Conservation news

Challenging the ‘tragedy of the commons’: new documentary explores how humans and nature can coexist (VIDEO)

The documentary film, “48 Cantones: The Mayan Forest,” created by brothers Thomas & Julian Moll-Rocek, explores the Mayan Cosmovision and tells the story of the 48 Cantones in their own words. It serves as a reminder of humanity’s diverse cultural heritage, and offers hope that the world can find a balance with nature.

We scrambled up the steep slope, passing easily through the open understory beneath towering pines sagging under bromeliads. The air was thin here, and filled with the soft scent of pine needles and moss. Don Agustín pushed on amiably, pausing only to point out a familiar herb. He led us to a low cement structure built into the earth.



Here, high in Guatemala’s western mountains, in the state of Totonicapan, lay the key to a perplexing paradox, just inside this concrete box. A vast community forest has prospered for centuries despite an ever-growing population, challenging the idea of the “tragedy of the commons.” Don Agustín lifted the heavy lid, revealing the precious trickle: a thin stream of water supplying thousands with drinking water in the valley below.


48 Cantones: The Mayan Forest por jmollrocek




The “tragedy of the commons” is an economic theory put forth in 1968 by ecologist Garrett Hardin that predicts ecological degradation due to human prioritization of self-interest over the long-term wellbeing of their community. However, this theory was heavily criticized by Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom, who collected overwhelming evidence showing that communities create their own systems for management of communally held resources. These open access resources, like the community forest, have in place clearly defined uses and clearly defined rules to ensure their sustainable management.



The community forest in Guatemala, 21,000 hectares of old growth pine, has been carefully maintained by the indigenous Maya Q’uiché government known as the 48 Cantones. This organization relies on community members each serving a year of unpaid community service known in Q’uiché as K’ax K’ol. Community members are elected to serve their K’ax K’ol, fulfilling various functions including road maintenance, acting as local mayors, and regular patrols through the forest to prevent over-exploitation.



Community members have also organized themselves into water committees, building and maintaining water catchment systems that channel the precious resource directly to their homes. The 48 Cantones are in constant tension with the local municipal government, which contests their rights to the forest, pushing to privatize the water supply. Yet, in the eyes of the local population there is only one source of legitimate authority: the 48 Cantones, who ensure the continued supply of their sacred water.


The documentary, “48 Cantones: The Mayan Forest,” offers a lesson of the fortune of the commons: a community united through their shared efforts to protect their common resources.



Densely populated valleys, thickly forested hills. The 21,000 hectare community forest, seen covering the far mountain ridge, has been maintained for centuries despite a growing population. Photo by Julian Moll-Rocek.





View from the volcano Santa Maria. The high mountainous plateau is a key watershed for Guatemala, with rivers flowing south to lake Atitlan, north to Mexico and east to the Caribbean. Photo by Julian Moll-Rocek.











Related articles





True stewards: new report says local communities key to saving forests, curbing global warming

(07/24/2014) Deforestation is compromising forests around the world, destroying vital habitat and causing greenhouse gases emissions that are contributing to global warming. A new report released today finds a possible solution: protecting forests by empowering the local communities that live within them.

Forests as important as farming for some rural communities

(07/14/2014) Forests have long been assumed to provide an important source of income for many of the world’s poor. But determining exactly how forests contribute to rural economies – such as how much income is derived from forests, or how poverty relates to deforestation – has been difficult to pinpoint.

Ecotopia emerging: sustainable forests and healthy livelihoods go hand in hand

(06/26/2014) Callenbach’s 1975 utopian novel Ecotopia became wildly popular among environmental-leaning folks, hippies, and progressive thinkers of the day. Set in 1999, the novel took place twenty years after Oregon, Washington and northern California seceded from the union to form an imperfect, in-process sustainable nation. For a book that has fallen mostly off the radar, certain aspects of Ecotopian society fall remarkably in line with research of Arun Agrawal, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan.

Speculators attempt to defraud people’s forest program in Indonesia

(05/02/2014) An initiative that aims to recognize and incentivize traditional community management of forests in Indonesia has been plagued with attempts to ‘hijack’ the program, reports the Jakarta Post.

Traditional palm knowledge at risk of becoming lost forever

(02/21/2014) The humid tropical forests of northwestern South America boast over 140 different palm species (Arecaceae), yet the people who dwell underneath these green canopies and the knowledge they posses remain relatively unknown to modern science. But Rodrigo Cámara-Leret of the Autonomous University of Madrid and his team of researchers are working to change that by documenting and preserving the traditional knowledge of palms before it is forgotten and lost forever.

Cambodian communities best placed to prevent illegal logging

(01/22/2014) A study on deforestation in Cambodia has found that forests are better protected when local communities are given the responsibility to manage them locally. Cambodia has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, losing 1.2 per cent each year from 2005-2010. The loss of forests due to illegal logging, commercial agriculture, and other factors can have a devastating impact on local communities, as well as contributing to global climate change. In a country beset by corruption and ineffectual state forest management, alternative models of forest protection are clearly needed.