The commercial architecture of conservation in Petén

Photographies: Santiago Navarro y Aldo Santiago

The creation of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in 1990 (RBM, by its Spanish acronym) generated the conditions to insert this territory into sustainable development plans. In these plans, conservation policies and discourse on combating climate change enable territorial reorganization of the region.

For Rocío García, an anthropologist from the University of San Carlos in Guatemala, a key criticism of the forest conservation model adopted by the Guatemalan government is that the Protected Areas (PAs) were designed with purely technical instruments—through aerial photographs and satellite images that do not account for the people that live inside them. “As a result, communities became prisoners after the new reorganization. This system causes conflict because it imposes PAs with boundaries similar to those of the farming system—which is what peasant and indigenous communities have been fleeing since the 20th century”.

According to Rocío, the PA model is racist in its inception, because “those who dispossess have economic interests. They see a reserve of future resources in the PAs; and they prefer to believe that inhabitants have just arrived, in order to apply the territorial reorganization law”. They then use this law to justify the forced displacement of entire communities.

The objective of the new rurality is for peasants to no longer be tied to the land for subsistence farming, and instead begin to produce for the market. 

The case of Guatemala, Rocío explains, is a clear example of the interrelationship between international environmental policies and the territorial planning policies of the Guatemalan government. According to the Guatemalan anthropologist, hegemonic environmental discourse originated with the 1972 publication, the Meadows Report, also known as The Limits to Growth. The report, commissioned by the Club of Rome (a private association of businesspeople, scientists and politicians), concludes that “in a finite planet, the dynamics of exponential growth (population and product per capita) are not sustainable”.

The concept of “sustainable development” was used for the first time in a 1987 United Nations (UN) report entitled Our Common Future. Five years later, the first Earth Summit was organized by the UN and held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There, 178 countries adopted the term “sustainable development” as that environmental safeguard within the development process. The main focus is always on conservation, using the model of Protected Areas.

“This is in line with the territorial planning policies initiated in Guatemala during the government of Alfonso Portillo (2000-2004), called Poverty Reduction Strategies. These policies were a kind of diagnostic at the municipal level, where the aim was to identify the causes of poverty, and the economic resources available in each municipality”, explains Rocío.

The subsequent administration of Óscar Berger (2004-2008) implemented the rural territorial development policy, which was drawn up using a methodology designed by the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the Sustainable Development Department of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). The policy was specifically the work of two consultants, Alexander Schejtman y Julio A. Berdegué, who coined the politics of the new rurality, with the objective of inserting territories into markets using principles of demand.

The objective of the new rurality is for peasants to no longer be tied to the land for subsistence farming, and instead begin to produce for the market. It therefore incentivizes nation-states to reorganize local institutions and impose models of social organization designed to produce for the global market.The Paris Agreement

Global financial institutions, in partnership with development banks from industrialized countries, will have a leading role in implementing the Paris Agreement to combat global warming. Since the 21st Conference of the Parties in December 2015 (COP21), 193 countries have signed the Paris Agreement.

Through investment agreements between these entities and the countries, the goal is to meet carbon emissions reductions targets. Under the Paris Agreement, global warming becomes an economic opportunity, where funding for “adaptation and mitigation” for the climate crisis reduces the environmental problem to a monetary situation. The mechanism also subsidizes “ecosystem services”, creating a global market in which it is cheaper for industries to pay to contaminate than to take real action against the climate crisis.

The Green Climate Fund (GCF) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) are the entities responsible for managing the Paris Agreement's financial mechanism. They are also responsible for allocating additional monetary resources channeled toward climate funding after implementation of the agreement on November 4, 2016.

One of the focus areas with the most resources is the reconversion of global energy systems, to transition away from fossil fuel dependence toward intensive production, through “clean energy sources”. The other main portion of financial resources are earmarked to reduce emissions caused by deforestation and forest degradation, and to promote “conservation, sustainable forest management and an increase in forest carbon reserves through REDD+ projects”.

Some estimates indicate that international public funding from developed countries could increase to up to US $18.8 billion per year by 2020. Before 2025, the parties to the agreement will set a new collective quantified goal of at least US $100 billion per year, with funding priority given to “developing” countries.

Latin America and the Caribbean are priority regions to implement market mechanisms for forest conservation, as they house 23.5% of the world's forest.

In 2008, the UN-REDD partnership—made up of the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations Organization), UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), and UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme)—launched a financial program to build capacity to implement payments for ecosystem services mechanisms at the country level.

This initiative currently includes mechanisms for the sustainable use and management of forest areas. In Latin America, funding from the World Bank (WB), Multilateral Investment Fund of the IDB, Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) and Forest Investment Program (FIP) also support this strategy. Other influential actors include the international cooperation agencies of governments such as Norway, Germany and the United States.

Most of these resources are used in the preparatory phases for REDD+ mechanisms, as the aim is to launch an international carbon credit trading system by 2020. In the case of Latin America, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama began preparing national REDD+ mechanisms in 2012.

The Market Model

After 36 years of internal armed conflict, the Guatemalan State and Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG, by its Spanish acronym—organization that grouped together the four largest guerrilla groups) discussed the possibility of implementing land reform to benefit the peasant population. These discussions occurred in the context of UN-sponsored peace negotiations.

But after the peace accords were signed, World Bank policies influenced the strategy, leading to market-assisted land reform. This imposed prohibitions on the allocation of land ownership to groups and peasant communities, despite the fact that in numerous cases they already possessed the lands—many of which had been abandoned forcibly during the war.

At the same time, the Guatemalan government reinforced the prohibition on land titling throughout the RBM. Meanwhile, with USAID funding, it created the “forest concession” model, to assign the management of areas designated for “sustainable development”.

“What they did [USAID] was place an NGO in each concession to provide advice on organization, fund management and legal registration. They provided technical assistance for people to organize, meet with lawyers and attend trainings—in other words, they provided all the training, equipment, and planning. They had to conduct an analysis of the territory to know how much potential it had for both timber and non-timber activities. That's all the information they have to work with. With this information they developed management plans to draw up the logging strategy”, says Rosa Maria Chan, a former Guatemalan official. She believes that forest concessions are community organizations that have protected the region against deforestation.

By 2001, USAID was channeling its assistance through the BIOFOR Project, implemented by Chemonics International—a private company for international cooperation with a presence in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East. The work of Chemonics instilled a business vision to constantly seek out new market niches and increase forest production. It also proposed a reduction in subsidies and in the number of institutions accompanying concessions—two goals that this and successive projects failed to meet.

Although official discourse talks about respect for the determination of communities operating forest concessions, a 2007 analysis by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) reveals the vertical and paternalistic formula in the relationship between NGOs and communities in Petén.

“The NGOs took on a leading role in the process; rather than accompanying or facilitating, they became service providers...the relationship between communities and NGOs was unbalanced from the start, given that the NGOs were managing and administering the funds, without promoting community building and self-management...the NGOs promoted relationships of dependency in order to justify their existence and continue receiving funding from donors” So underscores the context analysis about the Association of Forest Communities of Petén (ACOFOP, by its Spanish acronym), an umbrella organization for the organizations operating the community forest concessions.

“This model allows NGOs to supplant communities in decision-making spaces, thereby competing with community leadership and limiting access to key information...In some cases, as part of their approach to assistance, accompanying NGOs pressured community organizations to sign exclusivity agreements on technical assistance. Far from facilitating the capacity-building of community members, this was geared toward creating major dependence on the NGOs—which logically generated backlash and confrontation between community groups and the NGOs”.

The case of Forest Services Community Enterprise S.A., better known as FORESCOM, is an example of the imposition of organizational structures that are alien to the reality of communities. As part of the implementation of the BIOFOR project, this entity was created in 2003 to market the wood—a process controlled by NGOs until then.

However, the cost of this institutional design was hard to sustain once BIOFOR ended. So ACOFOP—an organization funded by the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ, by its German acronym)—adjusted FORESCOM's model to preserve it as a business platform. ACOFOP has also received technical assistance from Rainforest Alliance, which places its certification seal on all of ACOFOP's products for export.

According to CIFOR's analysis, between 1989 and 2003 alone, USAID, IDB, KfW (a German development bank) and counterparts in the Guatemalan government directly invested US $92 million in projects in the Reserve. “Of this total investment, only a modest portion directly reached concessionary communities and their organizations. Therefore, the investment did not have a considerable impact on community-building and self-management processes. These resources have only deepened the dependence between forest concessions and NGOs”, the report highlights.

Where are the Forest Concessions?

The Maya Biosphere Reserve is divided into different areas. Official reports indicate that, despite the devastation caused by the oil industry, almost 70% of the reserve's forest cover are in acceptable conditions.

The core area covers 39% of the reserve, and consists of five National Parks and four Protected Biotopes—reserved exclusively for scientific research and low-impact tourism. No new settlements are allowed in this area, and logging and agriculture are prohibited.

The buffer zone is a 15-kilometer strip that extends along the southern part of the RBM and covers 23% of the reserve. Here, the sale of lands, ranching and agriculture are allowed. It is the area with the highest demographic concentration due to the road network, particularly in the part bordering Mexico. This network facilitates entry into all the core areas: Laguna del Tigre, Tikal, Zotz, Dos Lagunas, Mirador-río Azul and Sierra del Lacandón. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, this area “has received almost no investment, and the National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP) has had very little presence; so by default, the area has no focus on conservation nor any capacity to enforce it”.

The multiple-use zone covers 38% of the RBM and includes the community and industrial forest concessions. It is an “extractive reserve”, where land cannot be legalized, and only “sustainable” activities are allowed through concession—for which it is mandatory to be a legally established local organization.

Forest concessions are not based on ancestral forms of forest resource management; instead, they establish a contract of up to 25 years between the Guatemalan State and a community organization. The community organization is guaranteed the rights to use, access, manage and extract renewable timber and non-timber resources, as well as carry out tourism projects. The property rights in these contracts belong to the State, and they exclude the possibility of sale or transfer of concession rights.

Although 12 community concessions were initially granted in Petén, they currently only operate in nine communities. Two industrial concessions have also been granted to the logging companies, Batel Comercial Ltd. and Gibor S.A. The total concession area is 485,200 hectares.


Based on their formation as businesses, each concession is required to pay certifications and taxes. First, they need an international certification validated by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which costs US $4,500 per year to access foreign markets and sell wood with an “environmentally responsible” seal. And every five years, concessions pay US $12,000 for a re-certification evaluation. However, certification alone does not guarantee the communities access to better markets and prices for their wood, especially in the case of the most valuable species.

Furthermore, each concession pays an average of US $16,000 for a forest license (this amount varies based on the number of species they sell). And, they invest US $46,000 annually en patrolling, control and maintenance of firebreaks. They also assume food and fuel expenses for CONAP's monitoring activities, which on average add up to US $11,000 per year.

As for taxes on use and management, each concession pays the Guatemalan government one dollar per hectare managed. Due to the high volume of goods they export, they have also become recipients of credit from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (BCIE, by its Spanish acronym)—a regional financial organization that also invests in economic and energy integration projects.

After injections of capital for over two decades, ACOFOP now controls everything—from the productive management phase of forest resources, to their sale on international markets. However, this work is sustained through ongoing technical assistance and funding from foreign NGOs. For these NGOs, the more reflective and deliberate style of community decision-making—which seeks agreement based on group consensus—is not efficient in the business world, which requires quick decisions, information, contacts and high technical capacities.

Under this logic, concessions depend on external agents to complete the cycle of selling their forest resources. In spite of analyses published by consultants to fine-tune the operational mechanisms of forest concessions, a 2016 report by European academics stresses that little has been done to modify these policies in almost ten years.

According to the document, Community Forestry Organisations and Equitable resource management in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, Guatemala, one of the four key issues with forest concessions in Petén “is that decisions are made by accompanying institutions, not by the communities”.

This report also indicates that there is “a lack of space for disagreement or co-production. To ensure the sustainability of community forestry, long-term and collaborative strategies are needed, rather than projects operating in isolation. A history of NGOs working to their own aims has left a short-termist, project-oriented legacy and a dependency culture”, the document states. An Uncertain Future.

Despite business sectors' publicity and praise of them, forest concessions are in danger of not having their contracts renewed after they expire in 2022. This is partly due to the oil industry's intentions since 1997 to expand its area of extraction by almost 300,000 hectares, which overlaps with the forest communities of Carmelita and Uaxactún. The oil industry considers this area to have the greatest potential in Petén, so there are always actors interested in initiating oil activities in the region as soon as the opportunity arises.

In addition to the extractive industry, forest concessions are also concerned about the implementation of the tourism megaproject on the El Mirador site.

The proposed expansion of the Cuenca Mirador Park is a project developed by the Foundation for Anthropological Research and Environmental Studies (FARES), with the support of the Global Heritage Fund (GHF). Its main promoter is archeologist Richard Hansen, founder of FARES, and specialist in archeology of the Preclassic Maya periods.

The proposal aims to cover 2,170 km.² in an area that includes part of the Mirador-Río Azul National Park and the Naachtún-Dos Lagunas Biotope, as well as the territories of six community forest concessions and part of the industrial concession located in La Gloria. According to Hansen, the objective of the project is to protect the territory, which would imply stopping forest concession activities.

At first, the US archeologist's project had the support of the Foundation for Maya Cultural and Natural Heritage (Pacunam, made up of transnationals of the likes of Wal-Mart, Cementos Progreso, Citigroup and Samsung, among others); however, in the last five years the El Mirador project has sparked heated controversies that have prevented its implementation.

NGOs: A Relationship of Dependency

Between 2003 and 2010, forest concessions in Petén recorded cutting 163,000 m³ of wood for export, mostly mahogany and cedar. As high quality raw material, these products were mostly absorbed by the international market. This means the RBM is Guatemala's largest source of fine tropical woods—which are sent to European and US markets and fetch an average annual income of over US $13 million.

Data from Rainforest Alliance indicate that between 2007 and 2017, forest concessions generated US $55 million from the sale of wood, xate palm, pepper, Maya nut and tourism services, in addition to creating 26,000 jobs. According to information from the US organization, by the end of 2007, almost all of the hectares containing forest concessions in the RBM had been certified, which represents 60% of the land in the multiple-use zone.

These figures are part of the results of the project, Climate, Nature and Communities in Guatemala (CNCG), which was sponsored by the USAID and ended in February of 2018. The project received an investment of US $25 million between 2013 and 2018, and is considered to be part of the preparation phase of the Guatecarbón projectthe local version of the REDD+ mechanism for the Central American country.

CNCG is part of USAID's 2012-2015 Global Climate Change and Development Strategy. It was implemented by a consortium of environmental, academic and business institutions led by Rainforest Alliance, in collaboration with the following organizations: Nature Defenders Foundation (FDN by its Spanish acronym, Rainforest Alliance's local partner which co-administers the Sierra Lacandón National Park); the University of the Valley of Guatemala; the Guatemalan Exporters Association; The Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund. The objective was to “improve the commercialization of forest products and services in order to strengthen the capacity of forest concessions and the production of timber and non-timber products”.

For ACOFOP, the positive results of these strategies are evident, given the millions in income obtained from the sale of forest products. However, even the RBM's current Master Plan mentions “the ever-present danger that logging activities can eliminate critical components of the habitat with a resulting loss in animal populations”. Likewise, the document mentions the “monitoring of the species, Xate Chamaedorea Elegans and C. Oblongata, whose studies show that they have suffered overexploitation with negative effects on remaining wild populations of these species”.

Despite these warnings, it should be noted that USAID's sales strategy fully matches the objectives that the Wildlife Conservation Society developed in the current RBM Master Plan, which predicts a 50% increase in the export volume of lesser-known wood species by 2021; a 25% increase in the sale of non-timber products; and sale of 25% of the wood with added value, as a result of trainings in carpentry and other trades to work the wood before exporting it.

To this end, the plan establishes that by 2021, in non-concessioned, multiple-use forest areas in the region with productive potential, “there must be some kind of forest product use in order to strengthen conservation [of the area]”. This means prioritizing, among other areas, the “Candelaria Triangle”. This is the region where the Laguna Larga community was located and where three other communities are under constant threat of eviction.

Therefore, these expectations are also in line with FAO studies that indicate that “by 2030, the global consumption of industrial roundwood will increase by 60%, reaching a demand volume of 2.4 billion m³.”

Despite the profits obtained from the concessions, an internal USAID audit published in 2016 reveals deep-seated problems in the planning and implementation of the CNCG project. According to the document, Rainforest Alliance provided erroneous information on certain line items: it inflated the number of jobs generated through “sustainable activities”, by adding almost 24,000 jobs that did not last more than a day; it also counted the same hectares for “organic and sustainably managed” products on numerous occasions, which altered the real number reported.

However, the main problem found with CNCG is that “Rainforest Alliance should have prepared a sustainability plan from the beginning, explaining how the organizations and companies that receive support from the program would be self-sustaining after the program activities have ended. However, two years after the program was implemented, there was still no plan.” Thus, the audit stresses that in the absence of optimal and early planning, “the funds used to help the Guatemalan government and other partners manage the country's natural resources to mitigate the harmful effects of climate change could be wasted.”

A 2016 memorandum from USAID Guatemala director, William Brands, argues in favor of Rainforest Alliance's management, saying that “CNCG's support in developing commercial links for sustainably produced timber and non-timber forest products should not be underestimated. Developing connections with high-value markets in the United States and Europe is a proven method to increase community income and maintain profits in natural resource management. CNCG's support in institutionalizing key national and local policies will help consolidate the project's successes and will increase the Guatemalan government's ownership of these successes”.

Meanwhile, the USAID office in Guatemala claims that Rainforest Alliance's strategy to sustain the conservation work after CNCG ends is based on training local NGOs. These NGOs will assume the management of activities so that they can contribute to Guatemala's national environmental management objectives, while increasing production; and thereby reinforce the dependency relationship between concessions and NGOs, regardless of the term or project implemented.



Por favor ingrese su comentario!
Por favor ingrese su nombre aquí


Resolution Pending in Case of Miguel Peralta Betanzos

Judge has until August to decide on Mazateco Indigenous freedom

In Chiapas, people denounce counterinsurgency, displacement and State collusion

Programs like Sembrando Vida generate conflict and tension within communities