Juan Narciso, executive secretary of Guatemala’s National Council of Protected Areas (Conap), has been removed from his post and faces criminal charges in connection with two executive orders he issued affecting the Sierra de las Minas Biosphere Reserve.
The first order, issued in January, authorized a timber company to cut in an inholding, property that is in the reserve but remains under private ownership. The inholding in question is in the reserve’s core area, where the strictest conservation standards apply. The second order, issued in March, reduced the size of the core area by removing inholdings owned by the same timber company, Maderas El Alto.
Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo fired Narciso and reversed the two executive orders, called resolutions, last month. But the controversy has shaken Conap, which on Aug. 2 got a new executive secretary—Noé Ventura, formerly special attorney for environment at the Guatemalan attorney general’s office.
“Conap as an institution is ailing,” says Leopoldo Pimentel, a former Conap regional director for the area that includes Sierra de las Minas. Pimentel himself was removed by Narciso for trying to halt the timber cutting.
Sierra de las Minas, one of Guatemala’s five biosphere reserves, contains extensive cloud forest and hosts plants and animals representing 70% of Central America’s flora and fauna. It is the world’s largest habitat for the endangered quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno). Sixty three rivers flow from the core area, providing water for some 140 communities in the reserve and countless others just outside it in Central America’s driest valley.
The reserve includes private inholdings belonging to individuals and companies that owned the property before the reserve was created in 1990. Though this property remains in private hands, it is subject to the reserve’s land-use restrictions.
Dispute over “thinning”...
Under the first of Narciso’s two controversial resolutions, Maderas El Alto was allowed to “thin” timber stands on one of its inholdings in the core area. The cutting, suspended by a court order, ostensibly was intended to improve the health of the forest.
Narciso says the inholding is a tree plantation, not natural forest. In an interview with EcoAméricas, he said it thus was within his right to authorize the cutting in his role as Conap’s executive secretary, the official in charge of supervising the reserve’s master plan.
Guatemalan law prohibits timber cutting in core areas except for reserve-management purposes. And in that case, the cutting must be carried out by Conap or the reserve’s legally recognized administrator, a nongovernmental group called Defenders of Nature Foundation.
Documents from the National Forest Institute (Inab) show the area at issue is registered as a regenerating forest, not a tree plantation as Narciso’s resolution stated. Gerardo Paiz, Conap’s executive undersecretary until he resigned in protest over the resolutions, says the inholding also is part of a cloud forest, where cutting is prohibited.
“I know this area, and it is no plantation,” says Paiz, who says he knew nothing about Narciso’s resolutions until they had been approved. “It is a forest with natural processes taking place. It is a recuperated forest and it is a cloud forest. Narciso authorized a cut of over 36,000 cubic feet (11,000 cubic meters) of timber in a roughly 143-acre (58-hectare) area. That is practically a clear cut.”
...and biosphere’s core
Narciso’s second resolution reduced the size of the reserve’s core area by about 2%. Changes to the core are permitted to improve management of the reserve. And Maderas El Alto had long asked Conap to remove inholdings from the core so it could harvest timber from them. Narciso contends legal and technical studies supported the modification, which he says removed far less land from the core than was originally requested. And even though modification of core areas is only contemplated in theory in the reserve’s master plan, he argues the master-plan language empowered him to order the change.
“This is not something that is outside of the master plan,” he says. “The law says the executive secretary supervises the master plan…I did not act outside of the law.”
For his part, Paiz says that although he weighed in against the change, his report was not included in Conap’s file on the issue, nor was he advised of the impending resolution.
Environmentalists, including those at Defenders of Nature Foundation, maintain Narciso exceeded his authority by unilaterally modifying a council-approved master plan. They add that while the law contemplates changes to the reserve’s core, it also prohibits removal of cloud-forest land from the core.
Says Oscar Núñez, executive director of Defenders of Nature Foundation: “If the executive secretary can just modify master plans of any protected area at the request of an inholding owner, then it would be better for us to forget about the system of protected areas and dedicate ourselves to some other activity.”
- Catherine Elton