At first I thought they were monkeys, from the way the animals leapt nimbly from tree to tree. When they got close enough to see clearly, I realized they had long ringed tails and narrow faces, like lanky raccoons. They were coatimundi, I later learned, diurnal mammals that aren’t shy—and indeed are related to raccoons.
The rainforests of the northern region of Guatemala are home to many animals, from toucans to jaguars, howler monkeys to tree frogs. It’s also home to about 180,000 people. These communities are a blend of descendants of the ancient Mayans, settlers who came from Mexico in the 1950s to harvest chicle (a tree sap used to make chewing gum), and migrants seeking to escape the country’s long civil war. Meeting the members of these communities was my primary interest in visiting the rainforests of Guatemala, although the wildlife was also exciting.
A number of reports from prominent non-governmental organizations, including World Resources Institute and the Center for International Forestry Research, have found that forest communities and indigenous forest people are good at protecting the forests they live in, provided they are given the collective right to do so. Protecting forests is not only important for conserving biodiversity, but is also a key means of mitigating climate change. What happens in these communities has relevance to anyone affected by global warming—which is all of us.
The Maya Biosphere Reserve, with its forest concessionary system, offers a prime example of how community land rights are good for forests. Within the 2.1 million hectares of the reserve, 36 percent is set aside exclusively for conservation, much of which is part of national parks, and prohibits all human activities besides research and some tourism. Another 40 percent is dedicated to community concessions, which allow people to live there and to harvest forest products, so long as all their activities are sustainable. The forests span the protected parks and the community concessions, allowing there to be a larger and unsegmented area of habitat. The remaining 24 percent of the reserve’s area is called the “Buffer Zone,” where agricultural activities are permitted and deforestation is more or less not controlled.
The concession system in the reserve is “probably one of the best examples in the world of how communities that have the right to use their resources have led to sustainable conservation and management,” said Ruth Nogueron, a researcher for World Resources Institute's forest program.
Data confirm this statement. According to a report by Rainforest Alliance, the rate of deforestation in the forest concessions from 2000 to 2013 was just 0.4 percent. In the conservation-only zone, deforestation was 1 percent, due mostly to illegal activities. In the Buffer Zone, forest loss was 5.5 percent. You can see for yourself on Global Forest Watch, a mapping site that tracks deforestation. The area that correlates with the Maya Biosphere Reserve is remarkably blank for the same time period—indicating low forest loss.
There are currently nine community concessions operating in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, in addition to two industrial concessions. Each community is organized a little differently, with some living in the forests, and others living outside of the forests and traveling in to harvest products from temporary camps. All of the concessions are required to earn Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification.
One concession I visited is Carmelita, a community of 80 families that have organized themselves into a cooperative. Their 23,797-hectare concession was granted in 1997. The community harvests tropical woods like mahogany, as well as a number of non-timber products including Xate palms used for floral arrangements in the U.S., chicle for gum, and allspice. Collectively, they have built a mill and have been able to provide scholarships for 30 students who want to obtain technical training or university degrees.
“The idea is to increase their income without destroying the forests,” said José Román Carrera, who works for the Rainforest Alliance and grew up in the region. These products allow the community to earn income while lessening their dependance on subsistence farming and without converting land for agricultural uses like palm oil and cattle, which are two major drivers of deforestation in Guatemala.
FSC certification has also allowed communities in the Maya Biosphere Reserve to command higher prices for their products, while management plans help ensure that the plants they rely on for income will regenerate. Román Carrera said that in other parts of Latin America, valuable hardwoods like mahogany are disappearing completely. But in this region, the growth of mahogany in the forest is on an upward trend.
And in terms of protecting the environment and fighting climate change, supporting forest community rights is cost effective. Caleb Stevens, a property rights specialist at the World Resources Insitute, said that there were some upfront costs to donors to help establish the concessions, but since then the concessions have been become self-sufficient. “They’ve been able to successfully generate revenue,” said Stevens. “There are no subsidies or inputs that are required from the government and they operate essentially autonomously.”
Yet the forest concessions still face some serious challenges. Illegal activities and corruption have been a threat, and the presence of oil and proposals to build mega-tourism attractions in the region are looming concerns. Although the thin soil of the region is not well suited to crops or cattle, conversion for agricultural purposes has been a problem—one that’s associated with the drug cartels. Like in other parts of Latin America, being a conservationist can be a dangerous job. Environmental activists have received death threats and there have been episodes of violence.
Román Carrera explained that in some areas in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, particularly around the Laguna del Tigre national park, drug cartels have illegally turned forests into pastures. Although there may be a market for the beef, these ranching operations are really fronts: the big pastures serve as landing strips for aircraft. “The main purpose is not cattle,” he said. “The main purpose is moving drugs, and they are moving tons of drugs every week to the United States.”
Representatives of the forest concessions also want more recognition and security from the Guatemalan government. Each concession is granted on a 25-year contract, and the renewal process leaves some room for uncertainty.
Marcedonio Cortave is the founder of ACOFO, an umbrella organization that supports all of the concessions within the Maya Biosphere Reserve and is partly responsible for the initial creation of the concessionary system. He said that the government should provide the concessions with a more permanent solution, so that the community’s rights will be protected in the future. In other parts of Latin America, including Brazil, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia, indigenous groups have been granted perpetual rights to their forest lands.
Caleb Stevens of World Resources Insitute said that there’s debate among land tenure experts over whether or not perpetual land rights are necessary to get the desired results of protected forests. In one sense, Guatemala is an example of how successful forest communities can be when given only limited contract periods and “tacit support” by the national government. Stevens’ said that the character of the communities themselves cannot be overstated.
Cortave said that in the beginning, few people in the national government believed that the concessions would be able to successfully manage the forest, and favored giving concessions to private companies instead. However, the communities have shown they are fit for the job. "It proves that it's possible to have ecological, economic and social development," said Cortave.
José Román Carrera agreed that the forest communities have embraced their role as protectors of the forests. “They believe in it, and they live by it.”
Travel for this reporting sponsored by Rainforest Alliance.