Forest Concessions on Trial in Guatemala's Peten Region

By Diane Jukofsky

SANTA ELENA, Guatemala, September 4, 2000 (ENS) - In a bid to stem deforestation in the Petén, in northern Guatemala, the government has given five community organizations permission to sustainably log trees in their neighboring forests over the next 25 years.

Conservationists are watching closely to see how effective these locally managed forest concessions will be, both in curbing deforestation and providing stable incomes to residents, most of whom are subsistence farmers.

The concessions are in the multiple use zone of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Established in 1990, it is the largest forest expanse in the country.

The reserve is divided into three areas: an untouchable nuclear zone; multiple use zones, where activities that will not permanently harm plants or wildlife are allowed; and buffer zones, where low impact farming is permitted.

Central American countries have established dozens of national parks for preservation, including the Petén. Change detection analysis, using satellite data between 1986-1997, shows increasing deforestation of the Petén's tropical forest as a result of an influx of settlers. The large expanse of the forest makes it hard to monitor and protect.

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Slash and burn clearing in the Maya Biosphere Reserve (Photos courtesy Land-Cover and Land-Use Change Program, an interdisciplinary program within NASA's Earth Science Enterprise)
Nearly 90,000 people live within the reserve, and the population of the Petén is expanding at a rate of about 10 percent annually.

The pressures of increased migration to the area have taken a toll on the reserve. Settlers in search of free land have deforested nearly 10 percent of the reserve since 1986.

With assistance from such groups as the Costa Rica based Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE in its Spanish acronym), Guatemala’s parks agency, CONAP, is granting concessions to interested communities.

CATIE forester Glenn Galloway says communities that want a forest concession must demonstrate that they are well organized and present a land use plan for their piece of the forest. The first 25 year concession was granted in 1996; now concessions cover 1.2 million acres in the reserve’s multiple use zone.

CATIE’s Bas Louman says that the concessions have been successful in slowing the advance of slash and burn farmers into the reserve. He explains, "Communities with concessions have a contract with the state. Within that contract, they are not allowed to help other people settle in the area or convert the forest to other uses. Within their land use plan they may dedicate certain areas to agriculture, but beyond those areas, it’s prohibited."

Communities that do not adhere to their contracts risk losing their concessions.

To provide communities with the technical assistance they need to win concessions from the government, the CATIE/CONAP project, which is supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development, fostered a conservation group based in the Petén.

Now technicians with the group, the Nature for Life Foundation, help residents develop and follow forest management plans and provide them with training in sustainable forestry.

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Undisturbed forest in the Petén may hold ancient Mayan ruins. (Photo courtesy )
Carlos Gómez Caal, the group’s executive secretary, who was born in the Petén, says that he has seen positive changes in people’s attitudes. "Most people still want titles to their land; that’s indisputable," he says. "But we have convinced many that under the constitution, this is impossible, and that forest concessions offer them the best opportunities."

A recent CATIE study shows that the forest concessions can be profitable. A 30,000 acre concession granted in 1998 to a small cooperative yielded an annual profit of US$4,400 for each of the 29 member families, a substantial increase to annual incomes.

But Louman warns that each cooperative’s circumstances are different, and not all concessions hold the same quantity of harvestable timber. Most concessionaires will need to depend on more than sustainable forestry for their livings, he says.

Other problems the concessionaires face, Galloway says, are the lack of equipment, a need for technical, legal, and organizational assistance, and a struggle to find markets that will pay enough for the timber.

While the Nature for Life Foundation helps communities overcome these obstacles, Gómez acknowledges that they are hampered by a lack of available capital. Banks in Guatemala will not grant loans to concession organizations since they do not have titles to their land.