The program pays around 420,000 farmers 4,500 pesos / US$213 a month to plant trees, according to the government. Mexico says it’s on track on its goal is to reforest a little over 1 million hectares of degraded land and grow more than one billion plants by the end of 2021.

But the World Resources Institute estimates that the program may have caused the loss of nearly 73,000 hectares of forest coverage in 2019, its first full year, according to a study based on satellite images and shared with Bloomberg News.

It’s also nearly half the average annual amount of forest coverage lost due to land-use change and illegal logging in the same region, according to their calculations.

A Sowing Life representative denied that people have cut down trees to enter the program, saying they had used former cattle grazing land.

Jose, a farmer in Yucatán, said their communities have no choice.

“What can we do?” he said. “It’s the only opportunity there is.”

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