Biosphere is flashpoint for tourism debate


Community concessions in the Maya Biosphere Reserve are conditioned on compliance with forest-management standards of the Forest Stewardship Council, a respected green seal. (Photo by Aldo Rodas)

A program under which forest concession holders—mostly local community cooperatives and associations—manage nearly 1.23 million acres (500,000 hectares) of Guatemalan rainforest has won international applause over the years, thanks to its contributions to local livelihoods and woodland conservation. From 1994 to 2002, fourteen of the 25-year concessions were granted in the prized Guatemalan reserve, which is part of the Maya Forest that Guatemala shares with Belize and Mexico—after the Amazon, the largest tropical rainforest in the Americas. Twelve went to community cooperatives and two to private companies, with all of them required to be certified under the sustainable management standards of the nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), one of the world’s most rigorous forest-management green seals.

But some experts warn that the program, launched in 1994 as part of a peace process that ended three decades of civil war in Guatemala, might be undermined by another sustainable-development vision, this one to combine conservation with low-impact tourism. The new initiative, promoted by U.S. archeologist Richard Hansen, targets what Hansen calls the Mirador-Calakmul Basin, an expanse of rainforest reputed to contain the oldest and largest Mayan ruins found to date. The remote area, which some experts assert is actually sloped tableland, encompasses 1.6 million acres (647,000 hectares) in Guatemala and Mexico, forming part of the Maya Biosphere Reserve and Mexico’s adjacent Calakmul World Heritage Biosphere.

Hansen, an adjunct professor at the University of Utah, has led a vast, four-decade archeological investigation of the ruins, which only can be reached by hiking two or three days through the rainforest and camping along the way. A world authority on Mayan civilization, he has lined up influential political support for his tourist-development proposal. Last December, three U.S. senators—Republicans James Inhofe and James Risch, and Democrat Tom Udall—filed legislation to lay the groundwork.

Under the bill, the U.S. government would contribute US$12 million annually over five years to help launch a Maya Security and Conservation Partnership involving the United States, Guatemala and Mexico. The bill says the three countries would jointly “create a sustainable tourism model designed to provide low impact, controlled access to the archaeological sites of the Basin with an emphasis on providing safe and secure economic opportunity for the local communities in and around the Basin.” The legislation also sets a goal of biodiversity protection, and would make the proposed U.S. contributions contingent on efforts by Guatemala to combat activities such as “illegal logging and looting of archeological sites.”

Critics of the initiative argue the tourism model as proposed represents a threat to the existing, green-friendly forest concessions, which they say have done a great deal to empower local communities and their largely Ladino, or mestizo, residents. Jennifer Devine, an assistant professor of geography at Texas State University who researches socio-environmental conflict in Central America, faults the proposed partnership for ignoring key stakeholders. Says Devine: “[I]t does not include the [Maya Biosphere] Reserve’s most influential conservation and governance actors as protagonists but, rather, as service providers. Hansen wants community members to clean hotels or cook for tourists, but what they want is to continue feeling in control of their land. It’s not only about making money, but also taking a place at the decision-making table.”

The 7,000-member Society for American Archeology (SAA) has weighed in on similar grounds, describing the partnership proposal as unilateral in its origin and stating: “Development projects that ignore local agencies and actors are doomed to fail.” In a letter to Inhofe, the SAA said the forest-concession system currently in place protects the forest and the Mayan ruins, and that the tourism initiative will jeopardize both. “The bill would overturn this successful system by removing land from this protected status in order to further tourism development,” the SAA said in its letter.

Hansen, for his part, insists his proposal is compatible with local concessions, but that for environmental-protection reasons the concessions should focus on tourism and forest products that do not involve the felling of trees—for instance, honey, resin-based chewing gum and flour from nuts of the ramón tree (Brosimum alicastrum). “They are felling trees and fragmenting the forest while the communities continue to live in the same misery of 40 years ago,” he said in a recent interview with EcoAméricas. “Do you think the removal of trees should be authorized in Amazonia? I propose something better for the environment and the people: that the [local] communities focus on producing products that are different than wood, such as honey and especially ecotourism. They could earn ten times the money they make today.”

Hansen also asserts that under his model, tourism would occur within a “wilderness area” free of roads or airstrips. He says transportation could be provided by a light, propane-powered train whose narrow-gauge tracks could be routed to avoid felling trees, with tourists staying in “eco-lodges” rather than hotels. Says Hansen: “Hotels are different from eco-lodges in the Guatemalan mindset. We would hope that the concessions and Guatemalan eco-lodge resorts would build those kinds of facilities so that you and others aren’t sleeping on the ground with snakes.”

Debate over land use in the Maya Biosphere Reserve and adjacent rainforest comes as many of the reserve’s forest concessions approach expiration. Just one of the nine currently active community concessions in the reserve, which is located in Guatemala’s department of Petén, has been renewed. The expirations of the remaining eight occur in years ranging from 2023 to 2027, and community leaders in all cases are seeking assurances that they will be extended. The concession-holders’ grouping, the Association of Petén Forest Communities (Acofop), has been working with the Guatemalan government for four years to renew the concessions, according to Erick Cuéllar, Acofop’s assistant director. The only one to be renewed thus far is the 133,000-acre (54,000-hectare) Carmelita concession, held by a community cooperative of that name.

Cuéllar says Hansen has promoted his tourism model in the past, but has stepped up the effort in hopes of winning over new Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, who took office in January 2020.

“It worries us because it puts at risk the future of 15,000 people who work in community concession organizations that not only extract timber, but also other products,” Cuéllar says. Thanks to the concessions, he adds, “they earn salaries and have slowed the emigration of young people from rural areas. The concessions have demonstrated that rural people lack opportunity, not capability.”

Cuéllar acknowledges that the Mirador-Calakmul project would only directly affect three of the nine functioning community concessions, but he adds: “We consider it a different management model that would threaten the continuity of the entire [forest] concessions system.”

Though the Giammattei administration has not renewed any concessions (the lone renewal occurred last year), it has thus far reacted coolly to the tourism-partnership legislation filed in the U.S. Senate. In June, his government issued a statement saying it “does not endorse the provision of financial support at an international or national level for a project that is not known and authorized by the appropriate institutions.” The statement expressed appreciation for Hansen’s efforts, but also called the forest concessions “a model that has made it possible to conserve forests and the biodiversity that they contain.”

The tourism initiative is not without supporters in Guatemala. In January of this year, Aníbal Rojas, a member of Guatemala’s unicameral Congress, formed a voting bloc called the Mirador Basin Parliamentary Front. Rojas did not answer an EcoAméricas request for comment, but he has said in the past that the goal of his legislative grouping is to build support for the tourism project.

The Maya Biosphere Reserve covers 5.2 million acres (2.1 million hectares), or a fifth of Guatemala’s national territory. Established in 1990 with the aim of helping to curb destruction of the Maya Forest, it comprises three land-use types—each one with a different level of restrictions in order to balance conservation goals with the economic needs of local communities. Those communities swelled over the past three decades as thousands of people migrated from other parts of the country because of a scarcity of arable land, says Andrew Davis of Prisma, an El Salvador-based conservation nonprofit active throughout Central America. The strongest restrictions apply to “core zone” land deemed to have the highest conservation value—1.9 million acres (767,000 hectares) in all. There also are 2.1 million acres (848,400 hectares) of “multiple-use zone” land where sustainable activities such as the forest concessions are allowed, and 1.2 million acres (497,500 hectares), of largely private “buffer zone” property.

The reserve’s creation did not halt forest destruction in the region. From 1991 to 2016, some 38% of Guatemala’s portion of the Maya Forest was cleared, the government says. All along, authorities have struggled to protect the reserve from illegal logging, ranching and other activities—often the work of drug traffickers, who also have cleared landing strips for their smuggling operations. Still, the concessions have encouraged local communities to steward the portions of the reserve where they are in charge of forest management, deriving economic benefit in the process. They not only produce timber; they also have tapped other forest products-—among them xate (Chamaedorea elegans), a popular ornamental plant, and chicle, the traditional Mayan chewing gum made from resin of the sapodilla tree. And they have begun processing wood to make value-added products such as furniture and flooring. In safeguarding woodlands that yield these products, the communities have ensured that the concessions of the multiple-use areas are better preserved than the reserve’s core-zone forest. Though ostensibly subject to the strictest protections, core-zone land has suffered due to scant government enforcement. A study by the government and various environmental groups showed that during 2000-13, the annual deforestation rate in the concession areas was 0.4%, compared to 1% in the core zone.

“It is ironic, but the zone that theoretically is more protected has been devastated, while better conservation has occurred in the area of [timber] concessions, where communities work intensively to manage the forest, surrounded by a sea of drug traffickers, fires and illegal ranching,” Davis says. “Hansen’s project might finish the concessions. If [the communities] lose the right to manage the forest, they will become vulnerable again. We believe there are ways to take better advantage of Guatemala’s archeological patrimony in terms of tourism without converting forest dwellers into tour guides.”

The prime cause of deforestation in core areas is illegal ranching, much of it bankrolled by traffickers as a means of laundering money as they move drugs into Mexico for shipment to the United States, Devine and other Texas State University colleagues say in a report published in June. Devine says the traffickers’ presence is particularly notable in two national parks located on core-zone land—Laguna del Tigre and Sierra de Lacandón.

“[In the parks] there is no state presence, and the narcos have established a territory of impunity, where illicit activities flourish, including trafficking in timber and wildlife,” she says. “The best protection existing in the Maya Biosphere Reserve is the community-forest process. [Community members] patrol their territories, put out the fires and report illegal activity.”

That was a principal conclusion of the Texas State University study, which stated: “The Maya Biosphere’s remaining forest cover in the community forest concessions and the sustainability of the governance model suggest that communally managed lands are more resistant to narco land grabs, particularly in comparison with national parks.”

A key reason is that the communities prize their exclusive right to manage the forest, even though the land technically remains under state ownership, says Iliana Monterroso, a biologist with the Indonesia-headquartered Center for International Forestry Research (Cifor). “In Peru or Colombia, indigenous communities’ property rights to ancestral lands they have occupied have been recognized, but because they are not permitted to manage the forest, this is of little use,” says Monterroso, who is based in Guatemala but works in various Latin American nations for Cifor. “The Guatemala concessions not only produce environmental benefits; they also enable social investment in areas where the government is absent. Communities have money, for example, to hire their own teachers.”

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Guatemalan forest cooperatives’ timber sales totaled US$25 million during 2012-16, with the funds used to support road maintenance and construction, sanitation services and certain educational expenses, mainly scholarships and teacher pay. The FAO says these results have been achieved while maintaining a controlled pace of felling that ensures forest regeneration, reporting that mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), the Maya Forest’s most valuable wood, was cut at an average rate of just 0.29 trees per hectare during 2012-16. That’s a far lower rate than in Mexico, Bolivia, Brazil and Peru, says Aldo Rodas, a forestry engineer with Guatemala’s Agriculture Ministry who has audited concessions to ensure FSC compliance. A study Rodas is preparing for publication based on government figures finds that during 2000-20, forest loss totaled 67,000 hectares, or 24%, in Laguna del Tigre National Park and 25,000, or 13%, in Sierra del Lacandón. Says Rodas: “In the same 20-year period, the concession areas didn’t lose practically any forest.”

Hansen counters that the tourism model he proposes would be a better bulwark against illegal land-clearing. “The mafias in the reserve use the roads built by the concessions to take out wood illegally,” he says. “What we want is not to build a Disneyland in the Maya Forest, as has been said. What we want to do is to create a forest area, without roads and without landing strips for drug traffickers. Today they are killing the animals and creating a green desert there. [The tourism project] is about defending the natural and cultural patrimony of Guatemala, which is unique, and delivering greater prosperity to [forest communities].”

- Daniel Gutman

In the Index: Ramón tree seeds are collected to make flour. (Photo by Association of Petén Forest Communities)

Erick Cuellar
Petén Association of Forest Communities (Acofop)
Guatemala City, Guatemala
Tel: +(502) 3134-2049
Andrew Davis
Prisma Foundation
Forest and Territorial Governance
San Salvador, El Salvador
Tel: +(503) 2264-5042
Jennifer Devine
Assistant Professor
Texas State University
Department of Geography
San Marcos, TX
Tel: (512) 245-3937
Richard Hansen
Director, Mirador Basin Project; Adjunct Professor of Anthropology
University of Utah
Salt Lake City, UT
Tel: (208) 436-9185
Iliana Monterroso
Center for International Forestry Research (Cifor)
Guatemala City, Guatemala
Tel: +(502) 5903-1257
Aldo Rodas
Forest engineer and Auditor
Guatemala City, Guatemala
Tel: +(502) 2413-7000
Documents & Resources
  1. Bill introduced in the U.S. Congress to create a Maya Security and Conservation Partnership program: link