The forest that surrounds the Maya ruins in Tikal, Petén, about 300 miles from Guatemala City. (Photo: Saul Martinez)

Guatemala's Maya Put Their Lives on the Line to Protect an Irreplaceable Rainforest

Twenty years after the government turned over a vast forest to indigenous people, illegal logging and poverty are plummeting.
Nov 30, 2015· 12 MIN READ
Alexander Zaitchik has written for Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, Salon, The Nation, and The New Republic. He lives in New Orleans.

PETÉN, Guatemala—It doesn’t look like much, this thatch-roof factory in the middle of the Guatemalan rainforest. The cement floor is scattered with low piles of xate, an unassuming palm leaf. A dozen workers from the village of Carmelita quietly haul, separate, and stem the bright-green fronds, bundling them in brown paper. There is no electricity, and the silence is only broken by the rumbling bellows of distant howler monkeys. Nothing in the languid scene suggests much of consequence for tiny Carmelita, let alone anyone outside Petén, a Belgium-size province in northern Guatemala known for its spectacular Maya ruins. It is also home to the Maya Biosphere Reserve, the biggest block of protected broadleaf rainforest north of the Amazon.

Appearances are deceiving. This humble business that exports xate, a plant popular in flower shops from Kansas to Kyoto, is part of a radical land-redistribution program with global implications. Initiated at the end of Guatemala’s brutal 36-year civil war, the program has incubated dozens of community-owned sustainable industries that generate millions of dollars to build schools and health clinics in the indigenous villages of Petén. Of more interest to the wider world: It has also drastically reduced deforestation and locked down local forest carbon, hundreds of billions of tons of which are stored in the planet’s tropical regions. Though forests are massive natural emitters of CO2, they absorb much more, making them terrestrial carbon sinks on par with the oceans and key to slowing down climate change. According to research published in the journal Science, they have sucked up as much as 30 percent of human-made emissions since 1990.

The idea at the heart of the Guatemalan program is simple: Carmelita and 10 other forest communities agree to monitor a territory of nearly 1 million acres for illegal logging, drug trafficking, and other illicit activities. In return, these concession communities get legal title to the land and rights to profits from forest goods such as xati, chicle (a rubberlike sap used in chewing gum), and timber as well as ecotourism. The enterprises must adhere to strict international sustainability standards.

FULL COVERAGE: Climate Change(d): The Future Is Now

Despite the program’s success, the Maya guardians of the rainforest face a slew of challenges, from violent threats from loggers and drug runners to fears that their government could one day sell the rights to their land right to timber and oil interests—a not unrealistic concern given that the concessions begin to expire over the next several years.

“Future generations and the survival of the Maya Biosphere Reserve are at stake,” says Luis Guillermo Ramirez Porres, an environmental lawyer who advises the concession communities.

Women select leaves of xate at a factory in Carmelita, Petén. (Photo: Saul Martinez)

Profiting From Preservation

As global climate negotiators gather in Paris this week, the xate sorters of Carmelita have something to teach them.

Discussions about slowing deforestation and rewilding degraded forests will be larger and more heated in Paris than at previous climate summits. Momentum around the issue was obvious during last year’s Peru negotiations, where more than two dozen events focused on deforestation and degradation. In the French capital, activists in the streets and in conference halls will push for a treaty that includes the land rights of indigenous peoples. They’ll argue, with a growing amount of research behind them, that indigenous land rights are crucial to protecting rainforests and other carbon-rich ecosystems, the annual destruction of which creates around one-quarter of human-made greenhouse gas emissions.

A new report from the World Resources Institute shows that the Petén program is working. Working better than anyone expected. Social and economic development inside long-marginalized Maya communities has been significant. The small-scale sustainable industries fund schools, scholarships, and medical services for people who never had them, especially women.

“We’re seeing much less migration to the U.S. and cities in Guatemala because everything is better,” says Jorge Sosa, a director with the Association of the Forest Communities of Petén, the umbrella organization of the concession communities. “Education, infrastructure, health care—everything. Before the concessions, there were no clinics or schools. Now people can learn a trade in their communities.”

(Map: TakePart)

Deforestation, meanwhile, is down—way down. According to the WRI analysis, logging in areas under control of the community cooperatives is being conducted in a sustainable manner for the first time. Every tree that is cut is replaced, and satellite images confirm far fewer incidents of illegal logging. The reason, say the report’s authors, is the way the cooperatives harness the power of communities that have protected stakes in the land. Villages and clans raise formidable and knowledgeable armies of forest rangers to patrol their areas and intercede to stop illegal activity or report it to the military and the police.

“There has been a longstanding assumption that conservation required forests devoid of people, but we now have proof of what many of us have known for decades: Indigenous peoples are often better at preserving and managing their forests than governments,” says Andy White, coordinator of the Rights and Resources Initiative, a Washington, D.C.­–based group that works with indigenous peoples on forest issues. “In the Brazilian Amazon, the deforestation rate is 11 times lower in indigenous and community forests than outside. In the Guatemalan Petén, it is 20 times lower, and in the Mexican Yucatán, it is a whopping 350 times lower.”

In a global crisis with few easy solutions and little low-hanging fruit, promoting and protecting community stakes in forests is an incredible climate bargain. Calculating the monetary value of forest carbon allows economists and governments to discuss programs like Guatemala’s in familiar terms. So, using the consensus “social price” of carbon, the WRI estimates the value of sustainable forest production in Guatemala to be between $650 million and $860 million over 20 years. The cost of protecting every ton of forest carbon during that period, meanwhile, is pennies—226 of them, to be precise.

“We’re seeing the benefits of collective action,” says Juan-Carlos Altamirano, an economist at the World Resources Institute and coauthor of the study. “When communities organize themselves, forest monitoring is much more effective than when it’s done by a few for-pay guards hired by companies. For them, it’s just a job. They won’t risk their lives as these people do.”

Joel Pacheco, president of the Arbol Verde village cooperative in the Petén, says the communities are happy to bear this burden despite the dangers. “We face risks every day of the year: fires, illegal loggers, smugglers, potentially dangerous conflicts,” he says. “These people are often connected to people with money and power. We have the support of the government, but if there are illegal activities, even if it’s not our fault, it is our responsibility. The state and independent certification agencies will know. Everything that happens in the forest affects us. We take it very seriously.”

The Arbol Verde cooperative in Petén. (Photo: Saul Martinez)

As in so many forests around the world—where local activists without state backing are dying in growing numbers—the Petén communities have received threats and have been subjected to violence, including shootings. Though the military and police have a strong presence in Petén dating back to the civil war, especially around the rugged mountainous border with Belize, the community patrols often find themselves on their own.

“If this is a good model for Guatemala, it needs to be implemented around the world,” says Julio Madrid, a young leader from the community of Arbol Verde. When our conversation turned to the global environment, he was walking me through the airy jungle factory where Maya workers produce everything from baseboards of tropical walnut to finished dining-room sets. The factory provides more than a hundred of the 2,000 concession-related jobs in Arbol Verde that include a growing number of trained craftspeople.

“We want to share our lessons and influence how governments protect their forests he says. “Some of us have been to conferences about climate and forests, around Latin America and even in Europe.”

The people of Petén don’t need to travel to hear lectures about climate change. The evidence has been steadily building for years. The canículas, the annual midsummer droughts that affect Central America from Chiapas to Panama, have been getting longer and harsher. Last summer, the Guatemalan government declared a state of emergency when famine threatened an estimated 3 million people in Central America. The three most recent national corn crops have been decimated by drought. This year, the bean crop is threatened. Coffee production has also been affected.

“It hurts to see what’s been done to the forests in Guatemala and think about what could happen if the concessions are replaced with private ownership,” says Sosa. “You can see it in the animals on the perimeter of our territory. With less forest, they’re hungry.”

The New Maya Business Empire

For most of the first millennia, Petén was one of the most densely populated places on Earth—the bustling capital of an urban Maya empire. It is thought that as many as 90,000 people may have lived in the temple district of Tikal alone. All those people required resources, especially corn and firewood, and they cut down all the trees. Multiple studies in recent years by the National Academy of Sciences and other institutions have shown that this deforestation accelerated evaporation and reduced rainfall. Droughts intensified, and there were no rivers to divert for agriculture. The Maya civilization collapsed.

By the time the plazas and temple pyramids at Tikal were discovered in the mid-19th century, a strikingly unequal division of land ownership had taken hold in Guatemala. Even by the standards of the region, the country has always been an outlier, possessing what Guatemalan journalist Lisa Viscidi calls “one of the most skewed land distribution patterns in the world and the second most inequitable in Latin America, [where] roughly 2 percent of the population owns 70 percent of all productive farmland.”

The first major attempt at land reform occurred in 1952, after the election of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán as president. He was in short order deposed by the military in a CIA-backed coup. Beginning in 1960, the country was engulfed in a vicious civil war between a series of military-backed right-wing governments supported by the United States and a leftist guerrilla insurgency driven largely by the land issue.


International photographer Saul Martinez gives a glimpse of the people of Petén, Guatemala.

The Petén concession experiment began shortly after the peace accords of December 1996. Following the war, the government still had to contend with the demands of the poor, who had borne the worst of the conflict and were more impoverished than ever. There was also concern that hack-and-slash deforestation by illegal loggers and drug traffickers in Petén threatened the country’s last standing forests. Meanwhile, wealthy nations and international donor agencies began pressuring countries to stop the wanton destruction of their rainforests. Guatemala’s first response was the creation of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, still the largest protected area in Central America.

This was a big step toward saving the trees but didn’t do much for the people living there. They needed to make a living. The communities of Petén pressured the government for land. They were supported by a raft of international aid agencies and nonprofits, which helped hammer out a detailed plan for the concessions.

By the end of the 1990s, eleven cooperatives had been granted title to concessions. They started with businesses based on traditional knowledge and crafts. With help, they then established small industrial enterprises. In 2003, the communities founded FORESCOM, a company that brings finished timber products to market. The Rainforest Alliance and the Forest Stewardship Council certify as sustainable all wood goods processed by the company's mills. Communities are allowed to harvest between one and three trees per hectare, replacing mature trees with saplings that grow back in 40-year cycles. Last year, FORESCOM turned a $750,000 profit.

Timber is only one of the industries to arise in the concessions. The community cooperatives of Petén sell to a supply chain of 25 companies, and most of their products do not involve cutting down any trees. One woman-operated business, NutriNaturales, markets cookies, seeds, and powder made from ramón nuts, a sweet and nutrient-rich food harvested from the forest floor that has been a staple of the Maya diet for millennia.

From left: Maria Flores, Benedicta Dionido, and her daughter Hilda Mendoza make packages of oatmeal cookies from ramón seeds, which grow on local trees, in Ixlu, Petén, Guatemala. Alimentos Nutri-Naturales Sociedad Anónima is a community-based women's initiative that was started to reduce poverty and promote an alternative and nutritious food source. (Photo: Saul Martinez)

“Most of the cookies we sell locally, but our products are popular in Japan, where people like to make teas and drinks from the powder,” Benedicta Dionicio, one of the company’s workers, told me at NutriNaturales’ processing facility not far from Petén’s capital of Flores. The plant has machines for drying and powderizing the nuts and large ovens for making baked goods. A glass display case shows off the range of items for sale.

“The business creates permanent and seasonal work for women living in the cooperatives and for women who live near them or in Flores,” she says.

This spillover effect makes NutriNaturales a good example of how the cooperatives have given rise to businesses that benefit the overall economy of Petén, a province of 450,000 people, most of whom do not live in one of the 11 concession communities.

All funds generated by the cooperative-run businesses go into community bank accounts. Workers’ wages are based on the total income of the community. Assemblies elect workers for roles in production and management. (“Some people are better managers than others,” says one community leader.) Many details about the structure of the cooperatives sound like other, better-known experiments in worker-owned enterprises, such as the “reclaimed” factories of Argentina.

Labels are put on oatmeal cookies made from ramón seeds. (Photo: Saul Martinez)

Community leaders concede that inevitable instances of conflict and petty corruption transpire, but the overall mood within the concessions on a recent visit was contentment, confidence, and pride—pride not just in their business successes, but also in the alternative market model that they represent.

“We understand the need to make a profit, but we’re not interested in profits for their own sake,” says Joel Pacheco, the soft-spoken president of the Arbol Verde concession. “We would not sacrifice one job for more profit. Bringing the thinking and practice of large-scale capitalism here would crush our interests. We want to be part of the economy but on conditions that are fair to everybody.

“We set this up to give us control over our circumstances, finally,” he adds. Historically, “we were just bystanders while big companies and landowners make decisions behind closed doors and waltz over Petén. There is a sharp contrast between the old arrangement and the community capitalism of the cooperatives, where everyone has a voice.”

They do not believe this alternative model is incidental to stopping deforestation.

“If it were every man for himself, the forest would not last long,” says Marvin Ramos, a carpentry instructor in Carmelita, a village of 75 families. “Privately owned plots don’t work. The rich start grabbing the land. Even if they give small plots to each family—the community doesn’t accumulate power that way, and people can squander what they have with bad decisions.

“The key is integrating the whole community into the forests,” he adds. “Protecting them requires cooperation. With the concessions, we get more than just money. There are social benefits: schools, health care, scholarships. We have solidarity and a sense of ownership. We have a lot at stake.”

A carpenter works on wood at a Carmelita Cooperation workshop in Carmelita, Petén, on the border of Mexico and Belize. (Photo: Saul Martinez)

“There are criminal elements that would move into the forests without the community monitoring,” says Julio Madrid, the 20-something director for non-timber products for Arbol Verde. “There are also non-criminal industry interests who would like access to this land. But the deforestation would be very fast.”

This is the biggest and most gnawing fear within the concession communities: not that they won’t succeed but that the concessions won’t be renewed.

Forest's Uncertain Future

On Oct. 25, Guatemalans elected as president an anticorruption protest candidate, former TV comedian Jimmy Morales. The concessions of Petén are not exactly a hot-button issue in national politics, and Morales never discussed his position on renewing them. It’s not yet clear whether the new president, who leans conservative on most issues, will extend the program or cancel it under pressure from business interests that would like to access Petén’s forests.

If the Guatemalan government terminates the concession program, the last rainforest in Central America will be squandered for very little. The thin layer of soil in Petén is not rich enough for agriculture. “The only way to make the region productive is a combination of ecotourism and sustainable forestry,” explains Glyde Marquez Morales, a products manager with FORESCOM. “Take away the forest, and there’s not much here.”

President-elect Jimmy Morales of the National Convergence Front delivers a speech after winning the run-off election in Guatemala City. (Photo: Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images)

Says Sosa, the technical director for ACOFOP, the association of cooperatives: “I don’t want to be pessimistic, but it’s scary because of political uncertainty and corruption at the national level. Without the concessions, we’ll lose what’s left of the Petén. It will be a disaster. Without the forest, the area does not have resources to take care of itself.”

International allies, crucial in launching the concession program, remain a part of ACOFOP’s strategy.

“We need friends to keep the concessions going and study how they could be a model for elsewhere,” says Madrid. “We want to show the tourists who come here, and communicate with scientists and students, everyone interested in forests and biodiversity.”

(Disclosure: My trip to Petén was in part financed through ACOFOP’s outreach efforts to international journalists.)

“The benefits of having the communities manage the forests are self-evident, and the monitoring by government agencies, outside groups, and satellites confirms it,” says Morales. “We can succeed where the state and private companies cannot. If the government lets us, we will continue to prove it.”