Interview with Mauricio Castro, Executive Secretary of the Central American Commission for the Environment and Development (CCAD)

Interview by Katiana Murillo, Rainforest Alliance

“People have to understand that if we don’t conserve our natural resources, and we don’t start restoring them, then our region isn’t going to win the ‘war’.”

The Central American Forestry Strategy (EFCA for its name in Spanish) aims to make the region a leader in sustainable forestry that will contribute to poverty reduction, relieve water shortages, and decrease the region’s vulnerability to natural disasters. Its goals are ambitious — EFCA masterminds envision in just 25 years, a region with between 45 percent and 60 percent of forest cover, with between 25 percent and 30 percent of that land protected within the Central American System of Protected Areas; between 10 percent and 15 percent of it in sustainably managed forests. Further, the plan calls for between 10 percent and 15 percent of deforested land outside protected areas to be reforested with tree plantations or by secondary forests, which represents an average reforestation rate of some 123,500 acres (50,000 hectares) per country per year.

The Central American Commission for the Environment and Development (CCAD) is leading the strategy, which has financial support from the World Conservation Union, Food and Agriculture Organization, United Nations Development Programme, and the Central American governments. Mauricio Castro, Executive Secretary of CCAD discusses EFCA’s goals and accomplishments to date.

Question: What led up to designing a Central American Forestry Strategy?

Castro: In 1950, Central America had 11 million inhabitants, more than half of whom lived in rural zones, but this has changed completely. Today the majority of the population is in urban areas and deforestation has increased. Between 1990 and 1995, more than 2 million hectares of forest were destroyed, and 92 percent of the wood was used as fuel. Currently, 27 percent of the region’s land is over-utilized, 22 percent is underutilized, and only 51 percent is being used properly. These data oblige us to change our strategy. They show that we need to take steps to, on one hand, preserve what we have and, on the other hand, exploit our forests in a sustainable manner.

The strategy’s goal is that all the countries in the region renovate their forestry plans by 2005, which implies creating new forestry policies and national forestry development programs. This needs to be done so that we can establish the economic and social basis for an isthmus with approximately 55 percent forest cover within 10 to 25 years. That is the main goal, which would also guarantee water in our rivers.

Q: How do you plan to accomplish this?

Castro: The first thing that we’re doing is creating a consensus within the region. We are laying the political base and developing the political will. This is the most important thing. It doesn’t make sense that we should lack consensus in a region with borders that were imposed by man, when what one country does affects the others. This means that we have to convert the forestry strategies in every country from policies of a given government to policies of the state. This isn’t easy because, as we’ve seen in our countries, with every change of government, everything falls apart.

Q: So you’re in the stage of convincing people?

Castro: The phase we’re in is of demonstrating to our people that we have a problem here in the region, that the only way to treat it is regionally, and we have taken political action to accomplish this. Has it been a long process to reach this point? Yes, three years. It isn’t simple, but we have the firm conviction that just as peace was established in the region, this too will be accomplished. The next step now is to put the strategies into effect. There are countries such as Costa Rica and El Salvador that have done their best to stop deforestation. We now have the technology and qualified people. We have more information to base decisions on than we did four years ago, with permanent monitoring systems. So, now we can create policies, because the information is available.

Q: Are there concrete examples in the region that you can cite in order to convince people?

Castro: There are some very good experiences in Costa Rica, others in the Petén in Guatemala, and with the production of organic cacao in the area of the Costa Rica-Panama border. In every country there are magnificent experiences that deserve to be shared: one because the community is managing the forest, another because they are using very sophisticated techniques, another because they have learned to do things organically, etc. Costa Rica also has had good experiences with payments for environmental services.

The forestry and environmental sectors are very open to change. The next step is to expand the number of sectors that we are working in. A high level World Bank official told us that until we can sit down with the finance ministers, we won’t accomplish anything; if the finance minister doesn’t fight for a forestry budget in the national budget, nothing will be accomplished.

In Central America, in 1981 and ’82, obtaining peace seemed like something impossible. But it was achieved. That’s why we have a lot of hope. If that could be accomplished in the political reality, that the people realize that brothers shouldn’t kill brothers, then we should now be able to demonstrate that we are killing ourselves in another manner, and that we have to reach a political accord. People have to understand that if we don’t conserve our natural resources, and we don’t start restoring them, then our region isn’t going to win the “war.” We’ve had occasions, such as Hurricane Mitch, that should make us conscious of this fact. After the hurricane, we could see that in areas with forest cover, the soil resisted much better than in areas without forest cover.

Q: What mechanisms for sustainably managing forests are contemplated by the strategy? For example, what roles will certification and payment for environmental services play?

Castro: We are absolutely convinced that Central America has a great opportunity to enter the world of environmentally friendly markets. We realize that if we don’t act as one region, we will be competing with one another on one hand, and on the other hand, we’ll lose credibility. How are we going to say that a product from one country is environmentally friendly and that the same thing offered by another is friendly even though it has different characteristics? For this reason, we are working on a Central American system of accreditation, a process that has the participation of private enterprise, universities, researchers, NGOs and the ministers of the economy, environment, and commerce. The idea is to have a system that permits us to evaluate whether or not what a certifier says is true. This doesn’t mean that we’re going to have a certification system. Every entity that wants to certify in Central America and complies with certain characteristics will be allowed to work in the regional accreditation system.

We are about to begin working with the support of the FAO [UN Food and Agriculture Organization], and the technical assistance of the UN Development Programme [UNDP] and World Conservation Union [IUCN]. In the future, this means we’ll by using the mechanisms of clean development, payment for environmental services, and others to advance and think in terms of sustainability.

The next step is to determine which areas have the greatest urgency. This means that the priorities we establish should be very much oriented toward social themes. We have the obligation to reduce poverty in this region, and the priority is to establish a sort of zoning. We have been able to demonstrate to the region that there is a clear correlation between poverty and deforestation. If 92 percent of the wood exploited in Central America’s forests has been used for firewood, then there is a clear relationship with poverty.

Q: How do you coordinate with the other regional programs in Central America?

Castro: There are various ways. CCAD is obliged to do this. On one hand, there is a system of permanent evaluation, and on the other hand, because there is such a scarcity of international aid, we have the moral obligation to maximize resources, which we’re doing. There is permanent coordination to avoid the duplication of effort.

Q: Who are the representatives of each country within the strategy?

Castro: There are different levels. In the environmental arena, the minister is the representative, and then there are derivations: the forestry directors are members of the Central American Forest Council and there is also a forum for civil society in which regional organizations, the private sector, and universities participate. And there is not one plan that wasn’t approved by civil society.

Q: How do you reconcile the need to relieve poverty and sustainably manage resources with the quality demands of the market?

Castro: There are important examples in all the region’s seven countries of community participation in the administration and management of forests, projects that have resulted in people maximizing their use of the forest’s timber and non-timber products. The conditions are different in every country, but what is being done is to work with special cases and take certain measures that differ from those that have historically been taken, such as command and control: telling people, “don’t touch.” Those measures didn’t get the desired results, which doesn’t mean we’re going to eliminate them, but it is also important to try other methods, such as saying to people, “if you treat the forest in this way, you’ll earn more”.

Does the Central American market have to undergo a revolution in the price and quality arena? That’s true as well. At some point, the region’s nations may make the decision to say, for example, we’re going to export all the precious woods we have and use less expensive woods within the region. Because pine, for example, is less expensive than precious woods such as mahogany, guapinol, and cocobolo. If this were the case, we could export a guapinol, which is worth thousands of dollars, and use half of that money to import wood for whatever the guapinol would have been used for on the local market.

This is already happening in Costa Rica. People prefer more affordable furniture made from lower quality wood, such as cypress. It’s a tendency of the market, a cost-benefit relationship. It shows that we are realizing the value of our forests. If you add to this payment for environmental services, and allow the wood to mature and grow harder, the benefit is even greater.

Tourism is another important element. Central America is being sold as a region of natural resources and high biodiversity, and tourism is increasing in the region at an annual rate of 5 percent. Also, studies done by the National University in Costa Rica demonstrate that water treatment is less expensive when the plant is near a forest. This is just another example of the benefits of forest resources. Central America is a region where 50% of the soils have a forestry vocation. The future is in Central America’s forests.

The mechanisms of command and control have failed in the region. We committed an error by believing that we can fix things merely by legislating. The more rules in place, the more laws there are, the less functional things will be. It’s better to have a more agile system that is easier to apply in the entire region.

Q: Is the key to eradicating poverty in the sustainable management of natural resources?

Castro: Not to eradicating it, but to contributing through mechanisms such as forest management, payment for environmental services, and community participation. The contribution that the environmental sector can make to the reduction of poverty is through support for all kinds of development. As the INCAE [Central American Institute for Business Administration] has pointed out, if the Central American region wants to develop itself, it has to take care of its natural resources. The next step is how best to use them, and that is what our current agenda is about. As the old saying goes, one doesn’t value what one doesn’t know. We are trying to get people to value what they have.

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