Lacandon jungle: Payments for Environmental Services

Princeton University This analysis is based in part on research conducted by Blair Cameron and first published in September 2015 by Innovations for Successful Societies. The scoring assigned and the text below represents the Centre’s own work, however, and do not reflect the views of the case study authors, Innovations for Successful Societies, or Princeton University. Quotes included in the text come from interviews carried out in Mexico in September 2015.

In the 1960s the Lacandon jungle in Chiapas in southern Mexico was a thick forest inhabited by a small population of Lacandon Maya. Then came the farmers, who felled the mahogany, sapodilla and breadnut trees to clear land for communal arable cultivation. In order to stem this massive deforestation, the NGO Natura Mexicana tried to persuade the farmers to preserve the jungle ecosystem in return for environmental funding.

The challenge

The Lacandon country of Chiapas in the far south of Mexico is now home to less than a thousand of the “still independent” Lacandon Maya. Fifty years ago it was possible to write that “a high monsoon forest covers the southern lowlands, dominated by mahogany trees towering up to 150 feet (45 metres) above the jungle floor, by sapodillas, which gave wood to the ancients and chewing gum to ourselves, and by the breadnut tree”. [1] It is “the most biodiverse region of Mexico”. [2]

In the 1970s, poor farmers migrated to Mexico and cut down more and more trees every year. They were known as ejidatarios, collectively owning and farming ejidos, areas of arable land which are composed of “two different kinds of property rights over land: individual parcels and common lands”. [3]

After 1997, the average deforestation rate accelerated to nearly five percent and, by 2007, the tropical forests of Marqués de Comillas, a municipality in Mexico’s Lacandon jungle, were disappearing rapidly.

The initiative

In 2004, the National Forestry Commission – part of the Mexican Ministry of the Environment – initiated a second Payments for Environmental Services (PES) programme to support biodiversity conservation and ‘carbon sequestration’ projects. It reimbursed landowners who preserved their trees, and immediately slowed deforestation in the areas where it was implemented.

The Mexican minister of the environment from 1994 to 2000, Julia Carabias Lillo, was in 2007 the head of Natura Mexicana, an NGO based in Ciudad de Mexico. She joined with local communities to enrol ejidos – and therefore the individual ejidatarios – in the National Forestry Commission’s payments for environmental services (PES) programme, in order to reduce deforestation in the Lacandon jungle. There was an increase in funding and the forestry commission launched a new programme called the Special Programme for the Lacandon Rain Forest.

To achieve their enrolment objectives, she and her team needed to:

  • Build the ejidatarios’ trust in the PES programme. To achieve this, Natura Mexicana staff members took on the role of technical advisers.
  • Build ejidatarios’ awareness of environmental issues to ensure a more sustainable use of land.
  • To provide sufficient economic benefit to alter the ejidatarios’ tree-felling practices.

To provide economic alternatives to tree-felling. The favoured options were to:

  • Develop ecotourism, and to achieve this they involved ejidos that were in the PES contract in ecotourism projects, as a means to become independent of government funding. There were 23 ejidatarios in Galacia who were interested in participating in the ecotourism project.
  • Focus on “increasing the incomes of people in the region by intensifying agricultural production and training ejidatarios to produce a diverse range of products”. [4]

Carabias and her team started expanding their programme and services to the nearby ejidos, Playón de la Gloria and Galacia. In order to ensure compliance, Carabias and her team ensured effective follow-up and transparency in the payment process.

The public impact

From 2008 to 2013, Natura Mexicana enrolled over 14,000 hectares of ejido forest in Marqués de Comillas in the PES programme. In 2014, the ejidos working with Natura Mexicana received payments for protecting 13,460 hectares of forest.

Another impact of the PES programme and Natura Mexicana’s work was a shift in attitudes toward conservation in the region. In Boca de Chajul – the first ejido to sign PES contracts – the deforestation rate fell to 0.52 percent for 2007-2010 from 2.63 percent during the period 2000-07. In Playón de la Gloria, deforestation decreased to 0.91 percent from 4.05 percent during the same timeframe.

What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.


Public Confidence Weak

The Mexican public did not trust the government’s policy, partly because it was a dramatic volte-face from a previous government’s policy of encouraging clear-cutting to expand productive land by paying subsidies on agricultural goods such as maize. The ejidatarios lacked faith in the government, partly out of fear of losing control over their land, even though government was providing them with subsidies. “‘They thought the government was trying to take their land because they weren’t using it, because it had vegetation instead of productive systems,’ said Elisa Castro, a Natura Mexicana staff member.” [5]

Stakeholder Engagement Strong

There are many stakeholders for this project:

  • Julia Carabias with her team at Natura Mexicana.
  • The ejidatarios who farm the area.
  • The National Forest Commission, which operates the PES programme.
  • Students from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
  • NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund, the Carlos Slim Foundation, and the Mexican Fund for the Conservation of Nature.
  • Other funding bodies like Pemex (Mexico’s national oil company), Banamex (Mexico’s second-largest bank) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Political Commitment Good

There were two main government ministries involved in the PES programme for the Lacandon jungle: the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Environment, through the National Forestry Commission and the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity. The biodiversity commission received from the agriculture ministry “an annual contribution of MXN15 million (about US$1.2 million) in 2008 and 2009 to support its work in the Lacandon”. A government agency, the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas, funded Natura Mexicana to buy fences and plants and make small payments to the ejidatarios who participated in the project.


Clear Objectives Strong

The objectives of Natura Mexicana were to enrol ejidos in PES programme, in order to reduce and eliminate deforestation in the Lacandon jungle. The policy was consistent and measurable (through a comparison between the rates of deforestation before and after the policy).

Evidence Strong

There had been similar PES programmes in other countries that provided evidence to Mexican policymakers and to Natura Mexicana:

  • “The much-cited Catskills watershed protection scheme in New York State”. [6]
  • The PSA programme in Costa Rica in 1997, which compensated “Costa Rican forest owners for the environmental services their forests provided”, paying landowners for the benefits their ecosystems provided, on condition that those ecosystems were preserved. [7]

Feasibility Good

The financial feasibility was based on funding from the government, from the state-owned Pemex, from the private sector (Banamex) and from NGOS (e.g., USAID and the Carlos Slim Foundation). Human resources were provided by UNAM students and Natura Mexicana. The most challenging aspect was the social and environmental aspects: persuading the ejidatarios that the NGOs and government were acting in good faith and that they could stop tree-felling without any adverse economic consequences.


Management Good

Carabias and her team at Natura Mexicana managed the project to save the Lacandon jungle. They involved UNAM undergraduate students in scaling up the process of increasing awareness and involving ejidos in the project. They also helped resolve the issue of persuading the ejidos to embrace deforestation by encouraging the government to increase PES funding. Carabias was experienced in managing politically difficult negotiations through her six years as minister of the environment.

Measurement Good

There were some mechanisms in place to monitor the project, such as the staff from the National Forestry Commission’s Chiapas office making regular land-checks using GPS to measure deforestation. There were other parameters, including measuring the land covered by PES, the rate of deforestation, and the number of ejidos contracts renewed under PES.

Alignment Strong

There was strong alignment of interest between all the actors to make the change happen. Carabias and her team helped create awareness, the government supported the project through PES and other forms of funding, there were other funding organisations, including NGOs and the private sector, the UNAM students who provided labour, and the ejidatarios who were instrumental by stopping their tree-felling activities.

This relationship between the ejidos and Natura Mexicana was at the heart of the project’ success. “Nuria Rubio, who took over ... as [Natura Mexicana’s] head of PES, said: ‘I cannot interfere in the way payments are made inside the ejido, but what I can do is go to the ejido assembly, explain how PES works, and tell how much they are supposed to be receiving.’” [8]