Why indigenous communities are essential to prevent forest fires

According to a study presented in Guatemala, granting the rights to land to rural communities contributes to reducing the risk of forest fires

Indigenous communities are the best guardians of the ecosystems they live in, as the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights Survival has been claiming for years. And yet another demonstration comes from Guatemala, where a new study on the importance of rural communities in preventing forest fires has been presented.

This sign invites people to take care of the forests and prevent forest fires © If Not Us Then Who

The right to land

The study, presented last week by EU Ambassador to Guatemala Stefano Gatto, shows how granting the rights to land to indigenous communities in rural areas significantly decreases the risk of forest fires and provides a more effective prevention than the government.

The researchers led by Andrew Davis, head of the Asociación de Comunidades Forestales de Petén (ACOFP), analyzed NASA satellite images of Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve – a huge protected area home to an incredible biodiversity and endemic species. They found that nearly all fires in 2017 took place outside of the community-controlled areas, which make up over 16 per cent of the reserve. The majority of this year’s fires have thus swept across the vast swaths of forest designated as under national government protection.

Analyzing NASA satellite images, the study shows that forest areas managed by indigenous communities registered a small number of forest fires © ACOFOP

Wildfires and climate change

The number, force and duration of forest fires are increasing globally due to climate change. Unusually large wildfires ravaged Alaska and Indonesia in 2015 and Canada, California and Spain in 2016. Earlier this year massive fires devastated regions of Chile and now deadly fires in Portugal have claimed dozens of lives and destroyed hectares of forest. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the western US have experienced an increase in the average annual number of wildfires over the past decades, due to rising global temperatures. The number of wildfires increased five folds over the past 40 years, fires are burning more than six times the land area as before, and lasting almost five times longer. Fires contribute to global warming as burning trees release the great amounts of carbon dioxide they had absorbed, significantly contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

How to prevent wildfires

Forest fires affect the whole Planet. For this, a shared and effective solution is needed. As it often happens for complex issues and as demonstrated by Guatemalan forest communities, such solution is rather simple: handing over the control of forests to local communities.

Aerial images show how large swaths of forests managed by the government went up in flames © ACOFOP

The guardians of the forest

The study is the first to compare rates of fire incidence in concession and non-concession areas and confirms a series of recent studies that demonstrated that the most effective way to protect forests is give their management to the communities populating them. The conservation of nature and a sustainable use of natural resources are, in fact, part of the life of indigenous communities. Communities are part of the forest and know all animal species and healing properties of plants. The Awá people of Brazil, for instance, know at least 275 useful plants and 31 species of bees, while Indian Yanomami people use 500 different plant species every day and know which trees are home to edible insect larvae.

Article originally published by LifeGate here


Guatemala provides an example of community forest management for Indonesia

by Carolina Gamazo on 12 June 2017 | Adapted by Romina Castagnino

  • In Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve, 9 community forestry concessions have been managing over 350,000 hectares of forest for more than 15 years. The communities aim to manage the concessions sustainably, earning income from timber and non-timber forest products and tourism.
  • Indigenous communities in Indonesia are currently in the process of mapping, titling and restoring their customary forests after Indonesian president Joko Widodo pledged to grant 12.7 million hectares for community concessions by 2019.
  • Representatives travelled to Guatemala to learn how this has been done by communities in the Maya Biosphere Reserve.
  • The Indonesian representatives hope to use the model of Guatemalan forest communities as a starting point for their own concession management.

“We have the forest, which is the greatest. We give oxygen to all the country; not only to Guatemala but to the whole world,” she says with pride.

At the end of dinner, members of the Indonesian delegation, which includes representatives of various organizations working in the forests of Sumatra, Java and Celebes in Indonesia departed, leaving only Arkilaus Kladit. A member of the indigenous community of Sorong del Sur, in the province of Papua, Kladit is small and tan, the quietest of his delegation. He only begins to speak when the rest of the group is gone.

“I’m from the Knosoimos clan. I am the first of nine generations to leave Papua. And in the forest I feel at home,” Kladit said. He is secretary of his indigenous council, one of the 1,118 recognized indigenous groups in Indonesia.

The continuous forest of Papua is an exception in the archipelago nation. In 1900 it was estimated that 88 percent of Indonesian coverage was forest. During the 20th century — primarily since the 1970s — the islands began losing trees due to migration programs and uncontrolled deforestation practices for paper, cellulose and wood, as well as the aggressive entrance of the palm oil industry.

Turning toward community forest management

But in recent years, two factors have given Indonesian forests a chance at recovery.

The first was a 2013 ruling by the Indonesian Constitutional Court in favor of the National Alliance of Indigenous Peoples (AMAN), recognizing the rights of these communities over their lands and forests, including collective rights on the customary forest. That refers to forests in ancestral domains that, according to this resolution, were not owned by the state but by the indigenous communities themselves.

Then, in 2014, Joko Widodo was elected president, a move that many took as a governmental turn toward forest management.

“He [Widodo] is a forestry professional, and he worked for many years in the sector,” Benjamin Hodgdon, forestry director at the Rainforest Alliance, said. “Now he has launched an entire program to grant 12.7 million hectares in concessions to communities before the year 2019.”

The conservation NGO Rainforest Alliance has been providing technical support on forest concession management to forest communities in Guatemala for 20 years. Now it has organized a roundtable with Rights and Resources Initiative, a global network that defends the land and forest rights of indigenous people and communities. It has also partnered with three Indonesian organizations: Samdhana Institute, Kaoem Telapak and AMAN.

The six Indonesian representatives who visited Guatemala were Mohammad Zainuri Hasyim, facilitator of Kaoem Telapak, an organization that works for the rights of the indigenous communities of Indonesia, from the island of Java. Muhammad Sidik represents UKIR, a forestry company in Lampung, Sumatra; Heri Susanto is with KWLM Kulon Progo and from Yogyakarta, Java. There were also three representatives from indigenous communities in addition to Kladit, who is secretary of Anggota Dewan Adat Knasaimos and from Sorong Selatan-Papua Occidental. He was joined by Wahid, from the Karang indigenous community who hails from Lebak-Constant, Java and Paundanan Embong Bulan from the Enrekang indigenous community of Enrekang —Sulawesi Selatan (Celebes).

Muhammad Sidik, representative of the Ukir community forestry company in Lampung, Sumatra, walks through the urban core of the forest community of Uaxactún, which was born more than 100 years ago as the El Chiclero camp in the middle of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Photo by Carolina Gamazo

So far, however, concessions have sparked fears among Indonesian environmental activists.

“The danger is that people in the forest communities will do what they want in concessions, and there might be a moment of chaos,” said Mohammad Zainuri Hasyim, forest facilitator at the organization Kaoem Talapak. “We could lose forest resources very quickly. Entrepreneurs could enter the area. It is important to be prepared.”

Others, like Muhammad Sidik of the organization Unit Kreatif Industry Rakyat, Langung, on the island of Sumatra, believe that experience will play a key role.

“Although the government now recognizes indigenous groups, and the fact that they can have legal status, they do not have forest management capacity at the moment,” Sidik said. “Furthermore, there is not yet a marketing or processing system for non-timber products such as coffee, honey, resins or rubber. There are also some problems in the market, with the marketing chain and the bureaucracy. That’s why we came here — because we want to see how the Petén Forest Communities Association (ACOFOP) partners manage the forest and how the communities were able to organize themselves and work together with the government to manage an area of forest,” he added.

Managing a forest in a sustainable manner is a challenge for indigenous communities and international environmental organizations.

“The important thing is that there is finally a platform that is being built by the community, and we are launching this project so that they can learn about different organization models when living in the forest —from forest management to building companies,” said Rainforest Alliance’s Hodgdon.

Organizational framework: a key point for success

Santa Elena in Petén is the region that houses the Maya Biosphere Reserve (RBM). Mario Rivas, the coordinator of productive development of the ACOFOP, explained to the Indonesian delegation how different concessions were obtained by different Petén forest associations, and how they have organized themselves over the years to manage them.

Heri Susanto is a representative of the Indonesian organization KWLM Kulon Progo. “I came here to learn about forest management and see what I could implement in my community,” he said during the visit. Photo by Carolina Gamazo

“The peace accords (1996) said that the state should give 100,000 hectares to community organizations for their management. That clause served as a basis to start the fight with the state to grant concessions to the communities,” Rivas said.

In Guatemala, community forestry concessions began in 1994, four years after the creation of the RBM, with 2.1 million hectares of land. Currently, there are 11 community forestry concessions granted by the government, which manage a total of 500,000 hectares, a quarter of the area of RBM. Their responsibilities include managing both timber — principally mahogany and cedar — and non-timber resources, like the seeds of the maya nut or the xate palm. According to ACOFOP data, they obtain an approximate an annual income of $2 million.

A sawmill at Uaxactún served as a stage for representatives of the forest organization of this community to explain to the Indonesian delegation how they have managed the different resources of the forest. Photo by Carolina Gamazo

With assistance from forest management plans devised by the National Council of Protected Areas and the technical assistance of international environmental organizations, the concession area has the lowest fire activity in the entire biosphere. Studies conducted in the area indicate an uptick in the preservation of habitat, including more permanence of the mahogany tree.

The key, explains Rivas, is organizational framework. Each forest community has an association with legal status through which it manages the resources of its concessions. All of them are in turn united in the ACOFOP, which puts pressure on the government.

“We have filed protective actions in the Constitutional Court to stop law initiatives because the interests in this area are great,” Rivas explained. He added that communities implement joint development plans through ACOFOP.

“We have the control and surveillance plan, the fire prevention plan, the investment plan and the monitoring or evaluation tools of the concessions, which are presented every year for the National Council for Protected Areas (CONAP) to approve the annual plan,” he said. Also, in 2003 they created Forescom, a company that carries out wood processing and wholesale sales.

At Forescom headquarters, company general manager Spencer Ortiz spoke with Mongabay while guests from Indonesia examined the wood and the machines used for drying and cutting.

“The communities are the owners of this company, but it maintains commercial independence,” Ortiz said. “More than half of their harvest is sold directly, and we form a joint venture if the businesses are profitable. We also have a financial mechanism through which we provide access to partners for capital or materials.”

Sidik, Bulan, Arkilaus and Heri Susanto take notes on the ways the forest communities of Guatemala formed the forestry company Forescom in 2003. Photo by Carolina Gamazo

Members of the Indonesia delegation said they felt like their time in Guatemala gave them a good starting point for their own projects.

“I am very impressed by the way they have managed to form a community corporation,” said Zainuri Hasyim, the representative from Kaoem Talapak. “I am thinking about whether it would be possible to do something like this in Indonesia and how it would be different; how we are going to do it is quite a challenge.”

Indigenous people and non-timber forest resources

The community of Uaxactún was the last to acquire a forest concession in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, and was also the least interested in the management of timber resources. This community, born as a forest labor camp where people lived and worked producing a kind of natural Guatemalan gum called chicle, had been living for more than 100 years off the non-timber resources of the forest. First, it was the resin of the chicozapote tree for chewing gum, and later the xate leaf, which is derived from three species of small palm (Chamaedorea elegans, Chamaedorea oblongata, Chamaedorea erumpens) and used ornamentally, mainly in churches.

Since the age of 13, Jorge Soza has worked collecting resin for chewing gum in Uaxatún and is currently an advocate of non-timber forest products of the Petén Forest Communities Association (ACOFOP). In the photo, he shows visitors the xate leaf, one of the non-timber products that this concession sells. Photo by Danilo Valladares/Rainforest Alliance

When the concession was granted, the community obtained 83,000 hectares – the largest concession in the reserve. The members managing of this concession are cautious with the wood they harvest, currently felling 600 trees a year while focusing most of their energy on alternative projects. Among these are the sale of xate leaves, the seed of the maya nut and community tourism. These projects have made a significant impact on employment and have also brought women — often excluded from production chains in rural communities— into the process.

Non-timber products have attracted the most interest from representatives of Indonesian indigenous communities, who are currently mapping their territories as part of the One Map Initiative.

As Hodgdon of the Rainforest Alliance explains, the mapping initiative, through which Indonesian communities will be able to title their ancestral forests, develops alongside forest concessions.

“On the one hand, there is the president’s goal of granting 12.7 million forests under different local management modalities, with the understanding that the forest is of the state,” Hodgdon said. “On the other hand, there is the issue of mapping and titling. There are between 20 and 30 million hectares belonging to indigenous peoples. Already 14 titles have been delivered to date in more or less small areas, and we want to map, recognize, and title indigenous territories throughout the rest of the country.”

In the case of indigenous people, there is a factor that complicates forest management: ancestral vision and forest-related spirituality.

“In all of the indigenous rights there are laws that operate with the premise that the management of the forest remains intact,” said Paundanan Embong Bulan, community leader of Komunitas Adat Enrekang, one of the 37 indigenous communities of Sulwasi Solatan on Indonesia’s Celebes Islands. So far they have mapped three of their ten communities, or around 10,000 hectares.

Bulan adds that in addition to the sacred forest, they have a “normal forest.”

“You could manage it, as long as it is under customary law,” he said. “A cooperative for the coffee market, maybe that could be the future. ACOFOP is a good model and example, and we will show it to the head of the district.”

Arkilaus Kladit is the first of nine generations of the Knosoimos clan to leave Papua, visiting Uaxactun, a community that manager a 83,000-hectare forest concession in the Maya Biosphere Reserve that seeks to serve as an example of sustainable forest management. Photo by Carolina Gamazo

For Arkilaus, the meaning of the forest is similar.

“The forest is our mother, everything we need to survive comes from the forest,” he said, and explained that in 2006 they carried out large-scale mapping of 96,000 hectares, mostly forest. Non-timber resources have the greatest draw, he said.

“What has interested me most has been the right of the people to manage their forest. And, also, community organization, supervision regarding management, forest control, fire patrols, connection with markets and sale of non-timber products,” Arkilaus continued. In his case, land is communal. “The big difference is that everything is collective, or is inherited collectively through the clans; it comes from our ancestors. We have many holy sites.”

Arkilaus holds seeds of the maya nut, which the community of Uaxactún sells in the form of flour, tea or cookies. Photo by Carolina Gamazo

The organizational model of the Guatemalan forest communities provides a starting point to Indonesian forest representatives, who, despite the differences in forest vision and the different forms of ownership, seek the same as those in the Maya Biosphere Reserve: sustainable management of natural resources, where the human hand is not synonymous with the destruction of resources.

“The experience in Guatemala, of course, will not be the same,” Hodgdon said “But the Central American country is the leader regarding forest concessions. It broke the scheme that said that to preserve land there could be no human intervention. Now we see that there can.”

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latin America (Latam) team and was first published in Spanish on our Latam site on April 26, 2017.

Original publication of this article here

Land Rights Help Fight Fires in Guatemala Nature Reserve

Residents of northern Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve, an area of lush jungle and historical ruins, are far better at protecting the forest from fires when they have formal land rights, researchers said Thursday.

Rio de Janeiro, June 15, 2017

The 2.1 million-hectare (5.2 million-acre) nature reserve in northern Guatemala is under threat from forest fires, drug traffickers and cattle barons, researchers said in a study.

Using satellite images, researchers analyzed the severity of this year’s forest fires on reserve land, comparing areas of the park where local communities have formal land rights with areas where residents lack them.

Climate change is leading to an increase in the frequency and severity of forest fires in much of the world, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a U.S.-based advocacy group.

Researchers said Thursday’s study showed that land rights for local people in nature reserves help nations respond to the increased danger from fires.

Livelihoods at stake

“Communities with land rights are better organized — their livelihoods are intertwined with the forests,” said Andrew Davis, a researcher with the PRISMA Foundation, the El Salvador-based think tank that produced the study.

About 14,000 residents have formal rights covering 400,000 hectares (988,000 acres) of the reserve, he said. These rights allow them to use, manage and patrol reserve land, but they cannot buy or sell it.

Only 1 percent of the 8,000 forest fires in the reserve tracked this year by researchers happened inside land formally controlled by local communities, Davis said.

“In the community concessions people have to follow strict guidelines to prevent fires,” Davis told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that communities who formally control the land are also better able to patrol the territory to keep intruders out.

Foreign observers backed the study’s findings.

“I have traveled through the community concessions, and I have been struck by the deep commitment of communities to conserving their forests,” Stefano Gatto, the European Union’s ambassador to Guatemala, said in a statement. “By giving these communities concessions over their lands, the government has given them the reason and motivation to fight the destruction.”

Article originally published here

Communities lead the way in rainforest conservation in Guatemala

  • 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 elegansC. ernesti-augustiC. 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.

Great curassow (Crax rubra). Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

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.

A detail in a mural painted by local students on the xate warehouse in Uaxactún depicts a xate harvester (xatero) and the sorting process (selección). Photo by Sandra Cuffe.

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 local worker operates the sawmill in Uaxactún, processing wood harvested in the community forest concession. Photo by Sandra Cuffe.

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.

A map of Guatemala shows the shows the location of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, which covers about one-fifth of the country’s area. Map courtesy of the Rainforest Alliance.

REDD+ arrives

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.

A collector carries a load of xate palm fronds, sold for floral arrangements. Photo by Charlie Watson/USAID/Rainforest Alliance Forestry Enterprises.

Varied success

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.

Uaxactún and other community forest concessions face an uncertain future, as their contracts have not yet been extended or renewed. Photo by Sandra Cuffe.

Uncertain future

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.”


Women in one of the community forestry concessions in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve harvest nutritious ramón tree seeds, which can be eaten after boiling or grinding into flour. Photo by Carlos Kurzel/ACOFOP.

Article originally published here