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After a four-hour drive through Petén in northern Guatemala, the crew reaches the official entrance of the reserve – a vast gate that stands small against the great wall of trees behind it. In the surrounding area, cattle ranching and illegal timber harvesting have already destroyed the forest. The reserve is the last stronghold against deforestation and biodiversity loss.
As the visitors step into the dense jungle, sunbeams stream through a thick canopy and the sounds of different animal species ring out around them. Magnificent trees towering 15-20 meters tall, howler and spider monkeys swinging through the canopy, and a choir of bird sounds welcomes them to the largest continuous protected area in Central America.
Here there is no internet or mobile phone signal, resulting in a full, uninterrupted connection with nature.
The guides, forest stewards from the local community, smile broadly when they see the crew admiring their surroundings. They know every inch of the forest and take pride in being its guardians. The reserve is their life, hope, identity, family, and belonging.
Forty years ago, Petén forests were threatened by the increasing extractive activity of the timber industry and cattle ranchers, causing widespread concern among local communities. In 1990 the government of Guatemala created the Mayan Biosphere Reserve to protect this area of natural and cultural heritage for future generations.
Within the more than two million hectares of forest protected by the reserve, the authorities granted community forest concessions, enabling these communities to demonstrate that, as a group, they could manage these resources sustainably. Nowadays, nine communities manage the concessions and their FSC-certification, representing more than 350,000 hectares of forest.
The guides take the crew to visit an area known as quadrant D in Uaxactún, one of the nine forest concessions, where trees were harvested in 2014 and the area is now regenerating. According to community members, an average of around 1.5 trees is extracted per hectare every year in areas where there are between 200 and 300 timber trees. The targeted areas have cutting cycles of 30 to 40 years. This means that another tree will not be extracted from quadrant D until 2054.
Rubén Hernández, president of the organization, Management and Conservation Civil Society in Uaxactún which safeguards 83,558 hectares, says: “the best trees always stay in the forest”.
He explains that there are some trees called “parent trees” or seedbeds, which are healthy trees identified for protection. How does the community recognize them? They said due to their lushness and sturdiness, they have a well-distributed crown, their trunks are cylindrical, the roots are blight-free, and they are not tilted, standing straight and tall. They spread life, and their seeds can travel up to 65 metres.
Aside from protected parent trees, Hernández says that in Uaxactún, around 11 species are extracted, following the FSC standards. It is important to stress that sustainable felling is not permitted in all forest areas. In fact, trees can only be extracted for wood in around 45 per cent of the approved areas; the rest is used for conservation or harvesting non-timber forests products, like xaté.
Each community and its members have a strong connection to their forest. The hands of Jorge Soza, founding member of community Forestry Services Company (Forescom), and community technician of the Association of Forest Communities of Petén (Acofop), are worn, aged from the force of the machete and handling trees that have sustained him and his family for 53 years. “All my life, I have lived from the resources of the forest”, he says, sitting on a table made of machinche – a type of wood – while holding an aromatic pepper seed in his palm.
“Culture is vital for community development”, he asserts while stressing the importance of passing down knowledge and values to future generations. He learned forest management by example from his parents, whom he remembers as great guardians of natural resources.
Later that day, Carlos Crasborn, president of the Carmelita Cooperative, a community founded 100 years ago with 53,797 hectares FSC-certified in the heart of the Mayan Biosphere Reserve, shares Jorge Soza’s reflections: “People were born and grew up in the forest and are now living in it. We have always had a conservationist vision”.
“The forest can be sustainably managed”, assures Carlos Maldonado, forestry commissioner of Árbol Verde Civil Society. “Management is geared towards thinking about our children and grandchildren. We must make sure that our work does not harm the forest. FSC certification is a source of pride and an unmistakable sign of good environmental management of hectares of land entrusted by the government”, says Carlos.
Cutting xate, an ornamental leaf exported to international markets for floral arrangements, is another activity that generates permanent resources for the communities and has become crucial in recent years.
This leaf, FSC-certified, is used all year round, and has cutting cycles of around three months. Xaté goes through quite a detailed and elaborate process that is divided into five steps: selection, cutting, quality control, packing, and tying up. Approximately 80 per cent of the men in the community are involved in cutting xate, and dozens of women oversee other logistical processes before its exportation, mostly to the United States.
Magdalena Peralta, project manager, gently shows a xate leaf to the crew. For her, this plant is more than ornamental; it is the “economical driving force of the community”. She feels that leading this vital project for the 800 inhabitants of a centenary community is a sign of female empowerment. It shows that women can be actively involved and in charge of important projects that benefit all.
“For me, Uaxactún is paradise”, she says proudly. The communities have also started the certifying process of other non-timber forest products, such as pepper and rosemary.
According to Glyde Márquez Morales, sales manager at Forescom, FSC certification guarantees proper forest management and positions timber and non-timber products in a better way on international markets. In his experience, leading international markets such as the United States and Europe require forest products to have FSC certification, which also means that they can trade them with more competitive prices.
For more than 25 years, the FSC standards have ensured the conservation of the forest’s ecosystem while generating economic and social benefits to the communities. Currently, less than 1 per cent of forest fires impact the areas managed by the communities, in contrast to other areas on the Mayan Biosphere Reserve.
Also, among the 15,000 people that live in the communities, child malnutrition levels are lower, school attendance rates are higher, and fewer people migrate to the cities. Additionally, there are up to 11.28 jaguars per 100 km², and the highest reported values of species are spotted within the FSC-certified area.
The forest concessions in Petén are a clear example of conservation, cohesion, and development. They offer benefits not only to the communities but also to the forest itself and, of course, to the country. The Mayan Biosphere Reserve fosters biodiversity while enabling communities to live from the forest's resources, which means thriving forests for all, forever.