Mayan community forest reserves (MCFR) as a global model for sustainable landscapes: a case study of Quintana Roo, Mexico

This case study will look at the different forms of ejidos in Quintana Roo, Mexico, and analyze which form is the most optimal for promoting biodiversity, conservation, and overall benefits for Mayan communities. Community forestry is prevalent in the state of Quintana Roo, where 67% of forested land is under communal property known as ejido. Prior to the 1970s, Mayan communities only held putative claims to forested lands, while the Mexican government had substantial control. Public outrage from ineffective logging bans finally pressured Mexican forestry policy to establish Mayan communities’ self-governance over forests under ejido; thus beginning the long process of decentralization. However, ejidos are yet to gain complete autonomy, as they are subject to governmental regulations and dependence on external forest technicians’ assistance. Despite the high area of forest being owned and managed using non-industrial methods by Maya locals, deforestation due to livestock and maize production is rampant in the state. Therefore, it is necessary to understand why some ejidos may be failing to achieve non-economic forest values. Ultimately, this case study will evaluate ejidos in Quintana Roo, and analyze how Mayan communities can achieve greater biodiversity and economic and managerial independence.

1847-1902: Caste War

1901: Quintana Roo became a Mexican territory

1910-1917: The Mexican Revolution

1917: Agrarian Reform - creation of Ejido: the communal base for community forestry

1930s: State had a low population, with jungles under State property.

1984: Quintana Roo’s Forestry Pilot Plan (PPF) was designed for the purpose of empowering ejidos by increasing the economic benefits from their forests

1986: Forest Law gave ejidos the authority to control their property, and have legal rights for controlling levels of logging

1986-1994: a period of indifference and hostility

1992-present : Land reform - legalization of the selling of ejido land, allowing peasants to put up their land for a loan.

1997: Forest Law create programs for ejidos, favoring community forestry

2003: creation of CONAFOR, which provided funds to Quintana Roo, giving greater support in developing community forestry enterprises in ejidos


Prior to the late twentieth century, the Mexican government had substantial control over the use of forests, giving state-owned enterprises and a few private companies logging concessions, while local communities only held putative claims to their forested land[1]. Wavering between concession to timber parastatals and ineffective logging bans, Mexican forestry policy received negative reviews from the public, and was pressured towards the establishment of community forestry from 1974 to 1986[1]. Over the twentieth century, Agrarian Reform in Mexico led to self-governance within numerous sectors of rural community, along with various extent of direct democracy at village level, both of which are under the ejido and indigenous community systems[1]. In 1997, a new forestry law favouring community forestry was imposed, starting a future for self-organization of forests among indigenous communities[1]. This whole process resulted in the rise of an estimated 290-279 community forest enterprises (CFEs)[1].

Quintana Roo and Maya peoples

Quintana Roo, a Mexican state occupying 50,212 km2 of northeastern Yucatan Peninsula[2], retains 73% forest cover up until 2018[3]. In the interest of common good, mestizo peasants and Mayan people have been managing and conserving Mayan community forest reserves  (MCFR) collectively[4]. Maya people have been caring for the forests across Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Belize, and northern Guatemala for more than 3000 years[2][5], and have become even more spiritually and physically connected to the forests as a colonial impact, as they were prohibited access to land and resources and forced to witness how their forests turned into a centre of warfare during Caste War[2]. Today, the Maya forests continue to thrive due to Maya people’s deep connection and traditional knowledge that they implement[6]. Agroforestry systems and traditional farming are still practiced by Mayan communities, with sustainable management of soils and resources[6]. MCFR provide refuge for various endangered and rare species such as tapir, scarlet macaw, harpy eagle, lipped peccary, and howler monkey[5], and also play an important role in fulfilling self-subsistence of local communities[4].

Mexico does not have ILO 107 in force, but has ratified ILO 169. The ratification of ILO 169 is significant, because it shows that Mexico recognizes the indigenous and tribal groups' - such as the Maya people - rights to practise their culture and have self-governance[7].

In 1901, Quintana Roo became a Mexican territory, marking the end of Caste War (1847-1901), followed by the granting of foreign-owned forest concessions[2]. The Mexican revolution (1910-1917) later gave rise to a land-tenure framework favoring common property management, therefore, putting roughly 80% of Mexico’s forests under a common property regime[8]. This led to the establishment of ejidos in the third decade of the twentieth century, known as the first communal land grants, in Quintana Roo[2]. MCFR in particular, consist of 2 km bands of vegetation, circumscribing Maya villages. MCFR are referred to as “kaláantbi k'aax” (KK) in Yucatec Mayan, and “fundo legal” (FL) in Spanish, meaning “forest reserve” and “cared-for forest” respectively[4].

In Mexico, both ejidos and communal lands are prevalent collective rural landholdings, establishing collective management over community land[4]. Within the specific context of Quintana Roo, ejidos and communal lands gained recognition in 1974, when statehood was achieved[2]. Passage of 1986 Forest Law officially placed more than half of the nation’s forests into the hands of communities, with 67% of forested land in Quintana Roo being under communal ownership[2]. Although forest ejidos have not attained complete autonomy as they are subject to governmental regulations and often depend on external forest technicians’ assistance, their previous tenure bundle included management, de jure withdrawal, and exclusion rights[8]. Communities had the right to decide how much of their forest resources they would like to manage for timber and non-timber production, and who had access to shared forested areas[8]. In addition, ejidos were granted by the state with de jure alienation rights in non-forested areas as a result of the 1992 reform[8].

Agrarian Reform, forest policy and related institutions, and conservation & sustainable development initiatives are three institutional factors that have shaped  community forestry in Quintana Roo over time[2]. Land distribution to communities and Agrarian Reform began, when ejidos were formed in conjunction with the promotion of chicle production cooperatives[2]. Between 1935 and 1942, Maya people were distributed 10 ejidos - 35,000 ha each - to maintain chicle production[2]. Those lands were often heavily forested, which therefore, made large forest territories accessible to Maya populations. In the sixth decade of the twentieth century, smaller ejidos were granted to small household farmers, as a mechanism to promote colonization[2].

To better complement communal ownership, an ejido governance system was installed after Mexico Revolution and is still operating[2]. Community issues, including decisions regarding communally-managed land, natural resources and many others, are voted upon by ejidatarios, known as a General Assembly. Ejidatarios are commonly the male heads of each household[2]. An elected comisariado ejidal (ejido commission), representing each community, is responsible for the ejido’s administrative management and carrying out the General Assembly’s decisions[2]. In addition to a president, a secretary, and a treasurer, who each holds three-year terms, the commission also has a consejo de vigilancia (oversight council) in charge of policy making and enforcing community regulations, making up an auditing system[2]. Learning from colonial and indigenous systems, this ejido governance system is given credit in facilitating the MCFR movement and the creation of community forest enterprises in Mexico[2].

Ejidos are communal land grants that are widespread in Mexico, as over 80% of land is communally owned[8]. Communities in Quintana Roo are ethnically heterogeneous, as it is a mix of Maya people, mestizos, and immigrants from the neighbouring Yucatan State[8]. Furthermore, there has been a shifting demographic from an aging population to a younger population that has been moving in[2]. Within ejidos, there are communities that are more accustomed to agricultural and animal farming (cattle), or forestry related activities.

Ejido in Cuauhtémoc, Mexico City

Ejido are very diverse, and there are four types based on the various levels of power and authority in regards to management of forest resources.

  • Type I: 60% of ejidos, "communities with potential for forest production, but without formalized management"[2]
  • Type II: 16% of ejidos, "communities with formalized management that sell timber as standing trees to external operators and buyers, and do not participate in logging"[2]
  • Type III: 19% of ejidos, "communities that participate in formalized management and logging activities, selling timber as roundwood"[2]
  • Type IV: 5% of ejidos, "communities that participate in formalized management and logging activities, have saw mills, and sell sawnwood and and other value added products"[2]

Not only are ejidos categorized based on their type, but within ejidos, there is a hierarchical structure that makes important decisions democratically[9]. There are numerous positions that can be held by community members. For example, as mentioned above in the Administrative Arrangements section, there is a General Assembly that is made up of ejidatarios - the male head of the household - who vote on CFM decisions[2].

Some ejidos may not work as a whole, and have different subgroups which engage in their own independent forest activities, therefore, are separate from the elected ejidal commission[2]. However, subgroups are still subject to the regulations of the General Assembly (GA), as they are only allowed to cut from allotted land assigned through a lottery system[2].

An interested stakeholder is the National Forest Commission (CONAFOR), which was created as a result of the 2003 Forest Law[2], and operates under the Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT)[10]. SEMARNAT authorizes a certain volume of timber, which is then distributed by the GA according to the number of ejido members in a subgroup [2]. CONAFOR has played a huge role in promoting capacity building of ejidos by implementing a nationally funded “Community Technicians Course”[2]. This course trains ejido members so that they have a certification to legally assist in technical forest activities[2]. Furthermore, the trained ejido technicians would also have access to CONAFOR funds[2]. Ultimately, this allows ejidos to have greater independence, by not having to rely on external services that could potentially be unreliable and expensive.

The United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Red Alliance has also partnered with CONAFOR to increase forest certification within ejidos of the Yucatan Peninsula[2].

The Mexican Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (MREDD+) initiative has also linked with CONAFOR to promote CFM, conserve tropical forest cover, and agroforestry methods for conservation purposes[11]. MREDD+ is currently working with communities, consultants, and second-tier organizations to monitor carbon stocks related to forestry activities[2].

Even though the academia has held the perception of use of forest resources and conservation to be incompatible, Mayan community forest reserves have been managed by Maya people for self-subsistence, and its deforestation rate is significantly lower than adjacent forest regions for Maya people’s traditional conservation techniques [2][4]. A vast variety of services beneficial to local communities’ livelihoods are directly provided by MCFR, which mark huge contribution to Mexico’s agricultural landscapes[4].

Unlike community forests used commercially, MCFR use woody species solely for self-provisioning amongst community members[4]. To make use of their forests while effectively promoting sustainability and conservation, Mayan communities make use of a broad range of tree species but harvest each in small number, maintaining their forest's original structure[4].

The success of MCFR in their combining of conservation and use of forest resources makes MCFR a model in sustainable use of natural resources, and local communities’ traditional practices could be incorporated by government agencies and NGOs in their policy making[4]. With better regulations, other parts of the world could improve their landscape connectivity and be more effective when promoting conservation.

The continuation of the traditional milpa system has been a great environmental success[4]. This type of poly-culture field consists of beans, corn, avocados, and many other annual crops, and is maintained with large fallow periods which allow for soil fertility improvement and forest vegetation’s recovery[4]. Milpa helps increase food security, and family nutrition is also improved by Mayan community gardens and orchards[12]. With milpa systems, Maya people manage to maintain high biodiversity within their communities, and have developed higher resistance to flooding and drought, plant pathogens, and insect invasions[12].

In Maya people’s struggle to be part of the modern world, some environmental issues also arose. Populations of many endemic species have shrunk as a result of the introduction of new species of animals and plants[12]. International free markets in the early twentieth century also exacerbated Mayan forests’ ecological degradation[12]. In some places, soil erosion due to over grazing of cows has happened as well[12].

Critical Issues

Proper forest-sector investment has been impeded by lack of transparency, contradictory agricultural and forestry policies, and corruption[2]. Irregular rain patterns, more pronounced droughts and hurricanes driven by climate change are making the landscape more vulnerable[6]. MCFR lack effective post-disaster recovery policies, and its lack of appropriate silviculture also contributes to decreasing values of Quintana Roo forests’ products.

To fix this matter, steadier help from state government could be used. Mexico’s forest sector could be promoted as a provider of high-value products with government’s wiser use of policies, and simultaneously encouraging forest protection[1].

Although the number of ejidos have grown, this does not necessarily mean that the power and influence of ejidos in the forestry sector has increased as well. Some ejidos have more authority and control over the management of their forests compared to others. This is due to various factors, such as conflict between ejido members, and external and internal corruption[2]. Corruption is an issue within Quintana Roo, as government officials and even ejido members may unjustly use funds for their own purposes[2]. PROCAMPO was recently discovered to be creating greater inequalities between farmers, by sending more money to prosperous producers and traffickers[13]. This is a case of external corruption that negatively affects ejidos' economy and community.

Based on the distribution of the types of ejidos, it is observed that the majority of ejidos are Type I (60%), which is when they have the potential for forestry, but aren’t in it because of a lack of resources and skills[2]. There are only a few ejidos that are fully independent and operating in formalized management of logging activities. This is where CONAFOR and UNDP can come in to assist development of ejidos’ independence in forest operations, by training ejido members to become legal forest technicians.

It should be noted that ejidos that are divided into multiple subgroups (also known as workgroups or CFEs) may have an unequal distribution of CFM benefits, as a result of inequality in power and resources[2]. Furthermore, a separation of the ejido from having multiple subgroups would decrease each subgroup’s producible quantity. As a result, each subgroup would have to resort in being a price-taker, rather than a price-maker, because of its lack of influence in the market to potential buyers.

Outside organizations such as UNDP Red Alliance and MREDD+ have both supported the development and improvement of ejidos in Quintana Roo, and subsequently, have helped to reduce deforestation and conserve biodiversity[11].

Ejidos with numerous subgroups should consider the effect that the fragmentation of the ejido has on the profits that the overall community receives. Situations would be different for each ejido, however, small CFMs most often benefit from having a joint organization rather than multiple subgroups, as seen in the case study of Varzea forests in Mazagao Amapa Brazil[14]. The caboclo people in Mazagao created producer associations in order to accumulate marketable bulk, therefore, transitioning from being price-takers to price-makers[14]. This shift has benefited the caboclos, and is one of the key reasons to their success[14]. Ejidos in Quintana Roo can learn from the Mazagao, and attempt to create more unity in their operations, opposed to having multiple independent organizations within the community.

Most ejidos in Quintana Roo consider cattle ranching and other agricultural activities to be their main source of income[11]. However, the highest rates of deforestation are caused by livestock and maize production zones, which are funded by government subsidy programs such as PROCAMPO[11]. This raises the question of whether PROCAMPO - which helps small farmers with low-income - are as equally or more important than the conservation of forests.

Cattle-ranching and agriculture focused ejidos should consider transitioning more to forestry related businesses, because of the lower rates of forest degradation, and better opportunity for community capacity building through the support of CONAFOR. In addition, studies show that the deforestation pressures for income from forest products are lower in forestry based ejidos[11].

Maintaining a steady flow of income while preserving the forests are both of equal importance to ejido members. Nonetheless, it is difficult for many communities to achieve this balance; therefore, it is crucial to improve social welfare and milpa production of lower income communities[11].

Proper forest-sector investment has been impeded by lack of transparency, contradictory agricultural and forestry policies, and corruption[2]. Furthermore, Irregular rain patterns, more pronounced droughts and hurricanes driven by climate change are also making the landscape more vulnerable[6]. MCFR lack effective post-disaster recovery policies, and its lack of appropriate silviculture also contributes to decreasing values of Quintana Roo forests’ products.

To fix this matter, steadier help from state government could be used. Mexico’s forest sector could be promoted as a provider of high-value products with government’s wiser use of policies, and simultaneously encouraging forest protection[1].

  1. Bray, D., Merino-Pérez, L., Negreros-Castillo, P, Segura-Warnholtz, G., Torres-Rojo, J., & Vester, H. (2003). "Mexico's Community-Managed Forests as a Global Model for Sustainable Landscapes". Conservation Biology. 17(3): 672–677.
  2. Ellis, E., Kainer, K., Sierra-Huelsz, J., Negreros-Castillo, P., Rodrigues-Ward, D., & DiGiano, M. (2015). "Endurance and adaptation of community forest management in Quintana Roo, Mexico". Forest. 6(11): 4296–4327.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  3. Global Forest Watch (2019). "Quintana Roo".
  4. Levy-Tacher, S., Ramírez-Marcial, N., Navarrete-Gutiérrez, D., & Rodríguez-Sánchez, P. (2019). "Are Mayan community forest reserves effective in fulfilling people's needs and preserving tree species?". Journal of Environmental Management. 245(1): 16–27.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. 5.05.1 The Nature Conservancy (2019). "Maya Forest".
  6. The Nature Conservancy (2019). "Maya Forest Local Communities: Empowering local and indigenous communities to conserve and benefit from the Maya Forest".
  7. "C169 - Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No.169)". Internation Labour Organization. Retrieved 22 Nov 2019.
  8. Barsimantov, J., Racelis, A., Biedenweg, K., & DiGiano, M. (2011). "When collective action and tenure allocations collide: outcomes from community forests in Quintana Roo, Mexico and Petén, Guatemala". Land Use Policy. 28(1): 343–352.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  9. Vega, D., & Keenan, R. J. (2016). "Transaction costs and the organization of CFEs: experiences from ejidos in Quintana Roo, Mexico". Forest Policy and Economics. 70: 1–8.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  10. Vega, D. (2019). "Community-based forestry and community forestry enterprises in Quintana Roo, Mexico and Petén, Guatemala: how have policies, history, and culture shaped their trajectories?". Journal of Sustainable Forestry. 38(7): 651–669.
  11. Ellis, E., Romero Montero, J., Hérnandez Gómez, I. (2017). "Deforestation processes in the state of quintana roo, mexico: The role of land use and community forestry". Tropical Conservation Science. 10.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  12. Faust, B. (2001). "Maya environmental successes and failures in the Yucatan Peninsula". Environmental Science & Policy. 4(4-5): 153–169.
  13. "Agricultural Support Reaches Mexico's Well-Connected Few". Open Society Foundations. February 2010.
  14. Menzies, Nicholas K. (2007). Our Forest, Your Ecosystem, Their Timber. Columbia University Press. pp. 50–68.
Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
This conservation resource was created by Alina Ziyun Zeng, Fumika Noguchi. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.

Post Image Credit: Eduardo Robles Pacheco from Tapachula, Chiapas., México, En el ejido Cuauhtémoc (28) (5618095756), CC BY 2.0