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FULLY DIGITAL (UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE) : PhD Defence Janik Granados Herrera | The thousand headed monster: interrogating the competing voices in Mexico's PES programme

The thousand headed monster: interrogating the competing voices in Mexico's PES programme

Due to the COVID-19 crisis the PhD defence of Janik Granados Herrera will take place online (until further notice).

The PhD defence can be followed by a live stream.

Janik Granados Herrera is a PhD student in the department of Governance and Technology for Sustainability (CSTM). His supervisors are prof.dr. J.S. Clancy from the Faculty of Behavioural, Management and Social Sciences (BMS) and prof.dr. M.K. McCall (National Autonomous University Mexico).

The PES programme is a federal financial transfer initiative established in México in 2003, aimed at protecting and improving the capacities of legal forest owners to provide environmental services. Implementation of the PES programme follows a set of guidelines called the “Operational Rules” (ORs), which establish the formal objectives, procedures, the main actors and their roles, obligations, rights and restrictions in the programme. In this research, ORs are also seen as a formal representation of the PES message with a particular narrative that can be transmitted from CONAFOR to the beneficiaries and to the public, and as a multi-purpose/multifaceted device that mediate the interactions among actors, and shape both formal and informal practices in the universe of PES.

The main actors involved in implementation are the National Forestry Commission (CONAFOR), and the forest owners (individuals and communities), who are the potential beneficiaries of the programme. A great deal of the ORs is operationalised by external intermediaries, called Technical Advisors (TAs), who are professionals from various disciplines who convey the PES message TAs transfer the message of PES, enforce the ORs and maintain direct interaction with the beneficiaries of the programme. However, TAs are not mere messengers and mediators in the implementation; they are actors with agency, interests and values that shape their intervention in the programme, and their functions and influence go beyond its formal expectations. The role of TAs in CONAFOR has been widely questioned because of the complexity of the relationships they establish, as well as the informal practices that they co- and re-produce at the local level.

This research focuses on analysing the role and relevance of the ORs and the TAs, as two boundary components in the implementation of the national PES programme. The objectives are to analyse the evolution of the PES programme through the examination of its ORs in terms of their objectives, priorities, and the intended role of the actors involved, as well as the influence of actors and events in shaping this evolution; to analyse the significance of the establishment of relationships between actors and rules, emphasising the role of the TAs; and to analyse how the dynamics occurring between formality and informality in the roles and representations of ORs and TAs have contributed to the persistence of the PES programme over time.

The information was gathered mainly from document review and semi-structured interviews with key actors at different levels of programme operation. For the document review, a comparative analysis of the ORs was conducted to identify changes over the first decade of operation, which include the ORs published, on an annual basis, from 2003 to 2013. I interviewed actors from three levels of operation of the programme. The national level was mainly CONAFOR, a decentralised governmental organisation established in 2001. At the subnational level, I focused on the state level CONAFOR offices in Jalisco and Michoacan. At the local level, I interviewed TAs working in these regions and local authorities of six ejidos, three located in the Ayuquila Basin, Jalisco, and three located in La Huacana and Zitacuaro municipalities, in Michoacán.  The information obtained from the interviews was coded and analysed with the QSR NVivo 10 software.

The salient findings from the research in terms of ORs are: 1) ORs change annually, through a variety of mechanisms. Over eleven years, the definition of PES has changed frequently and is gradually being simplified. While the role of CONAFOR has become ambiguous, the obligations and responsibilities of the beneficiaries have increased. Although the options for local participation and decision-making at the local level have increased, these are limited interventions, mostly defined by CONAFOR and always supervised by the TAs. The role of the TAs is under-represented in ORs. The terms on which priority criteria for the selection of beneficiaries and land are based have been increasingly based on technical and scientific sources.

2) Although various actors are involved in the conceptualisation of PES programme implementation, they do not have equal influence on the programme. The most influential actors are those found in high-level forest policy makers and implementers, as well as funding agencies (especially the World Bank). Additionally, other external actors provide feedback such as recognised NGOs and universities, through their participation in the PES advisory committee or through evaluations.  The actual influence of actors in ORs decreases as they approach local levels of action. Changes in ORs reflect the power struggles, negotiations and tensions between the high-level actors for the prevalence of their interests, values and approaches. The main tensions taking place in the programme are between a) environmental vs social criteria, b) technical/scientific vs political choices, c) centralised vs decentralised decision-making, d) older vs innovative approaches of policy and administrative procedures.

From the TAs analysis, 3) The expected roles of TAs as intermediaries in PES are: a) preparing applicants for enrolment in the programme, b) accompanying and guiding the implementation, and c) monitoring and reporting beneficiaries’ activities. In practice TAs are involved in interpreting and negotiating the changing ORs within a variety of local contexts. Three factors determine the CONAFOR’s dependence on the TAs, which have persisted throughout the history of Mexican forest policy: a) the lack of operational capacity of governmental organisations, b) the lack of technical and economic capacities of forest owners, c) the frequent changes in ORs, which are also expressed in technical language and requirements. Due to financial and operative constraints, most of the activities of the TAs are performed outside the control/scope of CONAFOR. The complex relationship between TAs with CONAFOR, and the working conditions are factors that affect their identity and performance. Their role is also questioned because of the incidence of unethical and poor practices carried out by some of them at the local level.  This has led to the stigmatisation of TAs in the CONAFOR programmes.

4) In CONAFOR's narrative, the key functions of the TAs are acknowledged, but at the same time they are portrayed as an ‘unreliable actor’, which is beyond CONAFOR’s control. Due to the lack of a contractual relationship between CONAFOR and the TAs, there are limitations to act formally against unethical practices of the TAs. The responsibility of denounce and "punish" the TAs lies with the beneficiaries, who often do not have access to the channels and procedures to formally complain. In such cases, CONAFOR’s role is limited to mediating the conflict, and, in extreme cases, removing service providers from the list of TAs, but this does not happen frequently. In the cases studied of conflicts between TA and beneficiaries, some communities have learned to deal with them effectively, and in other cases alternative intermediaries have emerged, who have helped reconnect beneficiaries with CONAFOR to solve such problems. Unethical practices operate under the ORs carpet: regulatory and monitoring weaknesses have blurred the negative aspects of relations with PES beneficiaries. Certification is the most important measure adopted so far by CONAFOR to address the performance of the TAs. It consists of a set of tests conducted by a qualified third party to assess the technical skills of TAs in order to initiate or maintain service provision. The process has been criticised as it does not assess the work of TAs in the field, nor address underlying issues.

5) According to their own narratives, TAs perform multiple roles at the local level, some of which go beyond the scope of CONAFOR. The TAs’ heterogeneity, competition and distrust amongst them make it difficult to organise themselves and achieve better working conditions. The ATs partially agree with CONAFOR's narrative about themselves but disagree with the generalisation of ATs' culpability in PES development, as they consider that CONAFOR has largely contributed to the problem by its negligence and sometimes collusion. Although TAs tend to be undervalued as agents of change in ORs, they actually have indirect influence through a) their intervention of beneficiaries’ decision-making, b) their personal choice about their own roles at the local level, c) their influence in shaping relationships between actors, d) their ability to interpret, negotiate and adapt the changing ORs to local conditions, and e) their individual preferences and expertise in selecting forest lands and beneficiaries to work with. 

In the CONAFOR's narrative the function of ORs is always indisputable, while TAs performance is always questionable. However, the TAs portrayed as “villains” can play the role of smokescreen behind which CONAFOR can hide to account for failures, actual and potential, and divert attention from responsibility for other questionable aspects of the PES operation. Thus, controlling the narrative about the roles of actors and devices in the PES programme is also useful in constructing CONAFOR's façade. But when ORs cross over the operational levels and reach local actors, especially the TAs, new narratives emerge that converge and compete with the dominant one. In a way the practices of the TAs and their representation do not affect the outcomes of the PES programme, at least not those shown to the public. However, at the local level, the fact that ATs are often portrayed as "villains", together with omissions and changes in ROs, have direct (negative) effects on beneficiaries, often blurred and even not visible. These effects on beneficiaries are: a) the ongoing abuse of power and unethical practices at the local level, b) preservation of power imbalances, c) failure to improve local capabilities, d) potential penalties and loss of access to CONAFOR programmes, and, e) continuation of impunity. The dynamics between ORs and TAs, seen as the interaction between formal structures and agents that support co-produce and reproduce informality, plays a fundamental role in the implementation and adaptation of the PES programme. It shapes a diversity of understandings, motivations and tangible benefits for the actors involved, including income, training, jobs, relationships, recognition and infrastructure. Therefore, there is an effort on the part of all actors to keep the programme alive through cooperation, which makes it necessary to blur and disregard certain defaults and conflicts that occur at all levels. The dynamics between ORs and TAs, and the ways in which they are presented (ORs as "indisputable", and TAs as "villains") have a positive effect on the PES programme, as they enable the fluidity in the relationships between actors, through the flexible interpretation/implementation of the PES message. The positive effect is not in the success of the programme, but in its continuity.