Juan Rafael Elvira Quesada, the new head of Mexico’s Environment and Natural Resources Secretariat (Semarnat) at the outset of President Felipe Calderón’s administration, is featuring a very important statement on the website. It’s about forest conservation.

"This year we are going to integrate the owners of the timberlands, the owners of these communities, as protectors of these areas," Elvira says in an interview with Leopoldo Zea on the National Polytechnic Institute’s Channel 11.

The secretariat just signed an inter-agency agreement to oversee 18 federal departments for an investment equivalent to nearly US$120 million in the 2007 National Forest Fire Protection Program. It will train 944 brigades composed of 17,000 people in the fine points of fire fighting.

The question is whether Elvira, together with the hands that feed him in Congress and the Presidency, will make a more comprehensive commitment to community forestry than that, because from the looks of things, forest fires are the least of the problems the communities are fighting.

According to an in-depth independent study released last month, the regional, state, and national councils for forestry and for natural protected areas (ANPs) are making very little progress toward their goal of fostering public involvement in preventing the deforestation that is Mexico’s legacy.

In some cases, the councils are actually losing ground, says the chapter "Lessons for Participation and Policies in Environmental Councils in Mexico," published in December in a compilation entitled Democratization, Accountability and Civil Society, part of a series sponsored by the Chamber of Deputies.

The inter-agency National Forestry Commission (Conafor) is supposed to help indigenous and ejido communities take charge of resource management to the benefit of local residents and the environment. So is the Protected Natural Areas Commission (Conanp). The commissions are responsible for many of the approximately 400 environmental councils for citizen participation nationwide.

But both commissions, led by Semarnat, reduced their emphasis on the councils’ input during the past administration, according to the academic analysis by authors Jutta Blauert, Martha Rosas, Salvador Anta and Sergio Graf.

Mexico has 2,400 ejidos and communities that carry out their own timber management. These include some of the world’s best success stories about locally controlled tree harvests.

In a country that has lost half the forests and jungles it had 50 years ago, you can thank these communities for protecting 7 million hectares, 800,000 of which are certified for practices that meet international Forest Stewardship Council standards.

Take the Noh Bec ejido in the municipality of Felipe Carillo Puerto, Quintana Roo, for example. It is located in a jungle of mahogany, mixed hardwood, and rubber trees. At the same time the community is logging for a living, it has reduced the annual loss of tropical forest cover fourfold compared to 20 years ago when an outside logging company was in charge.

What’s more, the deforestation is 30 times less than in some federal ANPs where logging is prohibited.

The ejido grassroots control provides a disincentive to illegal cutting, while offering jobs that reduce migration pressure. The ejido is protecting the woods for themselves and their children because they have a stake in living there, unlike outside lumber companies.

The communities confront challenges of commercialization, transportation, property disputes, timber theft, plantation mono-cropping, contraband, bio piracy, erosion, pesticides, land-use planning, watershed management, economic diversification, climate change, and any number of other problems.

In many cases, decades of investment in improving management methods have resulted in certification for so-called Smart Wood green labeling intended to assure consumers the product is environmentally friendly, but the message hasn’t reached markets enough to make a monetary difference in the communities.

These concerns need to be raised from the bottom up through councils and other mechanisms. They cannot be addressed effectively by a top-down bureaucratic system that favors corporate agribusiness and abandons communities to the caprices of free trade.

Tension, conflict, and violence are the proven result of past policies that ignore producers’ needs. But when authorities listen and share experiences with the stewards of the land, Mexico will increase its income and social welfare in the wood products sector, while protecting resources crucial to global climate stability.

Elvira should stick to his words and encourage the Cabinet members of the other 17 departments to join him in renewing the government’s commitment to the democratic processes that can save trees, the water and wildlife they harbor, and the people who live in their midst.