Study Finds Better Forest Protection and Fewer Wildfires in FSC-Certified Areas in Guatemala's Maya Biosphere Reserve

March 24, 2008

A new Rainforest Alliance study has found that forest concessions managed in compliance with Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification standards have seen fewer wildfires and less deforestation compared with protected and other areas within the Maya Biosphere Reserve, an area of tropical forest in Guatemala's northern Petén region that the government set aside to conserve its unique natural and cultural patrimony.

In 2007, fires affected 0.1 percent of FSC-certified forest concessions in the reserve, down from 6.5 percent in 1998. During the same period, fires affected between 7 and 20 percent of the rest of the reserve. In addition, 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.

"Nearly two decades ago, the Rainforest Alliance pioneered the strategy of using market forces to conserve forests knowing that economic incentives are key to protecting biodiversity and curbing deforestation," said Tensie Whelan, president of the Rainforest Alliance. "These findings confirm that communities will indeed manage their land responsibly rather than destroy it if it makes economic sense to do so. In this case, that incentive is a market for responsibly harvested timber and non-timber forest products."

The results of the study demonstrate how responsible forest management can result in better conservation of forestlands when communities have a stake in the process and have an alternative livelihood to clearing land for cattle grazing, farming and other less sustainable activities.

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The study was conducted using data from the Wildlife Conservation Society, satellite imagery from the Guatemalan government's National Council for Protected Areas and information from the Rainforest Alliance's forestry program.

The government of Guatemala created the Maya Biosphere Reserve on about five million acres (about two million hectares) of land in 1990. The reserve is rich in biodiversity and home to hundreds of species of animals including jaguars, brocket deer, scarlet macaws and ocellated turkeys.

While some environmentalists called for logging to be banned in the entire reserve, the government ultimately classified about 40 percent of the area as protected and required other areas where forest management was to take place to earn FSC certification. By late 2007, nearly 60 percent of the land where timber harvesting is allowed in the reserve was FSC-certified. That represents nearly a quarter of the reserve's total area.

The Rainforest Alliance has been working in the reserve for more than 11 years, training communities in responsible forest management, building local community forest enterprises and connecting their FSC-certified products to international markets.

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Communities are seeing their businesses grow and livelihoods improve as demand for certified wood and non-timber forest products grows. In fiscal year 2007, the forest products sector in the region supported about 2,500 jobs and sales of FSC-certified timber surpassed $5 million. Gibson Musical Instruments, for example, buys certified wood to use in guitars, and Texas-based Continental Floral Greens buys xate palms for floral arrangements that are also sold to churches in the United States for Palm Sunday.

"These numbers show that certification is a real tool for the market and for conservation," said José Román Carrera, Central America coordinator for the Rainforest Alliance's TREES program, which works with communities in the Petén. "In these communities, FSC certification has helped strengthen business structures, fire prevention measures and low-impact harvesting practices."

To meet certification standards, forestry communities and companies in the reserve have created fire control and prevention plans, improved living and working conditions for workers, increased the use of safety equipment, experienced less social conflict as a result of better land-use mapping, and created committees to manage land-use, among other things.

FSC certification requires third-party auditing to international standards that promote responsible forestry practices and community participation. The standards incorporate the rights of indigenous groups and workers, biodiversity conservation, the protection of high conservation value forests and a range of other environmental, social and economic criteria.

There are many players that have contributed to the success of the FSC-certified areas in maintaining forest cover: local communities including the Association of Forest Communities of Petén, donors including the United States Agency for International Development, non-governmental organizations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society, Guatemala's National Council for Protected Areas, the Community Forestry Concessions Enterprise, and companies and consumers that buy certified forest products and provide a market for sustainably produced goods.