Helping local farmers save the forest

Posted: 21 March 2001

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 neighbouring 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 local farmers. The concessions are in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, established in 1990 and the largest forest expanse in the country. The reserve is divided into three areas: an untouchable zone; multiple-use zones, where activities that won't permanently harm plants or wildlife are allowed; and buffer zones, where low-impact farming is permitted.

Nearly 90,000 people live within the reserve, and the population of the Petén is expanding at a rate of about 10 per cent 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 per cent of the reserve since 1986.

Communities that want a forest concession must demonstrate to the Parks Agency (CONAP) that they are well organised 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.

According to Bas Louman of the Costa Rica-based tropical research organisation CATIE which is advising on the project, 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 don't adhere to their contracts risk losing their concessions.

A recent CATIE study shows that the forest concessions can be profitable. A 30,000-acre concession granted in 1998 to a small co-operative yielded an annual profit of $4,400 for each of the 29 member families, a substantial increase to annual incomes. But Louman warns that each co-operative'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, notes Galloway, 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.

Source: Eco-Exchange, July/August 2000. For more information, visit the CATIE website.