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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.