- The Maya Biosphere Reserve, which covers one-fifth of Guatemala, is one of the most important tropical forest areas north of the Amazon and contains dozens of ancient Mayan archaeological sites.
- The best way to protect the reserve’s rainforest—better than national parks—has turned out to be nine community concessions, forest allotments where locals earn a living from the carefully regulated extraction of timber and plants.
- However, the community concessions’ future remains unclear, with contracts set to expire in the coming years and powerful forces opposing them.
By Sandra Cuffe on 9 june 2016
Marta Álvarez doesn’t miss a beat, checking each and every palm frond while she explains the workings of the busy warehouse. A harvester walks in and sets the giant bundle on his back down on the floor, which is scattered with discarded greenery.
“They bring it by the bundle. The women are here to sort the xate. I’m the inspector. They leave the bunches in good condition. I go over it all, checking it,” Álvarez tells Mongabay. “See this?” She wipes some tiny insect eggs from the underside of a leaf.
Harvested here in Uaxactún and in other community forest concessions in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve, the ornamental xate (Chamaedorea elegans, C. ernesti-augusti, C. oblongata, and C. nerochlamys) palm fronds will end up adorning floral arrangements more than a thousand miles away in the United States and beyond. Xate is just one of several plants and trees that residents in the northernmost reaches of Guatemala harvest, process, and export.
One of the best ways to protect the rainforest, it turns out, is to hand its management over to communities whose livelihoods depend on it. Guatemalan communities have been up to the task, engaging in the carefully regulated extraction of timber and plants while protecting their sections of the Maya Biosphere Reserve at the same time. However, it remains unclear whether or not the innovative conservation model will be around much longer.
Covering the northern fifth of Guatemala in the Petén department, the Maya Biosphere Reserve came into being in 1990, but the first community forest concessions weren’t granted until the mid-90s. Twelve 25-year community concession contracts were signed over course of a decade, though three have since been suspended or canceled. All are located in the multi-use zone that, together with a buffer zone and a core zone comprised of national parks and nature reserves, form the Maya Biosphere Reserve.
Ancient city, new way of life
The 57-mile route between the town of San Benito and the xate warehouse where Álvarez works crosses Tikal National Park, but the pavement ends at the entrance to the world-famous Mayan ruins. A great curassow (Crax rubra) crosses the narrow dirt road between the ruins and the village of Uaxactún, located in the southern area of a community forest concession of the same name.
The village got its start more than 100 years ago as a makeshift camp used by chicleros harvesting sapodilla (Manilkara zapota) tree sap for chewing gum, but the site was actually first populated more than 2,000 years ago. The village today is located in the middle of a Mayan city inhabited for at least 1,000 years. Approximately 1,000 Mayan and non-indigenous residents now live on either side of a landing strip between the temples, ballcourt, and other ruins. Most of them depend in some way on the forest concession for income.
Adán Pérez takes a seat on a slab of concrete near the entrance to the village, across the street from the xate warehouse. An Uaxactún resident who began organizing for a community forest concession contract nearly 20 years ago, Pérez is now vice president of the community’s Management and Conservation Organization (OMYC). The institution functions as an umbrella organization for the concession’s initiatives, including the sustainable harvest of timber, xate, allspice, and edible ramón tree (Brosimum alicastrum) seeds.
Locals have protected and depended on the forest since long before Uaxactún was granted its 83,560 hectare community forest concession in 1999, according to OMYC. “We have always been preserving it,” Pérez tells Mongabay.
The transition to greater community control of natural-resource management under the concession model, however, has been an ongoing process.
Xate is a case in point. Uaxactún residents began working with the palm fronds in the mid-1960s, says Pérez, but harvesters simply sold the palm fronds to contractors working for intermediaries. Pérez worked with xate and other non-timber forest products as a contractor. However, during his time as the elected head of OMYC two two-year terms ago, he helped take the middleman out of the equation. Harvesters now sell directly to OMYC, which also employs the warehouse staff.
“I was a xate contractor for at least 20 years,” says Pérez. “It was in 2013, during my administration, that contractors were eliminated. So that’s when OMYC took the reins of control over xate.”
OMYC coordinates and helps regulate the xate harvest and warehouse. It also maintains the xate harvesters’ camps, which is a requirement of the National Protected Areas Council (CONAP) to ensure chain of custody for certification as a sustainably produced product by the Forest Stewardship Council. Only one palm frond per plant is harvested and how long harvesters can remain in any one area at a given time is determined by the management plan approved by CONAP as well as the abundance and condition of the xate plants.
Each week, xate harvesters from Uaxactún and elsewhere in the region working in the Uaxactún concession produce at least 500 packages of xate and sometimes nearly double that amount, according to Pérez. Each package contains 30 bunches of 20 fronds each. Sorted, inspected, neatly bound, and labeled, the completed packages stand upright in water in a corner of the warehouse, awaiting transport.
“Just how you see the packages in there, that’s how it’s sent,” says Pérez. Uaxactún is currently supplying xate to floral companies based in Florida and Texas. Uaxactún, several other concessions where xate is harvested, CONAP, the international conservation NGO Rainforest Alliance, and the Association of Forest Communities of Petén (ACOFOP) coordinate together in a xate committee in San Benito, the central city in the northern part of the Petén department.
“We have a cold storage room, so when the xate leaves here, if it’s not to be exported yet, it’s taken to cold storage” says Pérez. Three miles outside of San Benito, the cold storage room is located in the facilities of FORESCOM, a multi-community enterprise that processes, markets, and exports certified wood from the concessions.
Back in Uaxactún, a map hanging on the wall in the OMYC office outlines the four xate sectors in the concession. One of the advantages of xate is that its harvest isn’t just seasonal, forestry manager Marlon Palma explains while he waits for the ArcGIS mapping program to load on his desktop computer.
“Right now we’re in the ramón seed harvest season. Xate can be harvested all year, every day, so people decide when they want to go. It means there’s a possibility of income all year,” Palma tells Mongabay. Timber, on the other hand, can only be harvested during the very short dry season from March through May, though the community sawmill operates most of the year.
Palma’s software opens and he pulls up detailed forestry maps of the Uaxactún concession. Timber can only be extracted in a certain area of the concession, and it’s carefully planned. Archaeological areas are off limits, and a tricky slope runs along the western part of the concession. Palma’s map of the eastern area open to extremely selective logging is subdivided into 40 blocks. Each block gets logged only once during the 40-year management plan approved by CONAP.
“Every five years we’re updating the information, and we get a permit every year,” says Palma. There are plans and inventories of the entire area covered by the management plan, but they get exponentially more detailed when it comes down to the one-year blocks, for which inventories note the species, size, and other characteristics of every tree in the area. Logging regulations and permits here take these characteristics into account, as opposed to being based on blanket volumes like in most Latin American countries.
A workable model
Deforestation rates are lower in the community forest concessions than in the national parks inside the Maya Biosphere Reserve, according to several studies in the past few years. A 2015 report analyzing deforestation trends between 2000 and 2013 found that the biosphere reserve as a whole was losing its forest at a rate of 1.2 percent annually, less than the 1.4 percent national rate. However, the report authors found significant differences in annual deforestation rates within the Maya Biosphere Reserve: 5.5 percent in the buffer zone, 1.0 percent in the core zone, and 0.4 percent in the multi-use zone. Even lower, the deforestation rate of active Forest Stewardship Council certified concessions was less than 0.01 percent.
Along with salaries for local workers, proceeds from the timber harvest in Uaxactún and other community forest concessions cover operational and administrative costs, including payments for machinery, permits, certification, the concession itself, and taxes. Communities also have their own rangers, patrols, and firefighters, and they coordinate with CONAP, the police, and the army to protect their forests. OMYC is not permitted to pay dividends to members. Instead, proceeds are distributed through the funding of health, education, and other community needs of Uaxactún as a whole.
“Everything that’s left from our profits, to put it that way, is distributed throughout the year in social benefits. Support is given in the area of health. In education, several teachers’ salaries and other needs are paid,” says Palma.
Socio-economic benefits can be hard to quantify, and further study is needed to understand how well the concessions are serving participants. However, case studies have shown that the reserve’s concessions have generated employment, and that participants have increased and diversified their income and are generally doing better than the national populace, according to the 2014 book Forests under pressure: Local responses to global issues, put out by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations.
The experiences in Uaxactún and other forest concessions are a far cry from forest policies before the creation of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Joel Pacheco remembers it well. Currently the president of the board of directors of ACOFOP, he is also the president of Árbol Verde, an association whose members from nine different communities manage a community forest concession in the eastern area of the biosphere reserve, bordering Belize. Pacheco has been involved in the process for 20 years.
“If we go back to the decades of the 70s and 80s…basically the policy at that time in the Petén was the total destruction of the forest,” Pacheco tells Mongabay at Árbol Verde’s wood products showroom, located roughly 20 miles east of San Benito. Land in the area was granted to anyone who asked for it, and clearing the forest was a requirement, he says.
Logging companies, landowners, government officials, and conservationists pushed back for different reasons against initial plans for community forest concessions in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, says Pacheco.
“The comments heard at meetings were: ‘but how can we give community people the forests if the first thing they do is destroy it, cut it down, burn it?’ Despite that, we now have a history of forest extraction, we have the experience, and we have the equipment,” he says.
The community forest concession model has had varying degrees of government support over the past two decades, and there’s a level of uncertainty every time a new administration takes the reins. President Jimmy Morales took office this past January, and it’s still too soon to know what the next four years will hold. However, Morales and other top officials have publicly given some early indications of support for the model, which is central to a UN Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program planned in the area.
“For more than two decades, Guatemala has had a model of forest concessions in the Maya Biosphere Reserve that is an example of sustainable forest management. It is with this model that the Guatecarbon project, the largest REDD+ initiative in Mesoamerica, was developed,” Morales said in his statement in Geneva at the April 22 signature ceremony for the Paris Agreement on climate change. Guatemala was one of 175 signatories to the agreement.
Many conservationists welcomed the inclusion of REDD+ as a stand-alone article in the Paris Agreement as a step in the right direction. But some indigenous groups that have denounced their exclusion from decision-making under REDD+ and the program’s potential to facilitate land grabs voiced concern over the move. REDD+ and other carbon trading mechanisms have long faced objections from indigenous peoples, forest communities, and social movements, and Guatemala is no exception. Guatecarbon, however, has the support and participation of the local groups managing community forest concessions in the Maya Biosphere Reserve.
Years in the making, Guatecarbon is a REDD+ initiative in the multi-use zone of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, which is comprised mainly of the community forest concessions but also of two industrial concessions, biological corridors, and other undesignated areas. The project aims to capitalize on the projected 37 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions that will be avoided by preserving the forest over a 30-year period. High-level government officials and ACOFOP signed an agreement for Guatecarbon this past February at the end of a whirlwind tour of the area.
“For 20 years we have been driving this process, which people didn’t believe in before,” ACOFOP executive director Marcedonio Cortave said at a press conference on February 26, when the Guatecarbon agreement was signed. Challenges remain, but overall the community forest concession model has been a success, he said, adding that without the communities’ conservation work, there would be no Guatecarbon project.
“It’s still a challenge: how do we make the Maya Biosphere Reserve more beneficial?” Cortave asked.
Pacheco is sitting in the middle of a showroom that demonstrates how Árbol Verde is trying to increase the economic benefits for communities, in terms of both employment and proceeds. The association’s carpentry and furniture-making initiative that began 10 years ago and employs local youth is self-sustaining and slowly growing. The group is also working to generate more interest in and demand for wood from more of the ten species of trees extracted in the concessions, beyond the two highest-valued and most in-demand, mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) and Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata).
“That chair you’re sitting on is pucté,” says Pacheco. “It’s one of the types of wood that’s most resistant to humidity and fire.”
He crosses the glistening hardwood floor. From the wall paneling to the tables, everything in here was made by locals from the communities affiliated with Árbol Verde from wood extracted from the concession. Pacheco crouches down next to one of the multicolored square patterns inset in the floor. From the outer square to the center, it’s hormigo (Platymiscium dimorphandrum), pucté (Bucida buceras), chechén negro (Metopium brownei), manchiche (Lonchocarpus castilloi), cericote (Cordia dodecandra), and pucté again, he says.
Árbol Verde and other associations continue working to improve practices and develop ways to increase benefits, but the experiences in community forest concessions are far from homogenous. Árbol Verde, for example, is an association comprised of members from many communities managing an unpopulated concession, whereas Uaxactún is one example of a concession with a resident population. Both are part of the success of the community forest concession model, but that success hasn’t extended across the board.
Of the 12 original community forest concessions, three failed. In 2009, the San Miguel La Palotada and La Colorada concessions were canceled and La Pasadita was suspended indefinitely. The case of San Miguel La Palotada is fairly straightforward, says Erick Cuellar, a program director for the Fundación Naturaleza para la Vida (Nature for Life Foundation).
“San Miguel was the first concession that was granted. It was like the guinea pig,” Cuellar tells Mongabay in the foundation’s office at the edge of San Benito, overlooking Lake Petén Itzá. It was very small and the forest had previously been over exploited, he says. “It really didn’t have the productive potential to be sustainable. Because of that, it generated very little benefits for the people, who gave up and started doing other kinds of activities.”
In La Colorada, the situation was more complex, and a mix of factors contributed to the cancellation of the concession, says Cuellar. Powerful interests were involved, he says, including narcoganaderos — cattle ranchers tied to drug trafficking and money laundering.
“There was a social breakdown in the community of La Colorada, but it was very influenced from the outside by these powerful groups,” says Cuellar. Local leaders were co-opted, land was illegally sold, and outsiders moved into the concession. In the end, everyone in the area was evicted when the concession was canceled. San Miguel residents, on the other hand, were allowed to stay following their concession’s cancellation. La Pasadita residents remain in limbo, as their concession has been suspended but not canceled.
“La Pasadita was a similar process. What happened is that from the very beginning of the process there were already cattle ranches in those areas,” says Cuellar. “[I]n a way it was like a small tumor that kept growing, became cancerous, and eventually ended up affecting the social process.”
The three concessions’ failure is not necessarily permanent. New local groups are forming and developing proposals for the sustainable management of La Colorada and other areas. Moreover, the conditions that precipitated their failure are not inherent to the entire multi-use zone, and nine community forest concessions remain in good standing. Altogether, Cuellar considers the model to be a success.
“The process of the community forest concessions has shown that it is an effective model to protect natural resources in a country like Guatemala, where there is much poverty and many people in need. A strict conservation model wouldn’t work in Guatemala,” he says.
The future of the community forest concession model, however, is somewhat up in the air. The Guatecarbon carbon trading initiative has a 30-year time line — assuming it gets off the ground. Community forest concession management plans approved by the government cover 40 years. The concessions themselves, on the other hand, are based on 25-year contracts, and they are set to expire between six and 11 years from now.
“There are always powerful interests involved that aren’t on board when it comes to the forest concessions,” says Pacheco, sitting at the mahogany desk in the Árbol Verde showroom. As it turns out, many of the forces he lists opposing community forest concessions also belong on a list of the main threats to the Maya Biosphere Reserve as a whole: large-scale tourism projects, oil companies, cattle ranching, oil palm plantations, and drug trafficking.
Communities managing forest concessions and the organizations that represent them are campaigning for government action to ensure the model continues long past the first round of 25-year contracts. Their experience speaks for itself, says Pacheco: “We have actually achieved one of the objectives of the creation of the reserve, which was the conservation of the forest.”
- Hodgdon, B.D., Hughell, D., Ramos, V.H., Balas McNab, R. (2015). Deforestation Trends in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, Guatemala (2000 – 2013). New York, NY: Rainforest Alliance, CONAP, Wildlife Conservation Society.
- Reyes Rodas, R., Kent, J., Ammour, T., Gálvez, J. (2014). Challenges and opportunities of sustainable forest management through community forest concessions in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, Petén, Guatemala. In Katila, P., et al (Eds.), Forests under pressure: Local responses to global issues. Vienna, Austria: IUFRO World Series Volume 32.
Article originally published here