case study

Protecting Land Rights for Mayan Communities in Guatemala

Credit: Jaye Renold/If Not Us Then Who

The Challenge

In Guatemala’s northeastern corner exists the Maya Biosphere Reserve, which represents one of the largest areas of tropical forests north of the Amazon and is the largest protected area in Central America. It is also a vital biological and cultural heritage site recognized by UNESCO, and home to sixteen Mayan communities that were granted 25-year concessions in late 1990s by the Guatemalan government to sustainably harvest timber and other forest products.  

For more than 30 years, the Mayan communities represented by the Association of Forest Communities of Peten (ACOFOP), have sustainably managed more than 870,000 acres of forests located in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Through ACOFOP’s technical and commercial arm, the community members sustainably harvest timber, allspice, xate palm leaves used in floral bouquets, and chicle, a latex tapped from sapodilla trees, successfully generating nearly 9,000 jobs and contributing to a robust, local economy for the community. 

However, in recent years the Maya Biosphere Reserve has been extremely vulnerable to deforestation due to its geographical positioning along a major drug smuggling route, and due to forest fires that have escalated in intensity due to a warming climate. Nearly a third of the forests in the largest park in the reserve, the 835,000-acre Laguna del Tigre National Park, has been lost since 2000. 

Despite the communities’ successful efforts to maintain deforestation rates to nearly zero (0.4%) and forest fire occurrences to less than 1% inside of the 400,000 hectares that they manage, the Guatemalan public blamed the communities for the deforestation and degradation that plagued the state-protected areas of the reserve. Furthermore, commercial interests to develop privately-owned businesses in the region to “combat” deforestation have attracted international support in 2020, including from the US government. If approved, these proposals would displace local communities and further timber harvesting, however sustainable, would be banned.  

With the expiration of the original 25-year licenses given to ACOFOP fast approaching, Guatemala risked losing one of the world’s most successful examples of community forestry—a globally recognized model that contributes to forest and climate conservation and to the well-being of more than 20,000 Mayan descendants.  

Our Approach

In close collaboration with ACOFOP, we devised media outreach strategies that engaged scientific experts in emigration, narco-ranching, forestry, sustainable agriculture, climate-finance, and environmental science, as well as academic and advocacy institutions, among them the Columbia University Earth Institute, the Elinor Ostrom Award, the PRISMA Foundation, the Center for International Forestry Research and the Rainforest Alliance, to elevate the success of Guatemala’s community forest enterprises globally.  

Using virtual and in-person press briefings in Guatemala City and abroad, we helped release a drumbeat of new reports and evidence that supported ACOFOP’s efforts to inform national, and US and EU policy makers of their successes. We also organized meetings in Mexico City with top-tier foreign correspondents, including the Economist and the Financial Times and organized and executed three site visits to El Peten with international and national media.  

Our collaborations with Indigenous organizations in the region supported social media campaigns and advertisements to engage with influential new audiences. We accompanied ACOFOP’s leaders to UN conferences and climate events around the world, arranging interviews and helping to raise the visibility of ACOFOP as a global model for community-based forestry, a scientifically proven solution to combating deforestation and the climate crisis. 

Results and Impact 

Over the course of five years we promoted more than fifteen scientific studies, media announcements, in person and virtual press conferences, and opinion editorials that drew attention to ACOFOP’s community forest enterprises, garnering hundreds of top-tier media clips.  

Years of exposure to influential media such as the New York Times and a growing body of supportive evidence kept pressure on policymakers and reportedly helped inform the Guatemalan President to announce at the COP26 in Glasgow the government’s renewal of ACOFOP’s community forest concessions. 

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