That’s exactly what Ellis and his colleagues did in the forests of Indonesia, where they created the model now being implemented in Mexico. Based on those studies, they reported in 2014 that reduced-impact logging could reduce carbon emissions by around 40 percent, compared with conventionally harvested sites.
Although a total logging ban could eliminate carbon emissions altogether in any given forest, Ellis says this would lead to emissions elsewhere. There will always be a demand for wood, he explains, and if it is not met by sustainable operations, it will be met by unsustainable ones.
The encouraging results from Indonesia inspired TNC staff in Mexico to consider including reduced-impact logging in their project to prepare the country for REDD+. If enterprises like Noh-Bec proved as effective at reducing emissions as they are at making money, Ellis thinks others could be motivated to emulate them, which could help Mexico meet its climate commitment.
Results from the Yucatán study suggest that practices like Noh-Bec’s can substantially cut carbon emissions from forestry. In the most dramatic contrast, the scientists found that another ejido emitted 1.7 tons of carbon per cubic meter of wood harvested, more than twice Noh-Bec’s rate of 0.7 tons of carbon per cubic meter.
“I’m surprised,” says Edward Ellis (no relation to Peter), an ecologist at the Universidad Veracruzana in Xalapa, Mexico, who led much of the fieldwork. “I didn’t think it would be so clear.”
But creating more Noh-Becs will require attention to economic factors beyond logging practices. While Noh-Bec’s operation brings in substantial profits — between $1,500 and $2,000 a year to each of the 216 people who collectively manage the 45,000-acre forest, and competitive wages for those who actually do the logging, according to Reyes — few other communities are organized to capitalize on sustainable forestry to the same extent. Some experts fear the small profits that other ejidos are likely to earn may not be enough to persuade community members to invest in more sophisticated forestry operations. Ann Snook of the Rainforest Alliance notes that members of some ejidos earn as little as $60 per year from forestry. “How do we make [forestry] sufficiently interesting to keep it going?” she asks.
Whether these communities see tangible benefits from REDD+ could ultimately help determine whether they get on board with the effort, or whether they turn toward cattle ranching or agriculture for profits. “They’re waiting to see if they will receive something in exchange for conservation,” says Reyes. “They’re hopeful and they’re motivated, but I think cautious is probably the word.”
["This article originally appeared in print as "Forests of the Future."]