- When the Guatemalan government designated the Río Sarstún Multiple Use Area in 2005, the local people said it never properly contacted or consulted the indigenous Q’eqchi’ living in the area.
- The Q’eqchi’ initially opposed the designation, and vociferously, for fear it would infringe on their rights to the land.
- Eventually, the government gave them a role managing the zone.
- Now, more than a decade after the Río Sarstún Multiple Use Area came into being, the relationship between the Guatemalan government and local communities is settling into a symbiotic groove, and conservation initiatives are having a noticeable effect on the forests and wildlife.
RÍO SARSTÚN, Guatemala — Riding in a small motorboat along the Atlantic coast of Guatemala, Francisco Cuz Acal looked over his left shoulder at the lush forest cover whizzing by. To his right lay nothing but open water. Straight ahead, far off in the distance, he could just barely make out the Belizean coastline behind a misty haze.
Cuz Acal was cruising along the eastern edge of the Río Sarstún Multiple Use Area, 350 square kilometers (135 square miles)of land home to more than 300 species of tropical birds and other animalsthat the Guatemalan government declared a protected area in 2005.
The 41-year-old has always lived off the land in La Guaira Cocolí, a community along the Río Sarstún, providing for his family through fishing, agriculture and selling wood when necessary. The local indigenous Q’eqchi’ community, 78 percent of the population in the 21 communities along the Río Sarstún, has always felt an affinity and respect for its land. But as the population has grown, the community has not always considered how its practices could impact the environment.
“There could arrive a time when none of this exists, and our kids who are growing up won’t see any of it if it all is destroyed,”said Cuz Acal, a Q’eqchi’ and vice president of La Guaira Cocolí’s local government. “That’s why it’s important to take care of it and maintain it, so that when they are older, they’ll know what nature is like, what the forest is like, and what the mountains are like.”
Designating this site a multiple use area is supposed to ensure that Cuz Acal’s vision comes true. But he didn’t always see it that way. The local Q’eqchi’ initially opposed the designation, and vociferously, for fear it would infringe on their rights to the land. Over time, though, they grew to realize that it was helping ensure the future of the environment and their own community. More than a decade since the site was named a multiple use area, the relationship between the Guatemalan government and local communities is starting to settle into a symbiotic groove, and conservation initiatives, including efforts to decrease overfishing, empower forest guards and run ecotourism projects, are having a noticeable effect on the forests and wildlife.
Opposition first, then acceptance
Between 2001 and 2017, Guatemala lost 17 percent of its forest cover, according to Global Forest Watch, driven by expanding agriculture, the push for commodities such as cattle and palm oil, and illegal logging. Deforestation has devastated certain communities, leading to deadly landslides after heavy rains and threatening the way of life of those who live off the land. Izabal, the department where the Río Sarstún Multiple Use Area lies, has the second-highest deforestation rate of any department in the country.
In 2005, because of increased deforestation and threats to biodiversity in the Río Sarstún region, the Guatemalan government designated it a multiple use area, a special type of protected area in which certain activities are allowed, such as fishing and agriculture, with some limitations.
In doing so, however, the government never properly contacted or consulted local indigenous leaders, which left them confused and anxious, residents told Mongabay.
“Many people opposed the decision,” said Samuel Coc Yat, a fisherman and a member of the local Q’eqchi’sustainable development organization APROSARSTUN. “They thought, ‘I’m going to lose my rights. They are going to kick me out.’”
“For the communities, it was difficult for us to understand what the law meant,” said Cuz Acal. “Particularly our fathers and grandfathers, who formed our communities just by the act of living there.”
It didn’t help that many local Q’eqchi’ felt the government had not helped them out much in the past. Indigenous people are the most marginalized members of Guatemalan society, with a poverty rate nearly threetimes higherthan that of the general population, and higher rates of infant mortality and child malnutrition. Only 58 percentof indigenous Guatemalans can read and write, compared to 82 percent of the non-indigenous population.
Local residents, through the community-based indigenous NGO Amantes de la Tierra (Lovers of the Earth), challenged the declaration of the multiple use zone through the country’s constitutional court, saying the decision violated the communities’rights to “life, liberty and equality.”
In 2007, the court ruled against the residents, upholding the 2005 congressional decision that declared the Río Sarstún a protected area. Still, in the ruling the court recognized the indigenous population’s right to their land, reiterating their need to be involved in local decision-making and emphasizing the Guatemalan government’s responsibility to provide them a dignified quality of life.
Although the ruling was not what the residents wanted, they largely respected the constitutional court’s decision. This opened the door for a more respectful relationship between them and the government institutions involved in conservation, and the government decided to bring them in to the project.
The administration of the multiple use zone was delegated to a coalition of two organizations: Amantes de la Tierra and a national NGO that works to include local communities in conservation projects, called Foundation for Ecodevelopment and Conservation (FUNDAECO). Local Q’eqchi’organizations were also given three of the 10 seats on the executive council that makes administrative decisions about the multiple use zone.
This push to include local indigenous people in conservation management is part of a growing trend worldwide. Governments have started to realize what may seem intuitive: that those who have lived on the land for centuries are the most invested in protecting it. In the areas of the multiple use zone that FUNDAECO identified as priorities for conservation, all home to a primarily indigenous population, the deforestation rate was 1.6 percent between 2006 and 2009, compared to 5.5 percent in the department of Izabal as a whole.
Research shows that deforestation rates are lower in areas where indigenous peoples live. A recent report by the Rights and Resources Initiative encouraged governments to embrace a rights-based approach to conservation, which respects the human rights of local indigenous populations. However, these inclusive initiatives can take time to get up and running, given the often tense relationship between indigenous communities and central governments.
That was the case in Río Sarstún. After more than a decade as a designated multiple use area,the relationship between the Guatemalan government and local communities is just starting to settle into a rhythm both sides are comfortable with.
Before, local communities were inadvertently harming the environment through some of the practices that they relied on to survive, such as subsistence agriculture, fishing, and cutting down and selling wood. But they were driven by economic necessity, rather than disregard for the environment.
“It’s difficult to tell a community to protect the environment when you don’t offer them an option for sustaining their family,” said Emilio Pitan, who coordinates conservation efforts in the zone as an employee of FUNDAECO.
That’s why the coalition’s approach has included not only initiatives to preserve the forest but also economic incentives for the local communities to do so, he said. FUNDAECO provides salaried jobs related to conservation and helps residents start ecotourism projects to generate income in ways that don’t harm the forest.
Now, residents who previously noticed that the area was becoming less green and sightings of certain birds and animals less frequent are reporting reversals of these trends.
“We have seen the impacts of conservation,” said Cuz Acal. “Now there are parts of the forest that have remained untouched for years, and that is the fruit of our labor.
“We’ve realized that protecting the forests is worth it,” he added.
Titling the land
On a recent morning, residents of the Río Sarstún Multiple Use Area lined up in temperatures of 29 degrees Celsius (85 degrees Fahrenheit) outside a one-story building with a straw roof to meet with government officials. The officials had come to the area to initiate a land-assessment process that will eventually provide residents with legal titles to the land they occupy.
Trees towered over the building and a clearing surrounding it, providing shade from the sun. Ducks swam in a shallow creek while a group of children played nearby, their laughs and squeals adding to the choir of bird and insect chirps.
Paulina Ba Choc, a 29-year-old mother of three, was among those waiting. She’d come to get her 10 hectares (25 acres) of land legally recognized. “Without legal land titles, there are no guarantees here in Guatemala,” she said.
A lack of government-recognized land titles has been a barrier to getting the local community involved in the conservation efforts; residents need titles to register for government programs offering incentives for conservation activities on their land. Efforts to speed up titling stalled for years until a study that proved the Q’eqchi’s’historical claim to the land was carried out in 2014. The process then took off as FUNDAECO and Amantes de la Tierra started bringing titling authorities to visit communities in the Río Sarstún.
Once she has the title to her land, Ba Choc hopes to register for a government-run program, known as PINPEP, that gives cash incentives for small landowners to preserve the forest cover on their land. To participate, residents must go through a government-approved process of assessing and mapping the trees on their land.
Ba Choc’s community has already received its first round of cash incentives for registering 63 hectares (156 acres) of communal land under PINPEP. They invested the $90,000 they received over two years in solar panels to provide renewable energy in the community and improvements to the local school.
Seeing a concrete return for keeping the trees healthy and safe from outside harm motivates Ba Choc to continue. “Now we have to take care of the forest much more than before, because the program has helped us a lot,” she said.
Guarding the forest
That same mentality has driven the success of the forest guard program, another of FUNDAECO and Amantes de la Tierra’s conservation initiatives.
Forest guard Valentin Suchite patrols the perimeter of Tapon Creek, a community tucked away in a mangrove forest inside the multiple use zone. As he treks through the muddy earth, soaked by last night’s heavy rainfall, he can hear the crackle of leaves as small lizards, crabs and other critters scurry nearby. With a machete to clear a path through the wild brush if needed, he scours for signs of deforestation.
When he does find illegal activity in the area, the interactions can be tense. Illegal loggers grew accustomed to passing through unchallenged and have not taken well to the increased vigilance since 2014. Suchite has received threats for reporting illegal deforestation.
“Protecting the land can bring a lot of consequences, in the personal sense and in regards to your family,” Suchite said.
While Q’eqchi’communities always frowned upon the deforestation in the area, they often turned a blind eye to avoid the threat of violence. But since Suchite became an official forest guard in 2014, receiving nearly $200 a month for the part-time work, he has taken a new pride in protecting the forest. When he finds signs of deforestation, he immediately reports it to local authorities.
“They’ve started to realize that this is my work, so they know that [illegal deforestation] isn’t going to keep happening,” he said of illegal loggers in the area.
This cooperation and unity between the local communities and authorities has reached a level that 58-year-old Pedro Pop Quin has never seen.
“As time passed, it became understood that the law also benefited us,” said Pop Quin, who admits he was skeptical when he first heard the government wanted to declare the zone a protected area. “Because if there wasn’t the law, all of this could end.
“Our obligation is to take care of the forest, to ensure that no one touches it, and to maintain it the way that it is,” he said.
He has started to see the animals and birds that he loved to observe in his youth return to the area: toucans, monkeys and chameleons. And he said his Q’eqchi’community is thriving thanks to the inclusive conservation initiatives.
“If there is no participation of the local communities, there is no harmony,” said Pitan of FUNDAECO.
Banner image: Valentin Suchite patrols the forest searching for signs of deforestation. Image by Anna-Catherine Brigida for Mongabay.
Anna-Catherine Brigida is a freelance journalist covering immigration, human rights and social issues in Mexico and Central America.
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