The many parents of success


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By any reasonable standard the community forestry concessions in Guatemala’s northern Peten region are a big success. The communities manage over half a million hectares of forest. Most of that is certified and suffers much less from deforestation and forest fires than nearby national parks. The community enterprises turn a profit, keep good books, and benefit over 10,000 people. Eleven communities jointly own a company that provides technical and marketing services and eight of them own sawmills. ACOFOP, their association, actively defends their rights in policy fora.

However, people’s versions of how that was achieved differ markedly. Everyone agrees that ten years ago the government gave 25-year forest concessions to community groups willing to get technical assistance and be certified, and that donors, NGOs, and consultants supported the process. But some people credit these external groups for the achievements and blame the communities for any weakness. Others do the opposite.

Community Forest Management in the Maya Biosphere of Guatemala, Protection through Profits, by John Nittler and Henry Tschinkel falls into the first category. This knowledgeable and well done account is written from the perspective of professional foresters trying to set up forestry businesses with donor support. The authors attribute the concessions’ successes to donor-funded training, advice, and audits and an abundance of valuable mahogany. They say the problems are mostly due to poorly educated villagers who distrust each other, don’t know how to manage businesses, and won’t listen to experts. The authors fear the concessions might collapse when the donors leave or the mahogany’s gone.

The communities take the second view. They ascribe success to their own hard work and struggles, say little donor money actually comes to them, and question many of the supposed benefits.

Both sides have a point. No single group can take all the credit for success or the blame for failures. Villagers may lack technical and managerial skills, but so-called experts don’t always understand what villagers want. Donors have good reason to tout their accomplishments, but should also recognize their failings. Having mahogany is an advantage, but that is not the whole story.

Success has many parents, but failure is an orphan. So it is a good sign to see so many groups claim paternity of Guatemala’s concessions. Each parent has their own strengths and limitations. Marriages which recognize and respect that tend to last longer.

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Further reading

To request a free electronic copy in pdf format of the Nittler and Tschinkel paper in English or Spanish you can write to John Nittler at: Please specify if you want the paper in English or Spanish.

To send comments or queries to the authors you can write to: Henry Tschinkel at:

The full reference for the article is: Nittler, J. and H. Tschinkel. 2005. Community Forest Management in the Maya Biosphere Reserve of Guatemala: Protection Through Profits. U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management

(SANREM), University of Georgia, 28 pp.

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