Every year in Northern Guatemala, another piece of ancient history goes up in smoke. Deforestation and forest fires are destroying the Maya Biosphere Reserve, the largest protected area in Mesoamerica, at 9,920 square miles (21,000 square kilometers). According to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), more than 741,300 acres (300,000 hectares) of the reserve were consumed by fire in 2004. So far this year, forest fires have incinerated some 50 percent of Laguna del Tigre National Park, which lies within the reserve and safeguards the largest wetland in Central America.
Known as the cradle of ancient Maya civilization, the biosphere reserve is home to 110 species of mammals and 400 bird species. To protect the reserve’s natural wealth as well as their homes, residents are organizing to fight the flames, with help from organizations such as WCS and the Association of Petén Forestry Communities (ACOFOP, for the Asociación de Comunidades Forestales del Petén), and funds from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund and Rainforest Alliance.
Their efforts have indeed reduced the number of fires in the community areas, states Roan McNab, the director of WCS in Guatemala. In fact, although 2005 has already entered the record books as one of the worst years for forest fires in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, there have been no fires at all in Uaxactún, a community located to the north of the majestic Maya temples in Tikal and the main gateway to the intact eastern part of the reserve.
WCS began its initiative in the Maya Biosphere Reserve in 1996 by working with
Photo by Rainforest Alliance Uaxactún’s residents to monitor populations of key wildlife species such as the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata); sustainably harvest forest resources such as the xate palm (Chamaedorea spp.); and by training local people in field research, firefighting, and how to organize local surveillance brigades. Villagers now effectively prevent forest fires and use resources sustainably. Thanks to positive results, the initiatives have spread to nearby communities such as Paso Caballos and Carmelita, where ACOFOP and the Rainforest Alliance are helping to organize and train residents to prevent and combat forest fires. More than 3,000 people live in these two settlements, which encompass some 551,000 acres (223,000 hectares).
McNab explains that the fires that are destroying the Maya Biosphere Reserve are usually intentionally set to clear land to create cattle pasture and also to alter the protected status of the reserve. Nonetheless, he insists that community residents understand that forest fires are endangering their livelihoods. “They are learning, among other things, the proper way to clear their land, avoiding the use of fire on dry material, roots, and in the middle of the day,” he says.
Manuel Fajardo, president of the Management and Conservation Organization (OMYC, for Organización de Manejo y Conservación) believes that previous fires in Uaxactún were the result of ignorance. “People now understand what needs to be done,” he says. “They know the proper way to clear, and they avoid clearing with fire until after the first rains.”
Residents of Uaxactún and Carmelita have co-existed with the forest for about 100 years McNabb adds, noting, “people really understand the importance of fire prevention, because fires have an economic impact on their daily lives.”
OMYC is also managing a forestry concession in Uaxactún, granted by the Guatemalan government, which requires that all logging operations within the biosphere reserve be certified under the standards of the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), the international accreditation body for sustainable forestry. Like the reserve’s other 14 forest concessions, Uaxactún is certified by the Rainforest Alliance’s SmartWood program. Though the OMYC’s members found compliance with SmartWood’s rigorous standards a challenge, they now agree that working toward certification strengthened their organization.
“Getting certified was a bit difficult,” recalls Benedín Garcia, one of the OMYC’s founding members. “At the beginning, we felt inconvenienced — we said, ‘we’re poor, and they want us to make these investments.’ But in the long run, we realized that those changes were essential for improving our forest management and addressing the basic needs of our community.”
In Carmelita, meanwhile, xate harvesting is also SmartWood certified, which means residents are gathering the palm sustainably, without depleting the species that’s providing them with important income. Recently, the Rainforest Alliance helped strike a deal enabling villagers to sell their certified xate to Continental Floral Greens, a major international flower distributor in the U.S. The San Antonio-based company agreed to buy 280 bundles of sustainably harvested xate palm a week, bringing $100,000 additional annual income to Carmelita and other communities. Attractive xate fronds are widely sold in flower shops and are increasingly in demand.
In Paso Caballos, forest fire devastation has helped convince people to organize to combat the flames. Two years ago, fire destroyed acres of cropland and xate. The economic losses raised awareness of the importance of fire prevention, according to McNab. In this community with a 100% Qeq’chí-maya population, four people work in surveillance and monitoring, while two are dedicated to monitoring the nests of scarlet macaws. During mid-February to mid-May, when forest fires are most likely to occur, some 40 people patrol the community and nearby forestland. WCS also plans to help the community develop sustainable production options that are economically feasible, including xate. The New York-based conservation group is also exploring the potential of tourism. Located 30 minutes by boat from the El Perú archaeological site, Paso Caballos offers travelers stunning views of the Maya Biosphere Reserve and bird-rich wetlands.
The goal of WCS is to help communities find and administer funds for projects and develop skills through technical assistance. McNab points out that after eight years of helping the Uaxactún community, through OMYC, residents are now managing their own projects, including fire prevention.
Read more about this project in the Eco-Index: