The Maya Biosphere Reserve: A Proving Ground for Community Forestry

The view from atop the majestic Mayan pyramids of Tikal, Guatemala, is one that is increasingly rare in the tropics: unbroken forest canopy for as far as the eye can see. Tikal, a bustling metropolis in the pre-Columbian era, sits in the middle of a national park that is part of the much larger Maya Biosphere Reserve. The 5 million-acre (approximately 2.1 million hectares) reserve, created by the Guatemalan government and UNESCO in 1990, anchors the largest remaining natural forest block in Mesoamerica.

But the Maya Biosphere Reserve is not a typical protected area. Rather than a single expanse of state-controlled land, the reserve is a network of more than two dozen different management units. Fourteen of these units are 25-year forestry concessions, nine of which are managed by local communities for timber and other forest products.

Does community forestry work as a conservation strategy? Let’s put it this way: the forest concessions of the Maya Biosphere Reserve boast a near-zero deforestation rate.

What that means, in plain language, is that nine local communities have been given the right by the government of Guatemala to make a living from the forest, as long as they do so sustainably. The Rainforest Alliance has been working with these concessions since 1999, first on certification, and then to develop sustainable forest enterprises, which include harvesting and selling “non-timber forest products” (such as nuts) and selling carbon credits, in addition to extracting timber for export according to the rigorous standard of the Forest Stewardship Council.

This approach, called community forestry, is founded on the idea that people who make their living from the forest have a strong incentive to protect it. Does community forestry work as a conservation strategy? Let’s put it this way: the forest concessions of the Maya Biosphere Reserve boast a near-zero deforestation rate–a remarkable feat given that areas directly adjacent to these concessions suffer some of the highest deforestation rates in the Americas. In fact, the concessions have had much better success keeping the forest standing than most of the Maya Biosphere Reserve’s units dedicated to strict protection. A stark example is the Laguna del Tigre national park in the western part of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, which was set aside as parkland by the government. It has been heavily deforested for the establishment of large-scale livestock operations, many of which are tied to drug trafficking and organized crime.

The Rainforest Alliance’s work in the Maya Biosphere Reserve is emblematic of one of our key strategies for conserving forests all over the world. For more than a decade, we have been on the forefront of the community forestry movement, working with more than 100 forest communities and small- and medium-sized enterprises—from smallholder plantations in temperate zones to communally-owned tropical forests in Cameroon, Indonesia, and the Amazon. Together with our partner communities, we devise and implement landscape-specific strategies to improve the performance of local forestry and forest-related businesses while respecting the communities’ own needs and aims—all with the goal of building strong forests and healthy communities.

Beyond Timber: Fruits of the Forest

“Before, we didn’t place any value on the ramón nut; it grew in the forest and that’s where it stayed,” says Grecia Magdalena López, president of the Ramón Nut Value Chain Committee, based in the Uaxactun concession.

In the 1990s individuals began gathering and selling the green, raw nuts. But it wasn’t until the Rainforest Alliance held trainings (with logistical support from the Association of Forest Communities of Petén (ACOFOP) in 2012 that López, along with women from seven communities in the region, learned to process the ramón nut into a flour for export, most commonly for use in beverages; these products fetch higher prices than the raw nuts. At home the women use the flour to make tamales and baked goods that they can sell or feed to their families.

At the trainings, the women also learned to organize themselves in order to negotiate better prices. Now the Ramón Nut Value Chain Committee—made up entirely of women—works as a group to boost incomes and share resources. Since coming together, the women have been able to negotiate a price for ramón nuts almost four times higher than what they were getting individually.

Grecia Magdalena López with her son

Grecia Magdalena López, president of the Ramón Nut Value Chain Committee, based in the Uaxactun concession

Photo credit: Sergio Izquierdo

“When you go to one of these communities and you see women integrated into timber and non-timber production and also in the leadership of these enterprises, when you see teenagers becoming professionals—teachers, nurses, technicians—you have faith,” says José Román Carrera, the Rainforest Alliance’s director of partnership and development for Latin America. “I’m totally convinced that the forestry concession system works.”

Román, who was born and raised in the northern state of Petén, where the Maya Biosphere Reserve is located, initiated another non-timber project in the Uaxactun concession that enabled women there to harvest and sell xate, the fern-like plant that adorns floral bouquets and Palm Sunday church services (more than 30 million xate fronds are exported to the US and Canada each year for Palm Sunday alone). “It wasn’t easy to convince the husbands to let their wives work at first, but we succeeded,” says Ana Elizabeth Centeno, who once ran the xate shop (she now manages her community’s social benefits). “I’m so happy to see how many women now can put a little money in their purses.”

The Rainforest Alliance trainings for women in the concessions here reflect just a part of our work to help forest communities build sustainable enterprises. We also offer programs in business planning; enterprise administration; productive efficiency, diversification, and value-added processing (such as on-site primary processing, mill layout and controls, quality control); markets (identifying target markets, creating marketing materials, linking producers to buyers); finance (accessing loans, management, and repayment); and policy (supporting government and civil society to design and implement policies benefiting community forestry).

Sustainably Harvested Timber

In order to win and maintain a forestry concession here in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, the government requires Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification. That means that the forestry enterprises in the concessions follow sound principles of sustainable forest management. For example, they typically harvest less than one tree per acre, based on annual plans that prescribe which trees are to be harvested and which will be left for future harvest or protected as seed trees.

Mahogany "mother" tree

A mahogany “mother” tree in the Carmelita forest concession is marked “S” for semilla (seed) to show that it’s not to be cut down.

Photo credit: Sergio Izquierdo

Historically, timber harvesting in Guatemala focused heavily on mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) and Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata), both of which still make up around 75 percent of the volume harvest and the bulk of forest profits. But the concessions have been working to diversify production, and sharp increases in demand for lesser-utilized timber species like santa maría (Callophylum brasiliense), pucté (Bucida buceras), and machiche (Lonchocarpus castilloi.), among others, is helping.

In fact, machiche from Uaxactun may replace the battered walkway on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City, if a coalition called Brooklyn Forest has its way. The Wildlife Conservation Society is buying wood from Uaxactun for two other famed New York City tourist attractions, the Bronx Zoo and the New York Aquarium, and Uaxactun also sells its timber directly to US guitar makers and other businesses. Lumber sales have paid for the construction of a school in the community and scholarships for studying abroad.

Paying Communities to Keep Forests Standing

The near-zero deforestation rate in the forest concessions stands as clear proof that the communities who make a living from the forest are doing a terrific job of protecting it—but it’s not always easy. Communities are on guard at all times against chainsaws and forest fires, which are deliberately set to clear land for cattle ranching and illegal drug activity.

This is one reason that GuateCarbon, a partnership between the Guatemalan government, the communities in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, the Rainforest Alliance, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, was established: the forest-carbon project enables the communities to earn payments from the international market for emissions they have avoided by sustainably managing 1.6 million acres (about 660,800 hectares) of forest.

The Rainforest Alliance’s José Román Carrera explains that the constant monitoring required to defend the forest from destructive forces doesn’t come cheap. “The cost of improving forest management is extremely high. The communities invest most of their income in protecting against the fires that are set in order to clear areas for farmland. And they are constantly fighting narcotics trafficking, cattle ranching, and other threats. The income from the sale of certified wood does not cover all of these community improvements and vigilance, so the revenue generated by the sale of carbon credits helps with these costs.”

The concessions achieved verification—a milestone—against two highly rigorous accounting standards in 2015, and are poised to begin earning income from selling credits on the international carbon market. Arturo Sánchez, a member of the Arbol Verde community forest concession, adds, “The additional revenue will help us improve forest management and conduct surveillance to stop illegal logging and control forest fires. We will also be able to conduct ongoing monitoring to assess forest cover and examine the impacts of our work.”

Cultivating Future Conservationists

On any given day, the children of El Porvenir, a community of 200 families just outside Guatemala’s Tikal National Park, can be found tending to their school’s vegetable garden, measuring the diameter of a mahogany, or planting saplings behind their school. These activities have a very specific purpose, says teacher Lesbia Gualip: “It’s not just that we plant a tree, it’s why we plant the tree. We teach lessons about deforestation and climate change,” she says. The students even learn how to estimate a tree’s potential for storing carbon.

Lesbia Gualip, teacher at El Porvenir primary school.

Lesbia Gualip, teacher at El Porvenir primary school. 

Photo credit: Sergio Izquierdo

Gualip is one of many teachers in Guatemala who’ve participated in the Rainforest Alliance’s education program, which provides training, hands-on learning tools, and support in implementing conservation and climate-related activities into existing school curricula. Climate education here is especially critical, as Guatemala faces one of the worst deforestation crises in the Northern Hemisphere; not surprisingly, the people of Guatemala are suffering severe effects of climate change. Inadequate rainfall, crop failures, and increased forest fires have devastated many communities throughout Guatemala, diminishing food supplies in a country that already suffers the highest rate of chronic malnutrition in Latin America.

The Rainforest Alliance has long worked to promote sustainable livelihoods and natural resource conservation in Guatemala, but as education manager Maria Ghiso points out, “The critically important conservation work we’re doing in Guatemala would not go very far if we weren’t also training the next generation to protect forests and work in harmony with the environment. Teachers like Lesbia are showing their students they can shape their community’s future.”

And in some ways, the school’s 85 students are already taking their knowledge forward: They recently helped reforest a communal area. “There’s a problem in our area: people have cut down so many trees without permission,” Gualip says. “Big stretches of forest have been turned into pastures for grazing. But our children have learned that trees are very important, and they take that message home to their parents and the whole community.”

Burning Peruvian forest - photo by Mohsin Kazmi

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