Groundbreaking Conservation Achievements by Guatemala’s Forest Communities

In honor of our 30th anniversary, the Rainforest Alliance’s Latin America director José Román Carrera looks back at our decades-long partnership with indigenous and rural communities to build a sustainable forest economy in one of Guatemala’s most valuable, vulnerable regions.

Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR) is a marvel of vast, unbroken forest canopy, rich biodiversity, and archeological treasures. Yet this majestic oasis, which spans some 6 million acres (2.1 million hectares), faces terrible threats: In some areas of the reserve, deforestation related to illegal logging and illicit drug-related activity is laying waste to precious ecosystems, centuries-old cultures, and traditional livelihoods.

In  the “multiple-use zone” section of the reserve, however, the Rainforest Alliance and our partner communities have developed a thriving forest economy—and achieved an astonishing near-zero deforestation rate—over the past 20 years. In honor of our 30-year anniversary, here’s a look back at our flagship work in the MBR, through the eyes of Rainforest Alliance Latin America director José Román Carrera, who helped establish the reserve in 1990 before joining the Rainforest Alliance.

José Román Carrera at an active harvest site in the Carmelita forest concession.

José Román Carrera at an active harvest site in the Carmelita forest concession.

Photo credit: Sergio Izquierdo -- sergioizquierdo.com

When did the Rainforest Alliance start working in the Maya Biosphere?

We started working toward Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification in 1995, just a few years after the reserve was established. For a community to win a concession (a fixed-term lease that allows the community to make a sustainable living from the forest) from the government, it has to achieve and maintain FSC certification. We had our first certification in 1998 and installed an office in 2001. Today we are working with an integrated approach: we’ve added tourism, markets, a climate initiative, education, and sustainable finance. We worked with the communities and the Guatemalan government to develop this model—to demonstrate the economic value of the forest and show that it can offer livelihood opportunities that match or surpass other economic activities in the region, such as agriculture and cattle.

Now that we’ve been there 20 years, what can we say about the effectiveness of this approach?

There is twenty times less deforestation in the multiple-use zone where we work than in the core and buffer zones of the reserve—in fact, the deforestation rate in the concessions was found to be nearly zero. In 1989, before the concessions existed in the multiple-use zone, I had the opportunity to do research in that area. We found 21 illegal saw mills operating, and more than 95 percent of the lumber extracted from this area was illegal. Today it’s exactly the opposite: more than 95 percent of the timber and non-timber products that are extracted from this area are certified or legal. About 480,000 hectares (1.19 million acres) are now FSC Certified.

In addition, small and medium-sized enterprises of the communities have exported more than 50 million dollars of certified timber and non-timber forest products and generated more than 30,000 permanent and temporary jobs for local people in the last 10 years . The local people have been trained in business administration, best management practices, organizational structures, and value-added processing. More than 100 forestry communities and small and medium-sized enterprises are stronger today and now have access to credit.

Xate packers in Guatemala

Community members sorting xate, a non-timber forest product that is sold around the country.

Photo credit: Sergio Izquierdo -- sergioizquierdo.com

What is at the root of this success?

The communities are investing their income and their efforts in best management practices and in protecting the territories.

Do you feel that awareness of environmental threats and climate change is improving in Guatemala?

Every four years when the government changes, the Rainforest Alliance and other organizations have to educate the government. The new government officials and the new local authorities don’t have much background in environmental and sustainable issues. Neither do Guatemala’s financial institutions—most of the communities do not have access to finance because institutions don’t see environmental services and sustainable activities as bankable, so we have to educate them. But the local communities themselves have a lot of awareness and knowledge because they make their living from sustainable activities; every day they implement sustainable development, and they see that it works.

Have you been able to replicate the model developed in the MBR in other landscapes?

We’ve been able to adapt the model that the Rainforest Alliance has created in the MBR to other areas of Guatemala, as well as Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, and even to countries in Asia and Africa. We have been scaling up around the world and within the concessions: sales of lumber and non-timber forest products have totalled more than US $18 million since 2013.

Where do we go from here?

We’re working to  continue to consolidate the landscape model, curb deforestation, restore ecosystems, improve livelihoods, and reduce poverty. We need to scale up efforts to help communities better face the threats posed by climate change, since Guatemala is one of the top ten countries affected. The carbon projects—in which the communities prevent deforestation to earn credits that can be sold on the voluntary carbon market—are ready to go, and they could generate up to 100 million dollars for the communities by preventing and/or absorbing the equivalent of 32 million tons of carbon over 30 years’ time.

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