Sergio Madrid

This description of Sergio Madrid's work was prepared when Sergio Madrid was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2011 .


Sergio Madrid seeks to transform the way that Mexican communities manage the country’s forests, by using a bifurcated approach that combines working at a national policy level with on-the-ground implementation of best practices in rural communities.

The New Idea

With a national focus yet with an emphasis on direct, local impact, Sergio Madrid is helping impoverished ejido communities living in forested regions to sustainably and independently manage their natural resources in order to improve their quality of life. His work enables the ejidos—rural cooperatives that are constitutionally entitled to autonomy—to adopt new tools and initiatives for local sustainable development. At the same time he makes such empowerment possible on a national scale. This helps them regain sovereignty and obtain self-sufficiency, overcoming their long de facto disenfranchisement by federal policy restricting their rights over their forest resources, in spite of their claims to them. Sergio’s large vision is to foster the political and social conditions nationwide that favor sustainable resource management for the approximately 8,000 forested ejidos in Mexico.

Sergio accomplishes his objectives through a set of four elements that constitute a coordinated national policy that is still respectful of the regional diversity of forests and ejido needs. Through his Mexican Civil Council for Sustainable Forestry (CCMSS), a coalition of many environmental citizen sector organizations (CSO), he spearheads a national strategy that embodies a number of local perspectives toward environmental sustainability. This local focus enables the CCMSS to work with individual ejidos to help them identify the best potential sources for economic benefit through sustainable forest management and guide them as they incorporate new techniques, co-created by the ejidos and Sergio’s team based on the environmental and economic context of each community. However, just helping the ejido members develop these skills is not enough to overcome the inadequate legal and political infrastructure to support them. For this reason, Sergio also oversees an integrated advocacy strategy to influence public policy on federal, state and municipal levels. His efforts already have managed to establish new agency policies, increase federal budget provisions for sustainable management practices, and improve the usage and allocation of federal subsidies to rural communities. Finally, he is helping these political institutions adapt international certifications for sustainable forest management, such as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) and the Forest Stewardship Council, to the Mexican context. Taken together, these efforts to influence policy are necessary to generate a political framework that supports the CCMSS’s community-level work and ultimately empowers the ejidos to be the keepers and champions of their own development.

The Problem

"Mexico is blessed with a great diversity of forests that extend over 65 million hectares, giving the country one of the highest rates of wooded areas in the world. As a result, Mexico enjoys a rich biodiversity of flora and fauna. Unfortunately, like other countries with large timber resources, Mexico also suffers from severe degradation of its forests. Policies for the development of the agricultural sector have historically led to deforestation and the unsustainable exploitation of raw materials. Approximately 8,000 ejidos live partially or entirely within these forests. Despite being the constitutionally protected owners of these forest territories, the reality of federal policy for most of the 20th century has left these communities with no real authority over their land and have actually subjected them to the damaging effects of lucrative logging concessions to multinational corporations and no way to turn forest resources into sustainable economic opportunities. Additionally, without knowledge of best practices in forestry, many of these ejidos have resorted to economic activities that destroy the forest little by little rather than maintaining its richness. Such powerlessness to take advantage of the resources constitutionally guaranteed to them has kept the ejidos trapped in a cycle of poverty.

While the inability of the ejidos to govern and use their forests does result in part from their ignorance of sustainable management practices, the most important barrier has been the Mexican federal government’s national forest policy. Mexico’s environmental laws and regulations do not constitute a legal framework that is conducive to community-based forest management. During most of the 20th century, the government granted logging concessions on ejido territories to large timber companies and paper mills that exploited the resources and usurped control from the ejidos, despite the ejidos’ constitutional rights to govern their land. As a result, natural resources that in theory belonged to ejidos actually fed corporate profits. A popular rural movement during the 1980s rose up to recover the ejidos’ rights and abolish the concessions, but this led to a period in which the government instituted strict conservation policies instead that now block ejidos from using vast tracts of forest land. Such preservation not only continues to restrict the ability of the ejidos to govern their own territories but also has detrimental environmental effects on the forests, which cannot regenerate as quickly if they are not being used and therefore become susceptible to fires and the spread of botanical diseases.

Today, the reality among most ejidos is a continuation of the disempowering conditions that have long made it impossible for them to manage their own forests. Although in 2001 the federal government authorized the creation of the National Forestry Commission (CONAFOR) under the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) to implement incentive programs for forest communities to develop economic activities, the sector’s problems are so large that CONAFOR programs to date have been insufficient. In particular, CONAFOR lacks a consistent nationwide policy, and its new restrictive conservation regulations perpetuate the dependence of these rural communities on foreign resources. Furthermore, the Commission does not help build the ejidos’ knowledge and understanding of sustainable forest management. Despite the government's slow steps forward with respect to forestry, hundreds of these rural communities remain in situations of poverty and subordination to political forces."

The Strategy

"In 1996, Sergio Madrid conceived of and co-founded the CCMSS to improve Mexican forest policy with a focus on the sustainable use of timber resources by the ejidos that own these forests. Today, the CCMSS groups together 22 partner organizations and individuals with environmental missions in a general assembly that selects a Board of Directors to oversee the Council’s operations. Sergio serves as the Executive Director and is charged with developing and executing the strategy. Unlike other social entrepreneurs who work directly with communities alone, to Sergio the key problem is the disenfranchisement of the ejidos, a situation arising from political circumstances. Therefore, the two arms of his strategy address this problem by influencing government policy at the national level and by reinforcing sustainable forest management by the communities themselves.

The CCMSS’s on-the-ground efforts with the communities living in forests is fundamental to its overall strategy. In its current work with 102 different ejidos throughout Mexico, the CCMSS teaches the ejido members how to generate income by sustainably using the renewable resources that are available to them in their territories. There is no single approach; each ejido operates in a different ecosystem with distinct natural resources. In conjunction with the CCMSS, the ejido members craft specialized ways to use these resources. One example is the Fund for Ejido Forest Restoration, a program to bolster ejido self-governance. The CCMSS is currently overseeing 12 projects in eight Mexican states to build local expertise in the extraction, processing, marketing, and preservation of timber products. It also supplies funding to each community to perform these activities. Another example is an initiative called Environmental Payment Mechanism Services, which promotes the adoption of best practices in sustainable forest management by dividing the costs between rural and semi-urban areas, particularly regarding issues that concern both, such as watershed restoration. While the focus to date has mainly been on logging projects, the Council has recently started to support other extractive initiatives with non-timber products, such as a gum production program with an association of ejidos in the Yucatán Peninsula. To fund these initiatives, the CCMSS channels government money and corporate donations directly to the ejidos.

By focusing on the communities’ local economic capacity, the CCMSS hopes to strengthen the ejidos’ ability to take advantage of the new national legal framework supporting sustainable forestry that the Council is also advancing. The organization works with environmental agencies within the government to devise new rules that allow the community-based management of forests. Sergio determines the necessary policy changes and heads the Council’s interactions with the federal government. One key example is the CCMSS’s recent success in influencing the annual budget of CONAFOR. The agency used to allocate less than 1 percent of its budget to programs supporting sustainable community-based forest management, with the majority of its funding dedicated instead to conservation activities that restricted access to forests. The CCMSS successfully ran a campaign with environmental allies, CONAFOR officials, and federal legislators to increase the percentage of the agency’s budget for sustainable forest management activities to 20 percent of the total, a substantial increase that will have a tangible impact on the ejidos that are beginning to adopt these practices.

The CCMSS has been a leader in the implementation of international forest certifications and conventions in Mexico. Such protocols help define the legal framework that can enable the ejidos to effectively manage their resources and transform the system. Adopting these agreements requires significant tailoring of the stipulations to each country’s environmental context; it is not a simple political approval process. For example, Sergio led the process of bringing to Mexico the REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) regulations, a global mechanism to reward developing countries that protect and sustainably manage their forests with a goal of reducing carbon emissions. The CCMSS convened a technical council of 14 organizations to develop a REDD implementation strategy that was presented to Mexican president Felipe Calderón at COP16, the United Nations summit on climate change in Cancun in December 2010. The plan calls for political changes in the Ministries of Tourism, Agriculture, Environment, and the Economy. The CCMSS thus managed to incorporate the voice of citizen sector actors in the adoption of REDD in Mexico.

Another example is the CCMSS’s work with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a CSO Sergio co-founded in 1993 to establish an international sustainability certification for the timber industry. Sergio and his colleagues helped achieve an amendment in the Mexican federal government’s procurement regulations, which now require the government to buy only FSC-certified wood. Last year Sergio also forged an alliance between the FSC and the Mexican branch of the hardware retailer Home Depot, which as of 2011 now only sells FSC-certified wood, thus creating additional economic opportunities for forest-based ejidos that are prepared to sell lumber products through sustainable products.

Since its founding, the CCMSS has protected and redefined the rights of use of some 67,000 hectares of forest, directly affecting 52,000 indigenous people and indirectly affecting thousands more. The CCMSS has now reached a new inflection point as it begins to exercise its newfound influence and scale to create more lasting national policy change anchored in community practices. Sergio has only recently been able to position the Council as a national leader of community forest management in Mexico. This gradual trajectory is due not to a lack of capacity, but rather to the size and complexity of the systemic political problem: achieving a position of respect and influence in public policy requires employing painstaking tactics with government agencies. Sergios’ main priorities for the future include replicating best practices and the adoption of international standards to even more ejidos throughout Mexico while seeking to consolidate the sustainability of the public policy changes that have recently been made. On the policy side, Sergio will continue his efforts to secure policy change that supports sustainable community-based forest management on the local level. He has also begun planning a new strategy with the media, since he views the national press as a key factor to improve the visibility of the CCMSS. As a coalition of organizations with its own national advocacy strategy, the CCMSS is uniquely positioned to transform the way Mexico’s forests are managed by local communities across the nation."

The Person

"Throughout his life, Sergio has dedicated himself to improving the welfare of the forest-dwelling communities of Mexico. He deeply believes that they deserve the opportunity to determine their own future, something that the political system has long inhibited. Since he was a child, Sergio has always been fascinated with plants, and in college he studied to become an agronomist. Upon graduation, Sergio lived for 10 years during the 1980s with indigenous Zapotec communities in rural Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s poorest states. There he collaborated with the Organization for the Protection of Natural Resources and Social Development of the Sierra Juarez (ODRENASIJ), a local environmental CSO focused on re-establishing the sustainable management of forests in the region. His time in Oaxaca helped him understand the reality of poor rural families in Mexico who remained committed to caring for their forests despite being barred by political conditions from using the forests’ natural resources.

During his time with the ODRENASIJ, Sergio worked on a rural campaign to abolish the concessions given to large timber companies in Oaxaca. In 1982 he and his coalition delivered a proposal to then-President Miguel de la Madrid to recover the local use of forests. He succeeded with a legal transformation of federal forest policy that is still in effect today. In the anti-concessionary movement, Sergio met indigenous communities that organized themselves to defeat the government’s disenfranchising policies. In particular, he was inspired by the energy with which these communities began to work in their forests once the multinational corporations had departed. It revealed the potential and capacity of the ejidos to develop careful and sustainable management of their natural environment in order to generate economic wealth. By the end of the 10 years that Sergio spent in Oaxaca, the ODRENASIJ had supported the operations of 15 community forest enterprises, almost all with international certifications.

In 1993, Sergio returned to Mexico City to lead the reformation of forest management at the federal level. In that year he participated with the private, environmental, and social sectors in the planning and founding of the international Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to lead responsible forestry management initiatives. Today the organization has over 980 members from 60 countries and has certified more than 132 million hectares of land. While he eventually left the leadership of the FSC, Sergio continues to manage the implementation of its recommendations in Mexico. Co-founding the FSC taught him the tactics needed to generate large-scale policy changes through a civil sector coalition.

Incorporating his experiences in Oaxaca and the FSC, in 1996 Sergio began to bring together a group of environmental organizations that would collaborate to influence Mexican forestry policy. Together with other partners, he founded the CCMSS to convene organizations like the ODRENASIJ, which has since been incorporated into the Council, to develop a national advocacy strategy on forestry policy. Today, Sergio continues to be completely committed to the difficult and complex work of creating public policy that ensures that rural communities can manage their own forests in a sustainable and empowering way."