We Can Preserve the Forests and Forest Communities

A global consensus on addressing climate change through a carbon offset market could be essential to indigenous peoples in the process of negotiating possession of heavily-forested land.

By: Fundación Azul-Verde-Azul
Photos: Javier A. Pinzón

Is there a middle ground in this world of extremes? Will humans find a way to use natural resources without depleting them? Or is civilization inevitably synonymous with destruction? Finding the answers may be complicated, but it is essential, given that United Nations figures show that just 31% of the planet is still forested. The solution may lie in Latin America, since 20% of the world’s protected areas are found in this region, in comparison with 11.6% in developed countries, and 13.3% in developing countries.

However, as noted by the FAO, Mesoamerica loses nearly one million acres of forest per year. The figure is even more disheartening if we consider that 60% of species of plants, birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians are concentrated in 2.3% of the Earth’s surface; Mesoamerica is part of this favored slice of the globe.

What can we do to preserve the remaining forestland when people live on these lands and depend on them? How can we tell them that since they were the last to climb aboard the development train, they can no longer use the land they have inhabited for centuries? What can be done to break the cycle of poverty in places with the greatest ecological wealth?

Rural communities in the province of Petén, in northern Guatemala, have been very successful in managing the forest. In 1994, the Guatemalan government granted twelve communities concessions to manage nearly one million acres of forest inside the Maya Biosphere Reserve’s multi-use area. The goal is not profit, but rather jobs for community members, and a better quality of life through sustainable exploitation of forest resources in a way that does not upset the equilibrium of this fragile ecosystem, which is inhabited by more than 513 species of birds, 122 species of mammals, 95 species of reptiles, 62 species of amphibians, and 2,800 species of vascular plants. Twenty years later, the results have amazed the world.

The rules were made clear from the beginning: communities must organize and become legal entities, get backing from a NGO, and have their products qualify for the Rainforest Alliance and CFC “certified” seal. These certifications regulate the use of natural resources to preserve biodiversity and ensure the sustainability of communities.

Sophisticated Annual Operating Plans (AOP) laid the foundation for success. Hugo Trujillo, secretary of the Carmelita Cooperative’s council, says that only 34% of the approximately 143,000 acres managed by his cooperative is used for logging. The area is divided into sectors, with each one being used for five years in turn, bringing the first one back into use after forty years. The first step was a commercial inventory of resources available now, and those that will be available in forty years, based on the minimum cutting diameter of each of the species. For example, mahogany trees must measure more than twenty-four inches in diameter. Of these, only a certain percentage —which depends on the total number of trees with diameters between sixteen and twenty-four inches— can be cut; the rest must be left standing to provide for future harvesting.

According to Nubia Sosa, manager of the Árbol Verde Community Association, it all seemed impossible in the beginning, but little by little, by adding value to forest resources, glimmers of success started to appear. This association, which manages some 128,000 acres, began in 1999 with selective logging and an AOP for high-quality wood such as oak. A couple of years later they were able to buy cutting and processing tools and, by 2001, they were already exporting certified timber. In order to avoid wasting wood that did not meet the standards, they hired a carpentry teacher and created a small workshop where young people could learn to make and sell furniture. Artisans put the rest of the leftover wood to good use. Rolando Soto, leader of Guatemala’s artisan movement, confesses that in the past they used illegally-logged wood, but now they use concession leftovers.

Women have not been left behind. Ten women of the Ixlú community started a business that has expanded to include fifty people, who in turn provide work for 150 harvesters. They collect breadnuts (Maya nuts), which have been used since the time of the Maya, and produce flour, beverages, and delicious cookies.

After a long training process, relates Marta Julia, spokeswoman for the Carmelita council, they managed to convince the xateros (harvesters of xate palm leaves for flower arrangements) to cut two or three branches instead of taking the entire plant. Today, Carmelita alone exports 125 to 300 packages of leaves per week; the leaves are picked in rotating cycles, ensuring sustainability.

Tourism also provides employment for many people. The success of the strategy of sustainably using wood, xate, nuts, and chicle from the forest is evident in the number of tourists, adventurers, and naturalists from around the world who spend days hiking through the vast expanses where jaguars, pumas, and peccaries still roam free.

The management and economic diversification plan has improved the local social infrastructure. During the fourteen years the model has been in operation, illiteracy has dropped, some 3,000 jobs per year have been created, and around 7,600 people have directly benefited. In addition, community concessions have been twenty times more effective than other strategies in protecting the forest. Income from the forest has allowed it to essentially finance its own protection, and there are fewer forest fires and less illegal logging. The annual deforestation rate in the Maya Biosphere Reserve has been 1.18% in recent years, while it has registered at just .008% in the ten concession areas with no problems of governance. Before the emergence of community concessions, these forests represented 8.7% of the country’s forest cover; they now total 10.7%.

This success is under threat, however because the first contracts are about to expire and the communities fear they may not be renewed. Carlos Kurzel, communications manager for the Petén Forest Communities Association (ACOFOP), says that people would like to “continue managing the forest with social justice.” Instead of ending this community experiment, the experience of Guatemala should be replicated in other regions. According to the NGO Prisma, whose mission is to promote sustainable development through alliances and networks, “the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests has served as an arena for communities in Mesoamerica and the world to exchange knowledge.” Nonetheless, the same source notes that these communities “must first fight for the right to govern their lands.”

The subject is sensitive and controversial. Who owns what remains of the forests? Mesoamerica has found an answer and become a leader in recognizing “community rights.” According to Prisma, approximately 65% of the region’s nearly 206 million acres of forest are in community hands.

Panama is a different case. According to a McGill University study done in conjunction with the Forest Institute of Chile (INFOR) and the Smithsonian Institute in Panama, in 2008, protected areas plus indigenous zones accounted for 77% of Panama’s mature forests. But, as noted by Cándido Mezúa, the leading representative of indigenous peoples in Panama, even though these peoples have inhabited and coexisted with the forests since ancestral times, in Panama they have jurisdiction over only 11% of the lands they inhabit.

The leader explains that after the first indigenous district was established in Guna Yala in 1938, the Panamanian indigenous movement, fighting for the right to their lands, came down strongly in favor of the creation of more districts, in which each culture’s traditional leadership would protect and manage the surrounding forest. The subsequent creation of four more indigenous districts is considered an example for the entire world. This does not mean that the task is finished: some communities were left outside district boundaries. In 2008, these communities were established as “collective lands,” but they continue to fight to obtain rights over their lands and the resources on them.

This point is illustrated by lands on the banks of the Chagres River, which runs through a natural paradise. Here, five Emberá communities inhabit zones of a National Park, which means they cannot exploit forest resources or even use the wood to build their houses. Their homeland is rich in resources, but they cannot benefit from them.

Since 1991, Panama’s indigenous communities have been organized under the aegis of the National Organization of Indigenous Peoples (COONAPIP), consisting of nine congresses of seven ethnic groups, the districts, and the collective lands. In the current framework of the United Nations and the Kyoto Protocol, COONAPIP believes it is of utmost importance to gain recognition of rights over their lands and the resources on them. Indigenous communities have coexisted with the forests for centuries without destroying them; now they may be able to oversee environmental services and sales of carbon offsets on the international market, but just who governs these areas must be clarified first.

This is a complicated matter, but there is some evidence of progress. During the climate change summit held in New York last September, COONAPIP requested that indigenous issues be included in an inclusive and participatory platform, and that indigenous peoples have the right to voice and vote, both in UN negotiations and in national plans dealing with forests and water. They also requested the creation of three new indigenous districts for the Naso, Bribri, and Guna communities located outside the current district.

The proposal was approved in Panama last September 11. Indigenous peoples, the Panamanian government, and the United Nations agreed to implement it within one hundred days of signing. For Cándido Mezúa, this is only the first step, albeit a very important one, in the search to balance the use of natural resources by Panamanian indigenous peoples with the well-being of the forests, which are disappearing before their very eyes.

The communities in northern Petén and the Panamanian indigenous communities are observing the meetings happening during the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the tenth session of the Meeting of Parties to the Kyoto Protocol, which will be held this month in Perú. This meeting is expected to produce a global agreement to address climate change in relation to carbon trading, which cannot be decided without addressing the possession of land in heavily-forested areas such as Guatemala and Panama.

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