Guatemala’s Forest Concessions: A Global Conservation Model

Do forest concessions work? A near-zero deforestation rate says yes.

Guatemala’s majestic 5 million-acre Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR), the largest remaining contiguous natural forest in Mesoamerica, is not your typical protected reserve: It’s a network of many different management units, including eleven 25-year forestry concessions, nine of which are community-run. Following the 1996 Peace Accords that ended decades of civil war, the Guatemalan government granted these nine communities the right to make a living from the forest, as long as they did so sustainably. 

Map of Fires in Guatemala's Maya Biosphere Reserve, 2017

A satellite fire map of Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve during the 2017 dry season. Fires are often an indicator of slash-and-burn logging and forestland being cleared for agriculture. As seen here, fires were concentrated in the reserve’s core “protected zones” in the west and “buffer zones” along the reserve’s southern edge. However, there were very few fires within 11 forest concessions managed by communities that the Rainforest Alliance works with to develop sustainable forestry enterprises.

Does this forest concession model 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 some of the MBR’s strictly “protected” areas have some of the worst deforestation rates in the Americas. This model has upended the common view that to protect forests, you have to ban all logging and forest enterprise—and proves the theory that those who live from the forest have the most incentive to protect it. In addition to halting deforestation, these communities have successfully kept the rate of forest fires remarkably low compared to nearby areas. (See satellite map.)

The concessions model “has taken conservation to another level,” says Elder Figueroa, who runs Guatemala’s National Council for Protected Areas (CONAP). “Not just for (forest) protection, but for social benefits. It’s a win-win for forests and people.”

For the 15,000 people living in these communities, the concessions have been a boon: They generate 26,000 jobs in sustainable forest-based trades, which serves to improve livelihoods, education, and health care. Gender equity has improved, too. “Women are involved now in production activities,” Angela Fajardo, a resident of the Uaxactun concession, says. “We harvest ramón nuts, work in tourism, and in many other activities. We’re not just housewives anymore.”

Reyna Valenzuela sorts xate palm at collection center in Petén, Guatemala.

Reyna Valenzuela sorts xate palm at collection center in Petén, Guatemala.

Photo credit: Sergio Izquierdo

Thais Linhares, Senior Forestry Officer for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, agrees that the concessions are a winning model for protecting forests and improving lives. “We believe—and we have supporting evidence—that forest concessions can be a powerful tool to advance sustainable forest management and can deliver a number of contributions to the SDGs,” or Sustainable Development Goals, a collection of 17 global goals set by the UN to address issues such as poverty, education, water, climate change, and gender equity.

"Guatemala can be a model for the world as to how people can live in harmony with nature."

Elder Figueroa, Guatemala’s National Council for Protected Areas

The Rainforest Alliance has been working with these concessions since 1999, first on certification, and then on developing sustainable forest-based businesses, such as harvesting and selling nuts and palm fronds, as well as extracting timber according to the rigorous standard of the Forest Stewardship Council. “The idea of the concessions is to improve incomes without destroying the forest,” says Rainforest Alliance director of partnerships for Latin America, José Román, adding that in accordance with sustainable forest management practices, the communities harvest only one tree per hectare every 40 years. “When you go to one of these communities and you see women integrated into timber and non-timber production and also into the governments of these enterprises, when you see teenagers becoming professionals—teachers, nurses, technicians—you have faith. I am totally convinced that the forest concession model works.”

For CONAP’s Figueroa, there’s no question that the concessions have been a success. In fact, he says, the concessions “should be replicated, continued, and expanded. They can be more than a model for the country—Guatemala can be a model for the world as to how people can live in harmony with nature.”  

Burning Peruvian forest - photo by Mohsin Kazmi

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