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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.

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