Conservation of Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve Linked to Sustainable Livelihoods, Training, and Global Climate Treaty

As one of Central America’s most biologically diverse ecosystems, Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve has attracted intense attention from conservationists and policymakers intent on saving as much of the five million-acre (2.1 million-hectare) reserve from fires and logging as possible. Their dedication has resulted in creative initiatives that aim to prove to the growing human population living in and near the reserve that its forest resources can provide them with a sustainable income.

Forest - Photo by Charlie Watson, Rainforest AllianceThe reserve lies within the Petén region in northern Guatemala, where some 111,000 acres (45,000 hectares) of rainforest is destroyed illegally each year, accounting for roughly 60% of the total deforestation in Guatemala.

Benedín Garcia is president of Organización Manejo y Conservación, a community organization in Uaxactún, a village that lies within the reserve’s borders. He’s lived in the area for more than 50 years and has witnessed the ever-changing landscape. “The forests I knew when I was younger are very different than the forests we have today,” he says. “We live from the forest. It provides us with all of our needs. We are beginning to manage our forest in a sustainable way — we have no option if we want to leave the same environment for our children.”

One way that Garcia and his neighbors are sustainably managing their forests is by obtaining Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification. To date, the Rainforest Alliance, an international conservation organization, has certified 1,205,000 acres (488,000 hectares) of forestlands to FSC standards and is finding international markets for certified wood and other forest resources from the Petén.

While certification has increased profits for many Guatemalan forest communities, it is also helping to protect the biosphere reserve. A 2008 Rainforest Alliance study showed that deforestation was significantly less in FSC certified forest concessions located in areas of the reserve where the government permits managed logging than in it is in the reserve’s “protected” zones, where supposedly logging is prohibited but continues unchecked.

Xate - Photo by Charlie Watson, Rainforest AllianceIn Uaxactún, the Rainforest Alliance also trains residents to sustainably harvest FSC certified palm leaves, known as xate, that are widely used in the United States for floral arrangements and in churches on Palm Sunday. By cutting only the finest leaves and leaving more fronds behind, xate harvesters are earning twice as much as they did before earning FSC certification, while also allowing the palms to regenerate more quickly. Export of certified sustainable xate is providing much needed income and jobs.

While certification has increased profits for many Guatemalan forest communities, a promising additional source of income is carbon sequestration credits, where reductions in carbon emissions from leaving forests intact is quantified and then sold in voluntary carbon markets. As the five million-acre (2.1 million-hectare) Maya Biosphere Reserve is the largest uninterrupted tropical forest north of the Amazon, it stores an enormous amount of carbon.

A Rainforest Alliance project called Payment for Environmental Services in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, or “GuateCarbon”, aims to conserve forests, avoid emissions from deforestation, and provide additional sources of income for forest communities. Although just two years old, the project has already made substantial progress in engaging communities and teaching residents about carbon sequestration and credits, helping them define who has ownership rights to carbon, and defining baseline emissions from deforestation. The baseline numbers will provide a benchmark against which GuateCarbon staff can monitor and measure emissions reductions. Starting next year, the project will launch forest conservation initiatives and will be able to measure the resulting reduction in emissions, according to project coordinator Omar Samayoa.

Men Measuring a Tree - Photo by Charlie Watson, Rainforest AllianceGuateCarbon is one of four Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) projects in Guatemala that aim to generate emissions reductions that can be monitored, verified, and reported. “In its 20-year span, the project hopes to prevent 16 million tons of CO2, or 800,000 tons per year, from being released into the atmosphere, as well as benefit forest communities and wildlife within the Maya Biosphere Reserve,” says Samayoa.

Furthermore, it is projected to create new sources of revenue, helping communities to invest in conservation and meet pressing social needs. Garcia is optimistic about the benefits GuateCarbon can bring to Uaxactún. “There are not only economic benefits for us as a community, but we are helping to mitigate climate change by maintaining the equilibrium of our precious forest,” he notes.

At the December 2010 Conference of Parties (COP16) climate treaty conference in Cancún, Mexico, REDD is high on the agenda. The Rainforest Alliance delegation supports the creation of an international REDD mechanism that prioritizes and promotes tropical conservation and sustainable development in countries like Guatemala, fully involves and benefits indigenous people and local communities, and utilizes a diverse set of funding sources to help finance REDD+ mechanisms.

Contact: Omar Samayoa, Rainforest Alliance. 8 Ave. 15-62 zona 10, Ciudad de Guatemala, Guatemala. osamayoa@ra.org, www.rainforest-alliance.org.

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