The staff of the Foundation for Eco-development and Conservation (FUNDAECO in its Spanish acronym), a nonprofit group working in northeastern Guatemala, knows that it’s impossible to ensure the integrity of a park unless the protected area’s neighbors are involved and committed. The group helps manage four protected areas in the Izabal region, along the Caribbean coast, and has close ties with residents in the 70 nearby communities.
But one legal and social problem has impeded FUNDAECO’s progress in convincing many people to respect park protection laws and boundaries: Few have titles to the land on which they live. And as FUNDAECO’s Oscar Rosales puts it, “People who have land titleships take care of their property, are more disposed to alternative options like agroforestry, and are less inclined to move from place to place, cutting trees.”
So, in addition to the kinds of projects more traditionally associated with conservation groups, in 1999 FUNDAECO launched a land-legalization initiative, with funds from Catholic Relief Services and other donors. Rosales says the idea for the project came from the residents themselves. “We were trying to launch projects in reforestation and forest management, but it was really difficult,” he recalls. “People told us: ‘We don’t own the land, so we don’t want to commit to these practices over the longterm, because we will probably have to move.'”
Working with local and national government agencies, FUNDAECO is slowly moving through the various legal labyrinths to gain land titles for communities in Izabal. Rosales explains that some communities have been established on privately owned land, others on state-owned property. In the first case, FUNDAECO must negotiate with individual owners in order to buy the land, then work out reasonable payments that residents can make over time. On state-owned land, residents make small payments directly to the government, and with the final payment comes the property title. On average, each family in a community is given titleship to 37 acres (15 hectares) of land.
FUNDAECO has obtained land titles for two communities, with 17 others in progress. The group hopes to win titles for 45 villages by 2002, including the 1,250 acres (500 hectares) that comprise the small town of San Pedro la Cojona. Rosales has already seen conservation benefits from this legal process. A portion of the 1,250 acres is a forest reserve, which was recently invaded by a small group of squatters. “Community members defended the area,” he says, “even going to the local courts to get the squatters expelled. They have an interest now in protecting the forest watershed.” Another victory, he notes, is that San Pedro la Cojona residents say that the newcomers are the “invaders,” that the land is rightfully “theirs.”
PROLANSATE, or the Foundation for the Protection of Lancetilla, Punta Sal, and Texiguat, just launched a similar initiative. The Honduran nonprofit group takes its name from three protected areas near Tela Bay, on the northern Caribbean coast, where its conservation efforts are focused. To cover costs of the new legal project, the group recently received a donation from the US Agency for International Development-supported conservation project called Regional Environmental Program for Central America/Protected Areas System.
Environmental education specialist Héctor Sanchez explains that the group is trying to gain land titles for residents in 14 small settlements just outside Punta Izopo, which was declared a national park in December 2000. PROLANSATE hopes that legal land ownership titles will encourage people to stay put, not move on to other wildlands that they slash and burn to plant subsistence crops. He knows the legal process will be slow and must be accompanied by a conservation-educational campaign.
“People living near Punta Izopo must be made aware of the benefits of conservation and the need for them to involve themselves in order to receive these future benefits,” he says. “It’s a longterm process, and some people learn fast, while others don’t understand and are resistant. But slowly, more and more people are working with us.”
Rosales agrees that not everyone responds positively to the offer to help them obtain land titles. Some residents think FUNDAECO is trying to steal their land, he reports. But he does believe that the land legalization project has helped the conservation group gain the trust and cooperation of many others, who are now more willing to listen and learn about environmentally friendly ways to manage forests and farms.
Read more about the FUNDAECO project on the Eco-Index:
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