Northern Guatemala, together with neighboring Mexico and Belize, is home to the largest tropical forest north of the Amazon. Like many other tropical forests, the Selva Maya faces pressures from unsustainable logging and land clearing for agriculture. For every hectare of forest cleared, as much as 66 metric tons of carbon is unlocked and can be released into the environment and atmosphere. “The forest is a lung for the country,” says Teresa Robles, tenure and natural resources policy advisor with USAID/Guatemala. “The nature conserved there is very important.”
In 1990, the Guatemalan government, in partnership with USAID and UNESCO, moved to protect this global treasure by creating the Maya Biosphere Reserve. This 2.1 million hectare reserve—a bit smaller than the state of New Jersey—was divided into three management types: national parks, buffer zones, and a multiple use zone specifically for community concessions.
Nine of these community concessions—476,000 hectares in total—are managed to conserve biodiversity through sustainable, low-impact harvesting of timber and non-timber species, and through community tourism. Communities that have lived in the forest for generations enter into 25-year leases from the Guatemalan government so they can derive their income from the forest while also protecting it.
“The community concessions have between 20 and sometimes hundreds of ‘owners,’” explains Project Director, Oscar Rojas, of USAID’s Climate, Nature, and Communities in Guatemala activity in the reserve. “The government asks them to present plans for 40 years and then they split that into five-year plans, and each year they operate under an annual work plan that spells out how they will get the timber.” They are only allowed to remove one tree per hectare, so deforestation rates in the concessions are very low, only 0.4 percent, much lower than surrounding areas, which see rates around 5-7 percent.
“The concessions are not perfect, but have a lot of very good results,” says Rojas. Between 2013 and 2017, the concessions generated nearly 5,000 full-time jobs, and products and services worth $27 million.
Following the strict rules for certification under the Forest Stewardship Council, communities harvest more than 20 species of timber, including mahogany and cedar. As much as possible, these trees are milled and processed locally, before being exported to the United States and other markets, in order to fetch a higher price. “Selling finished products is so important,” says Rojas. “The communities get more income with this kind of activity.”
“The main income for the concessions are related to forestry management,” he says. “They use not only the timber, but the majority of the community concessions are working too with non-timber products.”
These non-timber products include native allspice trees, a natural chewing gum called chicle, local-favorite nuts from ramón trees, and xate leaves. “Women are the ones who sort these leaves,” explains Robles. “They go to markets in the states for flower arrangements and also for Palm Sunday for churches. This provides an opportunity for the women.”
Another benefit of community management is a strengthening of local governance. “All these areas now have some functional governability,” says Rojas. In order to keep their concession rights, communities must monitor all activities in the concessions, including drug and human trafficking. “Communities have made a big effort on protection,” he says. “They have made a big effort to avoid illegal activities too.” As a result, trafficking is much less of a problem in this part of the country.
Forest fires are another strikingly reduced problem in the concessions. Fires are typically started by farmers clearing land for agriculture; the smoke from them can pump tons of carbon into the atmosphere. But as the map shows, the vast majority of the fires in the region—more than 99 percent—occur outside the boundaries of Maya Biosphere Reserve concessions.
The community concessions demonstrate that economic development, natural resources conservation, and climate change mitigation can be achieved all at once. With this in mind, both the communities and donors like USAID hope that the Guatemalan government will choose to renew the concession leases as they expire over the next few years. “The communities really have been doing great work that deserves extension,” says Robles.
“There was this model developed when the community concessions were created to maintain that half-million hectares,” she says. “If we hadn’t had that type of activity and support not only by USAID, but by other donors, probably we would have lost that landscape.”
Christine Chumbler is a communications professional with more than 20 years experience in writing, editing, and publications design. She has expertise in every stage of publication production, from concept and writing to editing, design, and printing. In the mid-1990s, she was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi. This experience led to a career using her writing and editorial skills with international development and foreign policy organizations, many of which worked to directly support USAID’s efforts. She has worked in a freelance capacity full-time since May 2016. Chumbler has a Master’s in journalism from the University of Michigan and a Bachelor’s in environmental studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz.