New Study Finds Community-Based Forest Management More Effective Than State Run Parks

A multiple-use zone, where sustainable logging is permitted by the community in the Maya reserve.   Photo:  ACOFOP

By Julia Fine

A new study published this month by Jennifer A. Devine et al. found that in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve, forests governed via community-based resource management are more resilient to narco-deforestation than state-run parks. As Fred Pearce reported in Yale Environment 360, the study calculated that up to 87% of the deforestation was caused by illegal cattle ranching, often driven by drug trafficking organizations. This narco-deforestation has contributed in part to almost 1/3 of the forests in the largest park in the reserve being destroyed. By contrast, in the community forests in the reserve where sustainable logging takes place, the deforestation rates are less than 1%.

Why this matters: While most conservationists now agree on the benefits of community-based resource management, there is a long-standing debate on whether zero deforestation or zero-net deforestation should be mandated. This new study suggests that sustainable logging when combined with community-based resource management as in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, can be a viable option for both protecting community rights and local economies, while also conserving the environment against narco-deforestation.

A Controversial History

The Maya Biosphere Reserve was established by the Guatemalan government in 1990. In the next twelve years, following mass protests, 14 concessions were granted— 12 to community members and 2 to private companies– to permit certain extractive activities in the Reserve. At the time, these concessions, as Pearce reported, caused conservationists to feel “betrayed” and concerned about the future of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Many conservationist groups pejoratively regarded the communities on the reserve as “squatters.” The reserve covers 19% of Guatemala’s land and is Central America’s largest protected area.  It is home for the vast majority of the remaining jaguar population (which may be down to as few as 345 big cats), which has suffered a range reduction of at least 40 percent.

Responses to Narco-Deforestation

Coming thirty years after the establishment of the Reserve, this new study by Devine et al. undercuts this disparaging vision of community-based resource management, demonstrating that this method of forest management can be an exemplar of conservation and community rights, even amidst instances of narco-deforestation. Instead of calling on the state for a centralized military response to narco-deforestation, this study urges that funding should be directed to “strengthing environmental governance at the local level.”

A bill currently pending in Congress with bipartisan support would have the U.S. give the Guatemalan government $60 million to beef up security in a part of the reserve known for its Mayan archaeological remains. But the local communities, which according to Pearce, have yet to be consulted would lose control of their forests, and further timber harvesting would be prohibited regardless of whether it is sustainable, thereby undermining what has so far been a success in the concession areas.

The benefits of community-run forests are not unique to the Maya Biosphere Reserve. In 2014, the World Resource Institute released a report noting that a study of 80 forest areas spanning 10 countries in South Asia, East Africa, and Latin America directly demonstrates how “community-owned and -managed forests have both superior community benefits and greater carbon storage.”

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