Diverse use of Guatemala’s biosphere reserve works best, research shows

New settlers, organized crime and climate change – these are just a few of the challenges facing communities in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve. But research shows that the communities that cope best are those that successfully manage their forests for multiple uses.
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A Xatero (Xate palm harvester) in Maya Biosphere Reserve, Guatemala. Charlie Watson (USAID/Rainforest Alliance Forestry Enterprises).

A Xatero (Xate palm harvester) in Maya Biosphere Reserve, Guatemala. Charlie Watson (USAID/Rainforest Alliance Forestry Enterprises).

LIMA, Peru (10 June, 2013)_New settlers, organized crime and climate change – these are just a few of the challenges facing communities in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve. But research shows that the communities that cope best are those that successfully manage their forests for multiple uses.

“Not surprisingly, communities with the highest degrees of both product diversification and social organisation appear better able to deal with economic and sociological challenges,” said Manuel Guariguata, editor of a special issue of the journal Forest Ecology and Management.

The issue includes a study of the first decade of community-managed forestry in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, led by Jeremy Radachowsky, senior program officer for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Latin America and Caribbean program.

The biosphere reserve model – implemented in over 117 countries – seeks to promote a balance between human activities and the environment by including sustainable economic development in conservation planning. The Maya Biosphere Reserve lies in Guatemala’s northern Petén region and was created in 1990 to protect the largest area of tropical forest remaining in Central America – covering over 2 million hectares.

It includes areas demarcated for research and low-impact tourism, as well as a buffer area. The heart of the reserve is a multi-use zone with 14 concessions, two of which are held by timber companies. The rest are held by communities, some of which have struggled or even failed in managing their forest resources, according to the study.

“Their experience offers lessons for other tropical forest communities, because it shows how a large number of variables affect community-managed forestry,” Radachowsky said.

Claiming a concession

Fourteen concessions were granted in the reserve between 1994 and 2002, partly as a result of the peace accords that ended Guatemala’s civil war, according to the study. The concessions ranged from 7,000 to 83,000 hectares and covered more than half a million hectares in the reserve’s multi-use zone.

To win a concession, community organizations had to show that they could manage forest resources sustainably, partner with an NGO for technical assistance and obtain forest certification within three years. Communities were allowed to manage all forest resources, while the two private companies, which were operating before the reserve was set up, could only extract timber.

Two of the concessions went to each of the century-old communities of Carmelita and Uaxactún, which have traditionally harvested chicle, the latex used to make natural chewing gum, as well as allspice (Pimenta dioica) and fronds from palms known locally as xate (Chamaedorea spp.).

Uaxactun -- an ancient ruin of the Maya civilization and part of the Maya Biosphere Reserve's Multiple Use Zone. Jeremy Radachowsky

Uaxactun — an ancient ruin of the Maya civilization and part of the Maya Biosphere Reserve’s Multiple Use Zone. Jeremy Radachowsky

“Even before the reserve was established, these communities had been living in the forest with livelihoods based on extraction of forest products for market and for subsistence use,” Radachowsky said.

Four concessions went to newer communities that had settled in the multi-use zone around the time that the biosphere reserve was created, and six went to communities in the reserve’s buffer zone. The settlers were mainly immigrants from other parts of Guatemala who were accustomed to farming and ranching, but had little forest-management experience.

The good, the bad and the ugly

Overall, the results of a decade’s forest management appear positive, the study said. All of the community concessions obtained Forest Stewardship Council certification for their timber, and some communities have installed sawmills and learned to manage the entire production chain, from the forest to the market. Certified timber now brings in some US$13 million a year.

Non-timber products generate additional revenue, despite a reduction in yield caused by drought and a decrease in global demand for chicle and allspice. Families in Carmelita can earn more than US$2,300 each from non-timber products. Total annual revenue from xate alone in the reserve is estimated at US$5.7 million, thanks in part to savvy communities improving their practices to avoid overharvesting.

Yet three of the four communities of recent immigrants lost their concessions, and the other is in danger of losing it because of repeated non-compliance with regulations, Radachowsky said.

We should give up the myth that community concessions have to be self-sustaining and look upon the benefits they provide.

The four concessions run by recent settlers have had greater incursions by large-scale cattle ranchers, with the resulting conflicts involving death threats and at least one murder. They have also had the highest rates of deforestation – 1.54 percent annually, compared with less than 0.01 percent in the other 10 concessions – and damage from fires, with more than 900 hectares burned each year, compared with 225 hectares in the other 10.

The degrees of success and failure show the importance of considering communities’ characteristics when planning community forestry programs, Radachowsky said.

“In the four concessions with recent immigrants, there has been constant turnover,” he said. When the community of La Colorada was evicted from the reserve, “40 of the original 42 families weren’t there anymore.”

The arrival of ranchers also changed the local economy.

“They decreased the resource base that local people depended on and developed a wage-labor and farmhand economy,” Radachowsky said.

“A lot of people ended up working for the ranchers and in small shops.”

The two older communities and the communities in the buffer zone successfully resisted land grabs by outsiders. But they have had their troubles too, including financial mismanagement and conflicts over the distribution of revenue.

Tradition, training and tenacity

Communities elsewhere could learn from the experiences in the biosphere reserve for their own forest management, Radachowsky said.

Concession holders in the buffer zone were more successful than the newcomers because they joined together by choice, not simply because they lived in the same community, said Radachowsky, who calls the buffer-zone residents “communities of practice”.

Residents of the two older – and more successful – forest-dwelling communities already had a long tradition of working together to manage their forests.

The financial problems experienced by some communities indicate that training for community forestry programs should include more on business administration.

“Poor financial management practices and acquired debt may be the greatest threat to concession sustainability,” Radachowsky said.

Communities that diversify their production are also more successful, because they are better prepared to deal with the ups and downs of markets, according to the study’s authors.

Nevertheless, governments and NGOs must recognize that community-managed concessions may never be completely self-supporting, Radachowsky argued.

“We should give up the myth that community concessions have to be self-sustaining and look upon the benefits they provide, as well as issues of social equity and justice, and be willing to find complementary solutions for financing,” he said.

That is especially true in a place like the Petén, where communities face particularly difficult problems such as threats from organized crime, he added.

“Forest management and community management are long-term processes,” Radachowsky said.

“I don’t think there’s an ideal model. It takes tenacity and perseverance. It’s the process of going through difficult situations together that builds relationships and makes them stronger.”

For more information about the issues discussed in this article, please contact Manuel Guariguata at m.guariguata@cgiar.org 

This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and was supported by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the US Department of the Interior and the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

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