Mexican president pushes controversial reforestation plan

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador gets a shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine for COVID-19 during his daily, morning news conference at the presidential palace in Mexico City, Tuesday, April 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
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Associated Press

KOPOMA, México (AP) — Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador made a strong push Thursday for his oft-questioned tree-planting program, trying to get the United States on board to fund a massive expansion of the program into Central America as a way to stem migration.

López Obrador pitched his “Planting Life” program, which aims to plant 1 billion fruit and timber trees, to U.S. President Joe Biden at Thursday’s climate change summit.

López Obrador claims the program can help prevent farmers from leaving their land and migrating to the United States, though he also proposed that the U.S. grant six-month work visas, and eventually citizenship, to those who participate in the program.

But environmentalists question whether planting big swaths of commercial species — sometimes on land that held native forests — is a good idea and opinions are mixed in Mexico on whether the program is really working, or whether it can offset Mexico’s other policy of encouraging the use of fossil fuels.

“You, President Biden, can finance the Planting Life program in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador,” López Obrador said during Thursday’s videoconference session of the summit. “The proposal is that we extend this program to southeastern Mexico and Central America, to plant 3 billion more tress and create 1.2 million jobs.”

The program has already planted 700,000 trees in Mexico, where it pays 450,000 Mexican farmers a stipend of about $225 per month to tend the saplings.

That is popular among farmer in dry towns like Kopoma, in Yucatan state, where highly seasonal rainfall makes the tree program a vital stopgap for farmers like Roberto Cocom Caamal, 72.

In the dry season, he and 69 communal farmers in Kopoma can tend the saplings they get from army-run nurseries on a 426-acre (172.5 hectare) plot they enrolled in the program. During the rainy season, he and other Maya farmers can also plant traditional food crops.

It has “opened up new possibilities to survive,” Cocom Caamal said of the program, which currently has a budget of about $1.4 billion and operates in 20 of Mexico’s 32 states.

It was unclear how serious López Obrador’s visa proposal was, or his interest in the climate change summit: He didn’t listen to most of the other 40 leaders who spoke at the summit, instead carrying on with his daily news conference.

But Diego Pérez Salicrup, a biologist and researcher at Mexico’s National Autonomous University, expressed reservations about how the program is really working — or whether it can be extended to the different farming, climate and environmental conditions in Central America.

“We are not trying to demonize it, but we also aren’t saying that it has been a resounding success,” said Pérez Salicrup.

Some critics have suggested that farmers with marginal or unprofitable natural woodlands have simply cut them down in order to plant new trees and qualify for the monthly stipend under the reforestation program.

Noemí Interián, a technician who works with the program in Yucatan, thinks it is feasible to expand the tree-planting to Central America, but notes it would have to be adapted to the soil, climate and social conditions there.

So far, extensions of the program have only been tried in El Salvador.

López Obrador says the carbon-capture from trees in the reforestation program will make a major contribution to fighting climate change. But at the same time, López Obrador’s administration has focused on building oil refineries, and burning more coal and fuel oil at power plants, while placing limits on private renewable and gas-fired electricity generation.