AMLO's proposal to Biden: How does tree planting for work visas and American citizenship sound?

(AP Photo/Anthony Vazquez)

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) has an idea on how the Biden administration can help stop illegal immigration to the United States and fight climate change at the same time. He suggests that the Biden administration finance his flagship environmental project and expand it into Central America. Then, those who participate in the program can be rewarded by being issued work visas and American citizenship. Sound good?

No, AMLO’s big idea doesn’t sound good, which means Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will probably fall for it. He wants to expand the Sowing Life (Sembrando Vida) program, a social entitlement program that provides a monthly payment to landowners in exchange for planting fruit trees or timber on their land. The intention is to create long-term work in rural areas. It is a $3.4 billion tree-planting plan that meets climate goals and provides jobs to battle rampant poverty. The problem is that in order to receive the money, landowners are cutting down jungles and using the trees for their houses or selling the wood.

“In many cases people said, ‘Well, I have my hectare of jungle but the program is coming so I’ll cut down the jungle, use the trees for my house or to sell the wood or whatever, and when the program comes I’ll sow seeds again,’” said Sergio Lopez Mendoza, an ecology and conservation professor at the University of Science and Arts of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state.

Sowing Life is meant as a reforestation program yet the opposite is happening. This is a result of President Lopez Obrador’s change in how money is distributed. During Mexico’s previous administration, the landowner was paid to care for the jungle and its ecosystem. When AMLO took office in 2018, the program’s budget was slashed and he introduced Sowing Life. Farmers are paid to plant trees, not maintain what is there.

The program is currently paying around 420,000 farmers 4,500 pesos (about $213) a month to plant trees, according to the government. The goal is to reforest a little over one million hectares of degraded land across Mexico and grow more than one billion plants by the end of 2021. The government says it’s on track to meet that target.

That success may have come at a price, according to the World Resources Institute, an environmental non-profit that has worked with the Mexican government to monitor the results of Sowing Life. The Washington-based WRI estimates that the program may have caused the loss of nearly 73,000 hectares of forest coverage in 2019, its first full year, according to a study based on satellite images and shared with Bloomberg News.

That’s an area almost the size of New York City. It’s also nearly half the average annual amount of forest coverage lost due to land-use change and illegal logging in the same region, according to WRI calculations.

The Mexican government isn’t doing much to ensure the program continues. Farmers don’t sign contracts. They sign promissory letters. The land designated for timber isn’t formally registered. Some farmers take the payments but do minimal work, just enough to keep receiving the money. Liberal hopes spring eternal. The WRI Mexico praises AMLO’s program and says by 2030, the program “could capture two-to-three times the carbon that was lost at the start.”

What do border states do until the trees grow? Tree farming is a multi-decade process – trees don’t magically sprout up overnight. Why should American taxpayers pay for the expansion of a tree-planting program in Mexico and then into Central America? Joe and Kamala will likely be in support of the program if it is presented as a climate change measure. AMLO made his suggestions during Biden’s two-day virtual climate change summit last week. Kamala is scheduled to speak with AMLO on May 7 in a follow-up conversation.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has suggested the U.S. government offer temporary work visas and eventually citizenship to those who take part in the tree-planting program, called “Sembrando Vida,” or “Sowing Life.”

Harris’ senior advisor and chief spokesperson, Symone Sanders, confirmed next month’s virtual meeting between the U.S. vice president and Obrador.

“This meeting will deepen the partnership between our countries to achieve the common goals of prosperity, good governance, and addressing the root causes of migration,” Sanders said in a statement.

The program aims to create 1.2 million jobs and plant 3 billion additional trees through expansion into southeastern Mexico and Central America, Lopez Obrador said at a White House virtual climate summit last week.

He also said U.S. President Joe Biden “could finance” the program’s extension to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said in a Tweet that he and Economy Minister Tatiana Clouthier would participate in the May 7 meeting, which is also slated to touch on cooperation against the COVID-19 pandemic.

You can’t make this stuff up. AMLO is playing Biden and Harris for suckers. This proposal provides American money for a Mexican social program while increasing work visas in America and then promising citizenship for the tree planting Mexicans in three or four years. It’s a great idea for Mexico but a lousy one for America. Symone Sanders’ spin on the idea has already been proven wrong. The current program hasn’t stopped the flood of migrants to the southern border, addressed the “root causes” of migration. The money is being paid to the farmers and instead of nurturing forests for carbon-capturing trees, they are cutting them down to get the monthly payments and planting seedlings. This is a bad idea all the way around.