Community Forestry: The Secret to Reducing Forest Fires in Guatemala’s Mayan Biosphere Reserve

Red de Monitoreo / ACOFOP
man with binoculars looking out on forest canopy
Red de Monitoreo / ACOFOP
January 10, 2021
Category : Stories

By José Balta 

In recent months forest fires have increased, severely damaging the world's main forests and devastating ecosystems, communities and wildlife. With regard to Latin America, the most affected countries have been Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru and Mexico. The smoke generated by combustion increases air pollution while consuming the natural reserve of carbon that helps mitigate climate change, triggering higher temperatures and dry environments, which are factors that contribute to the amplification of fires.

According to WWF and Boston Consulting Group, it is estimated that humans are responsible for around 75% of all forest fires, and much of the increase seen this year may be directly related to the conversion of land to agricultural or livestock use, as well as poor forest management. According to records from 2000 to 2015, 85% of the area burned annually is in the tropical savannas, which constitute 19% of the total land cover.

Despite this, sustainable forest management stands out as an effective way to significantly reduce the occurrence of forest fires. That is made abundantly clear when you look at Guatemala’s Mayan Biosphere Reserve (MBR.) The MBR is the largest complex of protected areas in Central America. It was created by the Guatemalan government in February 1990, within an area of ​​21,602.04 km², with the purpose of guaranteeing the preservation of the natural and cultural heritage for present and future generations.

The reserve is a network of more than two dozen different management units. Eleven of these units are 25-year forest concessions, nine of which are managed by local communities who obtain wood and other forest products. It should be noted that 476,845 ha of the MBR are FSC certified (divided into nine communities and two private concessions).

At the beginning of this year, an event was held to mark the 30th anniversary of the creation of the MBR, where the results obtained thanks to responsible forest management were highlighted:

  • Almost zero deforestation (0.4%), contributing to maintain 70% of the state of conservation of the MBR.
  • In the communities, levels of child malnutrition are lower, school attendance rates are higher, and there is little migration.
  • More than 1.5 and up to 11.28 jaguars per 100 km², the highest reported values ​​of the species in the country.
  • Less than 1% of forest fires impact community forest concession areas

January to June is peak forest fire season in Guatemala, which usually occur in Petén (where the MBR is located). It is calculated that more than 40 thousand hectares of forest are burned each year, of which 99% are within protected areas, such as the Laguna del Tigre National Park. In the community concessions, however, forest fires are practically zero.

Recently, the Regional Research Program on Development and Environment (PRISMA) published the results of a study on forests, fires and climate change in Guatemala, highlighting that in 2017, there were 7,794 vegetation fires during the dry season across the MBR, but less than 1% of those occurred within the 398,300 hectares managed by community concessions.

Graph that shows fires detected in MBR in 2017, where red areas are hot spots.
Red de Monitoreo / ACOFOP

In another study carried out in 2018, PRISMA showed that in a period of ten years, the active community concessions maintained a fire incidence of practically zero. These results reaffirm those previously published by the Rainforest Alliance, which found significantly less deforestation and fire incidence within FSC certified forest concessions than in the rest of the region: where certification was present, areas devastated by fires steadily decreased by 6.5% (1998) to 0.1% (2007), while in the surrounding forests, it increased from 7% to 20%.

“The community concessions model is the most effective against forest fires in Petén. Year after year, it shows that the concessions are the last bastion of forest conservation by showing no notable fires, while the adjacent areas have very high levels of affectation,” says Andrew Davies, Director of the Forests and Territorial Governance Program and Researcher at PRISMA.

This is because the communities organize their economic activities in a sustainable management plan. According to Davies, FSC plays a fundamental role, establishing the framework for sustainability in forest and non-timber management. These activities allow communities to invest resources to patrol the boundaries of the concessions, build and maintain fire gaps, put out fires (inside and outside the concessions), as well as maintain constant monitoring with GPS technology and the use of drones, coordinated with the government of Guatemala.

In this sense, Mynor Hernández from the Cooperativa Carmelita, one of the certified forest concessions, pointed out the following: “The monitoring is based on a principle that evaluates mitigation measures regarding prevention, opening of roads and illegal logging. In Carmelita, forest fires practically do not occur, but in cases where they have happened, they have not advanced thanks to the community commissions of control and prevention.”

For his part, Sergio Ortiz, from the Civil Society El Esfuerzo, added: “All community organizations are evaluated and each one has the equipment and training required by the certifier. We have all learned over time that it is better to be certified because in this way we continue to produce and conserve. "

As can be seen, the positive impacts of the FSC-certified forest concession model in the Maya Biosphere Reserve of Guatemala are evident. Beyond the differences between the types of forest around the world, the success obtained in the significant reduction of forest fires in the area is a clear indication of a possible solution that could be replicated in other latitudes to reduce their annual incidence and thus avoid irreparable damage to the environment. Many of these concessions are up for renewal in 2021, and it is imperative that we continue to support the forest communities in maintaining their certification status, ensuring that the MBR remains a shining example of responsible forest management.