Community forestry in the Maya Biosphere Reserve

This item was briefly mentioned in the Prospects section of Chapter 6 of the book. Fuller details of the project are given here.

Community forestry is not a dream or a utopia. It already exists in Central America. It is seen as an alternative model for forest management, in that “community entrepreneurs with local social and environmental accountability will have more incentive to manage forests sustainably and deliver poverty reduction.”[1] Despite all the problems of governability and violence that the country suffers, Guatemala stands out as a pioneering example of such community forestry enterprise, and boasts the largest community-managed certified forest area in the world.

The Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR) is an area of 2,112,940 hectares in the Petén province of Guatemala. A total area of 445,804 hectares in the MBR’s multiple-use zone is managed through community forestry concessions granted by the Guatemalan government.[2] Allowing timber extraction within the reserve was a controversial move, but the National Council for Protected Areas stipulated that all concessions in the MBR should operate through the FSC certification scheme.

The Association of Forestry Communities of Petén (ACOFOP) was established in 1995, as an umbrella organisation of community groups – consisting of 23 campesino and indigenous communities – committed to communal forest management and promoting social, ecological, economic and political sustainability in the multiple-use zone of the MBR.[3] ACOFOP assists communities with policy matters and provides a platform for communal sharing of ideas and technical support.

In collaboration with ACOFOP, a community owned company, FORESCOM S.A., was set up in 2003 to help reduce certification costs and provide key services including management of the certification process, investment in equipment, promoting value-added products, expanding markets for lesser-known species, and developing links with local buyers.[4]

A 2008 Rainforest Alliance report confirmed the effectiveness of the community forestry model as a means to protect and maintain forest cover in the MBR.[5] The report found that between 2002 and 2007, the average annual deforestation rate for the FSC certified concessions was twenty times lower than for the entire MBR. With regard to wildfires, area burnt on FSC concessions declined from 6.5 per cent in 1998 to 0.1 per cent in 2007, whilst in the MBR as a whole the area of forest burnt annually varied between 7 and 20 per cent. The authors attributed the success of the managed forest concessions to sustainable management practices demanded by FSC, as well as NGO and government-supported programmes which promote environmental awareness and community vigilance.

Moreover, community forestry has reduced uncontrolled settlement and created an alternative to clearance for agriculture or cattle ranching. In addition to conserving the natural resources of the MBR, jobs have been created and economic opportunities expanded for people living in the reserve.

It should be noted that international support, in terms of financial and technical assistance, has been critical to the success of community forestry in the MBR. One concern is that reliance on subsidies and the local feeling of having certification imposed from above, have prevented the communities from developing a sense of ownership, thus threatening the long-term sustainability of the projects, especially as finance is gradually withdrawn.[6]

Other threats to the scheme are presented by the current use of the Petén region by drug traffickers – see Chapter 9 – and by attempts to decentralise and municipalise control of activities in the forests. In their attempts to democratise the Guatemalan state and society, the 1996 Peace Accords promoted decentralisation of the country’s forest sector to the municipal level. Whilst the motive was honourable, in practice, many forest communities, which particularly in Guatemala are also indigenous communities, have found that they have even less power and control over the forest resources which they have traditionally managed than they had during the country’s long ‘civil’ war. The continuation of this trend is a threat to genuine community management of forest resources.[7]

But arguably the most threatening of all the dangers to the idea of community forestry in the Petén is the structure of power. In Guatemala for decades if not centuries, rural communities have been subjected to abuse, discrimination, repression and state terror, tactics used to ensure the continuation of the economic and political dominance of a small oligarchic establishment that bolsters its own power and control with military might and international finance.

[1] Op.cit. (Macqueen, 2008).
[2] Gómez, I. and Méndez, E. (2007, 2nd edition) El caso de la Asociación de Comunidades Forestales de Petén (ACOFOP): análisis de contexto, Centre for International Forestry Research and Programa Salvadoreño de Investigación sobre Desarrollo y Medio Ambiente, Bogor, Indonesia: (accessed 11.09.09).
[3] See ACOFOP website:
[4] León, R. D. (2006) ‘Experiencia en el proceso de comercialización de productos maderables – FORESCOM, Petén, Guatemala’, Paper presented at international conference ‘Small and medium forest enterprise development for poverty reduction: opportunities and challenges in globalising markets’, CATIE, Turrialba, Costa Rica.
[5] Hughell, D. and Butterfield, R. (2008) ‘Impact of FSC certification on deforestation and the incidence of wildfires in the Maya Biosphere Reserve’, Rainforest Alliance, (accessed 10.09.09).
[6] Op.cit. (Cashore et al).
[7] Hannah Wittman and Charles Geisler (2005) ‘Negotiating Locality: Decentralisation and Communal Forest Management in the Guatemalan Highlands’, Human Organisation, 64 (1), 62-74, Society for Applied Anthropology.