The remote Maya Biosphere Reserve in northeast Guatemala is the site of a dramatic, politically-charged situation which is currently unfolding at the highest levels of Guatemalan and American government, in corporate offices, and in the tropical forests of the Reserve.
Originally created in 1990 to protect the second-largest tropical forest in the Americas, the Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR) is stewarded by a group of communities that have lived in the forest for generations. These communities derive their livelihoods from the forests and by managing the forest, they also protect and preserve it for generations to come. These are known as the “forestry concessions” in the MBR.
The forestry concessions model, which have been very successful in conserving forest cover while strengthening local economies, are up for renewal by the Guatemalan government in the next 3 years. Yet there is growing pressure from outside private interest groups to cancel the concessions altogether, and instead invest in large-scale, high-impact tourism projects.
In the interim, the current Guatemalan government must evaluate the efficacy of the concessions—an evaluation that will likely be based on political motivation, not scientific or evidence-based criteria. The decision to cancel or extend the concessions can be made in the next 18 months leading up to the Guatemalan presidential election in 2019.
Financed by powerful Guatemalan families and linked to the cement, beer, and sugar monopolies, the organization PACUNAM leads the movement to end the concession model. They maintain ties to the American archeologist Richard Hansen. These groups have recently been making inroads with American senators and Guatemalan government leaders, trying to secure US funding and Guatemalan support for a high-impact tourism development.
This proposed development includes controversial measures such as the construction of a light-rail train. Additionally, the proposed tourism initiatives call for construction of major tourism infrastructure: hotels, restaurants, and possibly new roads. Finally, it would prohibit the forest management and harvesting currently practiced by the forestry concessions.
There would be no room for compromise between the current model of forest management and the proposed tourism industry.
: The proposed high impact-tourism initiatives would destabilize the forest communities already living there. Though foreign investors and developers make vague promises of economic boom, this must be contrasted with the economic success of the concessions.
Community leaders believe these actions endanger all their efforts to conserve the MBR. What’s more, the tourism plans neglect the environmental conservation and social empowerment dimensions embodied by the community forestry concessions.
These tourism initiatives would principally benefit a small group of powerful investors at the expense of the forest communities who are the greatest defenders of the MBR. The forestry concessions represent an economic model based on balance, one that empowers a group of people who have often be relegated to the fringes of progress.
The model of forest management by the communities, a direct result of the Guatemalan Peace Accords, has achieved a strong balance between conservation and economic development for the communities. Impacts include:
- Deforestation rates in community-managed areas have been close to zero for the past 14 years.
- Between 2013-2017, the forestry concessions have generated more than 5,000 full-time jobs, and products and services worth $27 million USD.
- The community forestry concessions have quintupled their sales with the commercialization of non-timber forest products, earning $1 million USD in 2017.
- More than 1.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide were sequestered from the atmosphere between 2012-2014 as a result of the forest management policies of the forestry concessions.
- An average of 50 jaguars per each 500,000 hectares in the community-controlled areas.
- Forest fires are less likely to occur in the forest area managed by the concessions, making up less than 1% of all the fires that occur in Petén.
Despite these successes, private interest groups with economic interests in the region have begun efforts to promote an agenda of tourism in the area, and are making plans to move forward without support from the communities. The implications of these tourism projects could include displacing the communities, undermining their land and resource rights, and unprecedented rates of forest and biodiversity loss. There is also the threat that a project of this size will attract further development, endangering the forest, the communities, and the wildlife that depend on it for survival.
Today, there are 9 active forestry concessions, which are an example of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals made real and tactile. These concessions are a best-case example for humans and nature living in harmony. The community concessions of the MBR are one of the best examples of forest conservation, climate change mitigation, and community empowerment anywhere on earth. Other countries like Peru, Honduras, and Indonesia seek to imitate the forestry communities’ success.