Maya Biosphere Reserve, Guatemala
Beneath the majestic kapok trees of the Maya Forest is the most biologically diverse ecosystem in Central America, extending from Guatemala, through Belize, into Mexico. It is the largest uninterrupted tropical forest north of the Amazon. Jaguars, scarlet macaws, howler monkeys, and leaf-cutter ants are just a few of the species that can be found here.
In 1990, Guatemala's government established the Maya Biosphere Reserve to protect Guatemala's precious piece of the Maya Forest. Located in the Petén region of northern Guatemala, the Maya Biosphere Reserve boasts an astounding diversity of plant and animal life, hundreds of Mayan ruins and communities that are managing the forest responsibly, ensuring its existence for future generations.
The 2.1 million hectare Maya Biosphere Reserve is divided into national protected areas, a buffer zone and multiple use zones. Harvesting of trees and other resources is prohibited in the protected areas, the most famous of which is Tikal National Park, which holds glorious Mayan temples and ruins.
The communities that lie within the 1.9 million acres (800,000 hectares) designated as "multiple use" zones are able to sustainably harvest wood and other non-timber forest products such as xate, an ornamental palm used in flower arrangements. But in order to do so, these community operations are required by law to be certified, proving they are managing their forests resources to conserve biodiversity.
The Association of Forestry Communities in the Petén (ACOFOP) is an organization that brings together communities involved in forest management within the Maya Biosphere Reserve. These communities organize their forestry businesses into concessions that are certified to Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standards by the Rainforest Alliance's SmartWood Program. Products coming out of the forest may bear the FSC-certified seal, which alerts consumers that they have been extracted in a responsible manner. Increasing consumer demand for sustainable products means that these communities are rewarded for their efforts with access to new markets.
And it's working. A Rainforest Alliance study found that forest concessions managed to FSC standards have seen fewer wildfires and less deforestation compared with other areas within the Maya Biosphere Reserve, even those with protected status. In fact, the average annual deforestation rate in FSC-certified forest concessions between 2002 and 2007 was 20 times lower than the deforestation rate within the protected areas where harvesting of wood and non-timber forest products is prohibited. Thanks to the work of ACOFOP, communities in the Petén are ensuring their forests remain standing for future generations and that wildlife such as the ocellated turkey, the blue morpho butterfly, the capuchin monkey and the jaguar continue to have a place to roam.