The tropical forest in northern Guatemala is one of the world's most diverse eco-systems. It's also one of the most endangered. Now efforts are on to stop the widespread illegal tree-felling in the region.
Guatemala's species-rich rainforest is at risk
For years, the tree population in the Sierra del Lancandón has been in rapid decline. An increasing number of paths are being cut through the still intact rainforest in northern Guatemala. If nothing is done to stop the destruction, it's estimated that the forest could lose nearly 50 percent of its trees within the next 25 years.
That would spell disaster for local populations in the Central American country who depend on the rainforest for their livelihood. But these same people are also responsible for its destruction. Cattle breeding, corn farming, illegal settlements and logging practices are slowly but surely eroding the forest.
The German rainforest foundation OroVerde is taking a new approach to tackling the problem and enlisting the support of local farmers by encouraging them to abandon illegal logging practices and start planting new trees.
In return, the farmers are given financial support and training so that they have alternative ways to earn money. One option is sustainable farming that allows the farmers to earn a steady income without resorting to logging.
Slash and burn clearing is destroying the forest
OroVerde has initiated the project in Sierra del Lancandón in cooperation with local organizations.
"Actively involving the local population is of key importance," Max Vöhringer, project manager at OroVerde, says.
"Giving the indigenous people a stake in the development and management of forest protection projects and ensuring that they benefit from positive outcomes is not only an important moral duty but also central to the long-term success of the project."
Saving the land of trees
Farmers are starting to plant trees rather than fell them
It's believed that the name "Guatemala" is derived from "Goathemala," which means "the land of the trees" in the Maya-Toltec language. It's a description the country barely lives up to these days. According to OroVerde, only one third of the country is currently covered by forest, the rest having fallen victim to slash and burn clearance practices.
One solution comes in the form of the United Nations' REDD program (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) and its follow-up initiative REDD+, which goes beyond deforestation and forest degradation to include the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks.
The UN aims to create financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development. It's estimated that one fifth of the world's carbon emissions is caused by the destruction of forests. OroVerde's Lancandón project could thus one day serve as a model project for the REDD+ approach.
Legal framework missing
But like many developing countries, Guatemala lacks the neccessary legal framework to implement the UN schemes. Even though Guatemala has yet to be granted funding from the REDD+ program, the government has already launched two further pilot projects.
With the help of the local population and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), it plans to save rainforests in the Lachua region in western Guatemala and in the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Petén.
"The IUCN has been working for 12 years on plans to supervise forest protection in the region," Mario Escobeda from the IUCN says. "That allows us to seek financial alternatives in order to conserve the forests and to pay for improving the quality of life of the indigeous people."
Unresolved land issues
The situation in Guatemala is further complicated by land conflicts and a lack of clarity regarding property rights. A law dating from 2005 does say that land belonging to communities is considered the common property of indigenous people.
But it remains unclear who can claim the rights to emission permits in carbon trading schemes, according to the Forest Carbon Partnership (FCPF) which helps developing countries set up REDD+ programs.
OroVerde shares its concerns and stresses that legal and land use issues need to be clarified before conservation projects can get underway.
"This is the only way to guarantee existing rights and reduce the risk of conflicts that might jeopardize conservation of the forest, which is the ultimate goal of the project," Max Vöhringer says.
The rainforest in Guatemala is home to a wealth of biodiversity
All in all, Guatemala's government has some way to go before the REDD+ program begins to show results.
According to the FCPF, the government has announced that it plans to finance a reappraisal of tenure laws.
But it appears to be making little effort to implement environmental goals, with development aid organizations complaining of slow progress in their cooperation between the various government departments. Official contracts for organizations to implement the new forest management system are also conspicious by their absence.
But still there's hope that the pioneering schemes in Sierra del Lancandón and the Lachua region are the beginning of increased efforts to prevent Guatemala's forest cover from disappearing.
Author: Alexa Meyer (jp)
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar