Paying with Their Lives to Protect the Forest - The Years Project

Paying with Their Lives to Protect the Forest

By J. Renold and L. Sauls

The perils – and necessity – of community-based protection of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. 

In 1996, Peace Accords brought the 36-year Guatemalan civil war to a close. This conflict took an estimated 200,000 lives and displaced over a million people. In the northern department of Petén, the upheaval intensified deforestation that had already been brought on by government incentives to colonize the region dating from 1957. The great Mayan forests, among the most significant in Latin America and home to world-famous ancient ruins, were being leveled for timber, oil, and cattle ranching.

To protect its northernmost and as-yet untouched forests, the Government of Guatemala declared 2.1 million hectares as the Maya Biosphere Reserve in 1990 – a type of protected area that mixes strict national parks with a ‘Multiple Use Zone’ where low-impact human activities are permitted. However, the initial plans for this Multiple Use Zone did not give local communities – including some that had been part of the resistance during the civil war and others who had become refugees in Mexico – access to the important natural resources like chicle (used for chewing gum), xate (a decorative palm), and timber.

After several years of negotiation and lobbying, communities living in and near the newly established Reserve won the right to develop community forest concessions that would allow them to maintain access to and directly manage resources within the Multiple Use Zone. These concessions helped the government fulfil commitments made in the Peace Accords to ensure access to land and resources for communities that had fought for both during the long civil war. In these concessions, groups would extract forest products sustainably – under scientific management plans and leaving the areas surrounding important Mayan ruins and water bodies as community-managed conservation zones. This approach was in many ways an experiment in conservation and sustainable development.

What a recent study demonstrates is that these areas of forest managed through community concessions do much better in terms of addressing deforestation threats than the Reserve’s strict protected areas. While the national parks, making up 40 percent of the Reserve, saw 49 percent of all vegetation fires detected in 2017, only 1 percent of those fires occurred in community forest concessions – even though they make up more than 16 percent of the Reserve. The communities’ success can be attributed to their more than one thousand annual fire prevention and monitoring patrols, the use of technologies such as drones and GPS trackers, and the labor-intensive construction of over 450 km of firebreaks. The communities organize and fund these efforts themselves to try to eliminate forest fires from their management areas.

Vegetation fires detected by satellite in the Maya Biosphere Reserve during the 2017 fire season using NASA satellite data on anomalous hotspots.

While this model has helped both create jobs (such as through community tourism ventures, xate processing centers, and forest ranger positions) and conserve precious forest resources, its success is not guaranteed. Other interests, from large-scale cattle ranching to drug-related organized crime, see the Reserve as an area with low state presence and therefore prime for illicit activities.

The communities also face major uncertainty as their concessions only last for 25 years, and the first agreement is set to expire in 2022. The government has not yet committed to renewing the concession agreements and securing the communities’ rights – a major concern for people who have dedicated so much of their lives to protecting the “second lung of Latin America,” as one leader called the reserve. These community forest concessions, working together as part of the Association of Forest Communities of Petén (ACOFOP), protect the Reserve and its flora and fauna because they are the source of their livelihoods. However, this sustainable way of life, which they see as a true form of conservation, requires time, money and hard work – and even sometimes costs lives.

Walter Mendez was President of Cooperativa La Lucha, was on the Board of Directors of ACOFOP, and participated in the Petén Front against the Dams, which opposed the hydroelectric projects in the Usumacinta river. “He was Legal Representative [president] because people saw that he did fight for their rights and he really loved the forest,” says Carmelia Velasquez, Walter’s widow. To protect the forests of La Lucha, he had filed reports with the government agency CONAP that contributed to the arrest of land grabbers and poachers.

“When those threats arrive at our community territories and one begins to defend that territory, well it’s a threat to them, us defending those resources,” says Manuel Martinez, ACOFOP leader and close friend of Walter Mendez. “Because in their eagerness to grab those territories, they provoke fires… and when they arrive in your territory you have to file the report, to say what is happening. Well they get angry and they simply make it…disappear.”

Because of his campaigning and the causes that he defended, Walter Mendez confronted this danger firsthand. He had been leading the process to evict an invasion on the Cooperative’s land when he began receiving death threats. After he publicly denounced the threats against him, Walter was shot three times at the entrance to his plot of land. His March 16, 2016, death remains unpunished, and resolution of the case is unlikely. “We leave it in God’s hands because if one starts to investigate, my children will be going up there [heaven] as well,” Doña Carmelia says. “Don’t let it twist your mind, later they’ll come to know, so I just better tell the children that God will take care of it, he’ll take care of justice.”

The murder of David Salguero also remains unsolved. He was one of the founders of the forestry association AFICC, its President in 2004, and at the time of his death was Coordinator of the Association’s Monitoring and Control Commission. He was 31 years old when he was killed on October 30, 2010.

Sofia Antonia Sandoval, David’s mother, remembers his work in the Commission: “My son fought so much… Because there were opposing groups, who, when there was this timber, there were times when the opposing group would go to set fire to the mountain! Oh God! They had to go there and put out the fire so that the wood would not burn, and all the green forest. That was his job.”

Months before his death, the army and the government’s national parks agency had evicted settlers invading AFICC’s land as part of the government’s efforts to establish greater control over the Reserve’s national parks. David had been a part of the efforts to monitor AFICC’s borders and report illegal invasions and deforestation, conspicuous work that made him a target for retaliation.

As Manuel Martinez reflects, from the moment that one begins to participate in activities of control, fire prevention, monitoring and evaluation in the communities, you are already risking your life. And not just of yourself, but of your family as well. When you are away from them you never know if you are going to return home and find your family complete.”

David Salguero’s family had to flee their community because of death threats after his murder.

David was shot and killed in front of AFICC’s offices. Following his death, David’s family received successive death threats and ultimately all, including the four children he left behind, had to leave their community. For three months, the community was at a loss of what to do and how to move forward, but in February 2011, they gathered the courage to elect a new Board, selecting Felisa Navas Perez as President of the Association. “I was scared, I didn’t want to do it, it was like that for all of us. But I felt animated to work because the members had put their trust in me,” Felisa recalls.

Community leaders consistently name the insecurity of their rights to the forest and the impunity of those who threaten their efforts as the biggest dangers to the long-term viability and sustainability of the Reserve. The concession organizations, both individually and together in ACOFOP, have repeatedly proven their resilience in overcoming challenges and in creating innovative methods for conserving the forest while making a living from it. Their model is one of the few processes that emerged from the Peace Accords that has been undisputably successful on both social and environmental levels. Now, the communities desperately need the Guatemalan government to commit to the renewal of the concessions; a failure to act may well equate to the loss of a global natural treasure – and the lives of those who endeavor to defend it.


All photography: Jaye Renold