When the government of Guatemala created the Maya Biosphere Reserve in 1990 to protect Central America’s largest rainforest, conservationists felt betrayed that a big chunk was given to local communities for sustainable logging. They saw it as a lost chance to save the heart of the third most important biodiversity hotspot on the planet, home to more than 1,400 plant and 450 animal species, including jaguars, pumas, tapirs, spider monkeys, alligators, harpy eagles, and macaws.
Today many think differently. Illegal cattle ranches — most of them linked to major drug cartels — have been wrecking the national parks containing the protected forests in the west of the reserve, causing some of the fastest rates of deforestation in the world. Almost a third of the forests in the largest park in the reserve, the 835,000-acre Laguna del Tigre National Park, has been lost since 2000.
But the once-maligned community forests are still intact, a shining beacon of conservation covering nearly 900,000 acres of the eastern half of the reserve. Deforestation rates there are a fraction of 1 percent. Together, they comprise one of the world’s largest and most successful community forest experiments.
In a study published this month, Jennifer Devine of Texas State University, who has spent years in the region, calculates that up to 87 percent of the deforestation in the reserve is the result of illegal cattle ranching. In addition, she found, two-thirds of the deforestation, including most of the large clearances, are directly funded by drug traffickers.
A new study makes a case for the value of community forests in protecting forests in otherwise lawless landscapes.
Devine says the study shows community concessions to be far more resilient to land grabs than the state-protected parks. It gives the lie to the idea that local peasant farmers are to blame for the loss of forests and makes a strong case for the value of community forests — even those whose incomes mostly come from selective logging — in protecting forests in otherwise lawless landscapes.
The Maya forest of the northern Guatemalan department of Peten is one of the great ecological jewels of Latin America. It was once controlled by the ancient Maya civilization, and contains many of their archaeological remains. But it was thinly populated until the mid-20th century, with perhaps 5,000 inhabitants, many of them descendants of the Mayans.
Change came after a U.S.-backed coup in 1954 brought to power a government that began shipping landless peasants to the region. Civil war followed, lasting into the late 1980s, when a new government sought a new future for the region by establishing the reserve, which totals 8,340 square miles — more than twice the size of Yellowstone National Park.
The original plan, drawn up with USAID and organization such as Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy, was to impose strict protection in the reserve. But, with an estimated 90,000 people by then within its boundaries, that proved impossible. There were mass protests. And grassroots organizations representing traditional forest users demanded the right to establish community forests, where they could continue harvesting timber and other forest products.
In the end, strict protection was restricted to national parks mostly in the west of the reserve, with 11 forest concessions, covering about a fifth of the reserve, in the east. The compromise deal “was anathema to many of the conservationists involved,” according to a retrospective analysis by John Nittler and Henry Tschinkel for USAID. Some conservationists refused outright to deal with local communities, regarding them as “squatters,” even though “most of Guatemala’s protected areas were carved out of [their] territory,”says Liza Grandia of the University of California, Davis, who is an expert on Guatemalan environmental politics.
But those conservationists should now be relieved that they lost. The communities have done a far better job of protecting the forest than they and the government have.
A decade ago, the 30-mile road to Carmelita village in the heart of the biosphere reserve was forested all the way, residents say. Now it passes through a lawless and largely treeless landscape until it reaches the intact forests of the village’s concession. Carmelita is a century-old community, originally established as a settlement for extractors of forest products. Its inhabitants are ethnically mixed: some descendants of the Mayans, while others migrated from Mexico or came as part of the settlement programs of the mid-20th century. They control one of the largest of the community forests.
What lies behind their success, and that of the other concessions?
One of the rules set by the government when establishing the concessions was that communities must use the forests sustainably. While laws are routinely flouted in the state-protected areas, they largely hold in the concession areas. The communities have all applied for and received certification for their sustainable harvesting methods from the WWF-backed Forest Stewardship Council. They are almost the only forests in Guatemala with that status.
The communities also benefit from long-term advice from Rainforest Alliance, an American NGO, in finding markets for forest products. These include valuable timbers such as mahogany and Spanish cedar, which despite its name is a New World tree, and several non-timber products from trees believed to have been cultivated since the time of the Mayan civilization here.
Among them are chicle, a latex tapped from sapodilla trees. Used for chewing gum and incense since Mayan times, chicle found an export market in the early 20th century. Huge volumes were bought from the forest by U.S. chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, until he found a synthetic substitute. Now it has a niche in organic and fair-trade markets selling “natural” chewing gum.
Other products include allspice, a tree berry found widely in the Maya forest; xate palm leaves that are exported by the millions to the U.S. and Canada for use in floral bouquets on Palm Sunday; and nuts from a relative of the mulberry tree, Brosimum alicastrum, known as ramon nuts, breadnuts, or Maya nuts. They are widely used locally to make flour, nut soup, and flavor ice cream and cookies.
In an average year, just 1 percent of the many fires in the Maya reserve occur within the community forest concessions.
Each concession has its own business plan. Uaxactun – the largest, covering 200,000 acres — sells mahogany direct to U.S. guitar makers, for instance. It also profits from tourists visiting nearby Mayan remains. The Rainforest Alliance estimates that taken together, the sustainably managed concessions generate more than $6 million in annual revenue from their forests. They also maintain community-managed strict conservation areas within their concessions.
At the heart of the community concessions is a strong collective organization, the Association of Forest Communities of Peten (ACOFOP), which has its origins in an old union of chicle tappers. According to its production director, Erick Cuellar, the association’s role is to help communities develop their forest resources and “represent their interests in political spaces.”
“The forest is an economic asset to the people,” ACOFOP’s deputy director Juan Giron told me in an earlier interview. “If the person benefits from natural resources, he or she sees them as an asset. Land rights guarantee access to the forest, and in the case of the forest concessions in Peten, this access leads us to take better care of these resources.”
Remote sensing images show that care. In an average year, just 1 percent of the many fires in the reserve occur within the community forest concessions. This, Devine says, is because the communities construct fire breaks and conduct constant patrols — augmented by drones and GPS trackers — that look for fires and protect their borders from outsiders. “Community foresters defend the forest they manage against encroachment,” she says. They do it because their ownership of their forests “is the hard-won product of a two-decade struggle.”
Deforestation in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, 2000-2017. (Courtesy of Rainforest Alliance)
Independent studies have shown that key species such as jaguars and their prey are still abundant in the forest concessions . “This clearly shows our compliance with the ecological requirements of forest certification,” Cuellar said.
The benefits of community-managed forests are being seen worldwide. A review of 130 local studies in 14 countries, conducted in 2014 by the U.S.-based World Resources Institute (WRI) and the Rights and Resources Initiative, found that indigenous- and community-run forests suffer less deforestation and fewer fires, while storing more carbon than other forests, including those under government protection. “If you want to stop deforestation,”says Andrew Steer, WRI’s director, “give legal rights to communities.”
In Guatemala, there were 11 community concessions at the start. Two collapsed after intimidation from ranchers who invaded their land. But the others thrive. One of the biggest, Cruce la Colorada, survived the assassination of its leader, David Salguero, who was shot dead outside his office in 2010 after confronting ranchers who had begun deforesting within the concession.
The people who often get the blame for the deforesting outside the community concessions are the estimated 15,000 “illegal” settlers in the parks — many of whom have nowhere else to go. They live in very poor conditions and do clear a few areas to grow crops or raise cattle, says Devine. There are regular high-profile evictions. But Devine’s analysis of some 4,500 satellite images of the deforested areas shows that these settlers are not the ones doing the real environmental damage.
“What we see in the photos are very large cattle ranches that are often empty and far from settlements or crop cultivation,” she says. Their size and location means they cannot be connected to the settlers. The images “confirm that large-scale cattle ranching and not subsistence farming is responsible for the majority of forest loss.”
So the ranchers are the deforesters, but who are the ranchers? Devine’s in-depth interviews with local officials, activists and others with detailed knowledge of the area reveal a near-unanimous view that about two-thirds of the deforestation, including most of the large clearances, is directly funded by what are known locally as “narco-ganadero,” or narco-ranchers.
The narco-ranchers are said to be funded by two Mexican cartels that are also implicated in the conversion of rainforests to cattle pasture over the border in Mexico’s Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. Despite their dominant presence in the west of the Maya reserve, where the main “protected” parks are located, nobody is evicting them. They are untouchables, operating with impunity in what some call a “bribe or bullet” tyranny. Park guards are told to take their bribes or face a bullet.
Why do the traffickers want ranches? Partly, buying land in a lawless region is a convenient means of laundering profits with a minimum of paperwork, says Kendra McSweeney of The Ohio State University. But there is geography too. The biosphere reserve occupies half of Guatemala’s long border with Mexico. That border has become the main route that cocaine traffickers take between the cultivators of Central and South America and the markets of North America.
The narco-ranchers destroy the forests but barely use the land, in stark contrast with the other world inside the reserve.
Narco-ranches contain miles of clandestine roads leading to the border, and around a hundred small airstrips that are out of sight of the authorities and out of the hands of rival gangs. The images also reveal that most of the ranches are surprisingly empty. Devine says this can be a sign of narco-ranchers, whose primary purpose is to occupy land. They barely bother to stock their giant ranches, which can cover thousands of acres.
They destroy the forests but barely use the land. There could harder be a starker contrast with the other world inside the biosphere reserve.
Recognizing the success of the community concessions in protecting the forests of the reserve, the Guatemalan government at the end of 2019 granted an extension to the original 25-year license given to the Carmelita community, which was the first concessions and one of the biggest. More should follow. But threats remain.
One comes from the United States. A proposal currently being discussed by the U.S. Senate offers the Guatemalan government $60 million to beef up security in the Mirador Basin, a part of the reserve known for its Mayan archaeological remains. The bipartisan Mirador-Calakmul Basin Maya Security and Conservation Partnership Act, which claims the support of conservation groups and Guatemala’s Congress and president, was introduced in December by Senator Jim Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma.
On the face of it, it sounds like good news, much like the 1990 plan to provide full protection for the entire biosphere reserve did. But critics familiar with the area say off-the-record that it would be counterproductive. Precise plans remain sketchy, but one critic said that it would likely absorb more than half of the Uaxactun concession and up to a fifth of the Carmelita concession into national parks. The communities, who have yet to be consulted about the proposals, would lose control of their forests, and further timber harvesting, however sustainable, would be banned.
So the communities that have the best record of being able to repel the narco-ranchers would be sidelined. With current trends suggesting that by mid-century, almost all the surviving trees in the Maya Biosphere Reserve will be in community-run areas, that seems like a bad idea.