The World Bank/WBI’s CBNRM Initiative
Case Received: February 9, 1998
Author: Conrad Reining,Carlos Soza, Sharon Flynn, Jose Contreras, Amilcar Corzo, Mario Mancilla
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Community Forest Concessions, Institutional Reform, and Access to Traditional Resource Rights: The Case of Carmelita and the Maya Biosphere Reserve Petén, Guatemala
This case examines the events and processes that catalyzed policy changes in the Guatemalan government between 1992 and 1996, and that lead to the approval and implementation of community-based forest concessions in the Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR), Petén, Guatemala. The Petén is the northernmost state in Guatemala, spanning fully one third of the national territory, and includes the largest remaining lowland tropical forest and wetland in Central America. This case focuses on the experience of Carmelita, an isolated, individualistic community with strong cultural and economic traditions based on the extraction of forest resources.
Integrated community concessions are legal agreements between the Guatemalan State and the community concessionaire that provide exclusive rights to extract forest resources, in a designated area, in exchange for fees and protection responsibilities. In addition, community concessionaires must abide by established terms of low-impact extraction. Community-based concessions represent the first mechanism approved and implemented by the Guatemalan government to recognize the legal right of Petén forest communities to their resource heritage.
The change necessary to insure government recognition of community rights to their traditional resources was a complex and sometimes violent process. Pressure from Carmelita, other communities, local and international non governmental organizations (NGOs), international donors and internal openings catalyzed by the emerging peace process, all combined to force open a closed resource rights regime based on the interests of the economic elite, the military, and inefficient bureaucracies.
The major actors in this case include the community of Carmelita, the municipality of San Andres (in which the community lies), the government of Guatemala in the form of the National Council for Protected Areas (CONAP), international donors, and the NGO community. The authors are all employees of Conservation International, an NGO active in the region for the last seven years.
Although the Petén was thinly populated until the 1970s, it had a vibrant culture intimately linked to its vast forests. Schwartz labeled this culture the "forest society". Petén communities since the time of the ancient Maya have used forest products to build their homes, feed their children and heal the sick. The forest and the products it offers are woven into the daily life of communities like Carmelita.
Carmelita developed primarily around the extraction of chicle (Manilkara zapota), a tree latex which formed the basis of chewing gum until synthetics replaced almost all natural production in the 1960s. Later on, markets emerged for xate (Chamaedorea spp.), a palm leaf, and allspice (Pimenta dioica), a common household seasoning. These three export products still generate substantial foreign exchange revenues for Guatemala and, until recently, their harvest and extraction provided the majority of household income for Carmelita.
Carmelita, which sits at the heart of the multiple use zone of the reserve, has always been isolated politically, socially, economically, and culturally from Guatemala’s traditional power center in the highlands. This isolation is combined with an individualism encouraged by the nature of non-timber product extraction. The extraction activity, based upon an individual’s harvest, may require that heads of households, and even entire families, spend months each year in the forests. Despite decades of existence and dependence on forest products, until the 1990s the government had never granted the community formal resource tenure.
In the early 1990s, Guatemala had just begun to emerge from a thirty year undeclared civil war. The Petén with its vast forests and large blocks of state-owned lands, was one of the battlegrounds during this conflict. In the 1960s, the central government set up the Empresa del Fomento y Desarrollo del Petén (FYDEP), a civilian agency with military management, responsible for administering the Petén. In the 1970s the agency initiated development, through road construction that linked the region with southern Guatemala and by grants of large land and resource concessions to wealthy and well-connected members of the economic elite.
As a result, cattle, timber and oil interests came to dominate the political and economic sectors of the Petén. In addition, landless peasants from Guatemala’s impoverished central and eastern regions also used the infrastructure created by these entities to establish a foothold in the Petén. The result was a rapid change from forest to cattle pasture and slash- and-burn agriculture. Traditional forest communities, like Carmelita, were losing on both sides. The industrial timber concessions left them unemployed and without economic equity in resource extraction, and the advancing agricultural frontier put the forests upon which they depended for their survival at risk.
In the late 1980s, the Guatemalan government enacted sweeping environmental legislation. The Guatemalan Protected Areas System was created, including the Maya Biosphere Reserve, together with that National Council for Protected Areas (CONAP), the institution responsible for managing this vast system. The international community played a significant role in designing the protected areas system and guaranteed that it would help the government implement the system. Also in the late 1980s, FYDEP was dissolved, and its portfolio passed to CONAP.
The laws creating the reserve included the establishment of resource management units in the multiple use zone, to be centered around communities and harvester groups with a long history of resource use. Conservation International, an NGO, working as part of the reserve’s management team, began working closely with Carmelita at the beginning of 1993 to prepare the management plans necessary to initiate the formal application process with CONAP. Carmelita’s concession application was submitted in October 1994, but was not approved until April 1997. Despite clear "on the books" legislation supporting the implementation of community concession, an array of interests and factors had been mobilized to delay approval.
THE CHANGE PROCESS
Despite a clear structure for community concessions within the reserve, the implementation of the concession process was impeded for a number of reasons. First, industrial timber interests, that had benefited for three decades from government policies, opposed the transfer of these resources to communities. When the reserve was created in 1990, seven large timber companies were operating in the Petén. These industrial interests had traditionally linked the military and government to the economic elite through patronage systems. Corruption was common and bribes were usually necessary to guarantee the correct documentation needed for timber extraction. After the establishment of the reserve’s boundaries, illegal logging still continued.
Secondly, CONAP, the new institution responsible for administering the reserve and implementing its management guidelines, was inexperienced, disorganized, under funded, and poorly directed, particularly in the Petén. Created as a council reporting to the executive branch, rather than a ministry, CONAP is subject to changes and policy interests within the Presidency. To date, the national government has still to transfer the budget promised to CONAP under the accords with USAID for the implementation of the Maya Biosphere Reserve project. In addition, the institution was initially staffed by trained foresters with a primary focus on timber, thus precluding an understanding of integrated forest extraction regimes at the community level. In general, the staff lacked the training and efficiency needed to administer their scarce resources.
Finally, in the wake of years of conflict and the destruction of community organizations, there was reluctance on the part of both the government and the economic and political elite to grant control over large tracts of land to community-based groups. The forests of the Petén had been viewed as a source of wealth, while its communities had been seen as a source of dissension, rebellion and guerrilla activity.
Change, however, did finally occur as a result of several factors. First, communities, emboldened by the presence of development institutions and NGOs, and the equity being demanded by highland communities as part of the emerging peace process, began to protest about their lack of resource tenure. Most communities that found themselves within the boundary lines of the reserve were unprepared, uninformed, and ill-equipped to deal with a future that precluded traditional land tenure rights. Because the reserve is public land, private property ownership is prohibited unless there is a title granted prior to the creation of the reserve in 1990. Most communities, especially Carmelita, had never had the power or wealth to obtain title to the land they had been living on for decades. This frustration sometimes erupted into violence, as happened in Cruce Dos Aguadas, a small agricultural community to the south of Carmelita, in 1993. The inhabitants of Cruce, unhappy with their future prospects, burned down the CONAP post and chased the guards out of town. As the power of the national government came into question, communities began turning more to local municipalities, who understood forest traditions, for support.
Dynamic community leaders also emerged to lead the process. One such leader was Carlos Catalan, a chiclero and xatero from Carmelita who could passionately and eloquently paint the portrait of life in a small Petén forest town to the highland political elite and defend the rights of his community.
Second, the NGO community and international donors in the Petén heavily advocated the establishment of integrated, community-based concessions and produced tools to support their position. In 1994, Conservation International presented two studies to CONAP that helped affect the process. The first was an economic analysis of a proposed industrial timber concession in the multiple use zone that had taken priority over Carmelita’s application. The CI study demonstrated that the industrial concessionaire would have little financial incentive to manage the concession over the long term. The second study was an opinion study across sectors to determine local attitudes towards industrial and community concessions. 76% of people surveyed were against industrial concessions, stating that private sector interests did not have a history of abiding by the law and would therefore destroy the forest.
NGOs also succeeded in getting approval of a small forest concession south of Carmelita, in the traditionally agricultural community of San Miguel. The small size of the concession, 5,000 hectares, permitted relatively easy approval and provided a model upon which CONAP, NGOs, and other communities could base future efforts.
In addition, forces in CONAP itself contributed to changes in policy. First, the rank and file in the Petén Region VIII office was composed of local staff with local community allegiances and a tendency to support integrated community concessions. In 1996, a new, younger, and better educated team was appointed as CONAP’s management structure. This team did have traditional ties to the established political elite, but by that point, this same elite had based the future of Guatemala on a peace agreement founded on a more equitable society and broader community participation. Also, CONAP itself realized that it would never have the capacity to manage a reserve the size of El Salvador without collaboration from communities and local government. This realization dovetailed with a broader process of decentralization and privatization advocated by the central government and its international donors.
Finally in April 1997, CONAP preliminarily approved Carmelita’s concession. This occurred two weeks after Conservation International’s biological station in Laguna del Tigre National Park had been burned by farmers invading the park. The destruction of the station galvanized not only by the NGO community but also communities legally established in the reserve who saw their future jeopardized by pressure from the landless peasants. Concessions were the only mechanism available to these communities to insure their right to live in their homes and they were determined to get them approved before losing their tenure to the invaders.
The approval of Carmelita, a 53,000 hectare concession, along with that of Pasadita, 18,000 hectares, was marked with a formal signing ceremony in November, 1998 attended by the Vice President of Guatemala and the American Ambassador. Both dignitaries flew into the remote community by helicopter and were met by community representatives from Carmelita, Pasadita, San Miguel, CONAP and the NGOs.
The concession structure establishes a co-management regime that invests in and gives responsibility to local government, communities, and NGOs. Other community concessions are currently in the approval pipeline. With the help of NGO partners in the Maya Biosphere Reserve Project, CONAP has also simplified the administrative process of granting concessions to include a standard contract, clear and equitable payment terms, and a reduction in the time required for concession approval. Also, communities that existed prior to the establishment of the reserve now have first priority in the granting of concessions.
The Carmelita concession is the largest community management unit in Central America. The concession agreement grants the community the exclusive right to extract wood and non timber forest products, provide tourism services, and use other tangible and intangible biological resources within the limits of the concession. The potential revenue from wood alone could significantly affect the community’s economic development. Despite the success of achieving the concession, however, many challenges remain.
The concession continues to face destabilizing external pressures, including illegal logging, land clearing, wildlife poaching, and other clandestine activities. The community has limited resources to counter these threats and many of the groups carrying out these activities have ties to powerful economic and political interests. Oil and gas production is also on the rise in the reserve, and there may be overlap between Carmelita’s concession and hydrocarbon exploration contracts granted by the government. Finally, the individualism fostered by traditional non timber product extraction may impede the community’s ability to collectively manage the concession, optimize its business potential, and invest the benefits wisely. In a tragic manifestation of the challenges facing the concession, Carlos Catalan, the man who had led to the fight for the concession, was assassinated just as the first post-approval timber harvest was being completed in 1997. His death probably resulted from some combination of all the forces affecting the community and its concession. Despite his death, the community and its backers are determined to carry on Catalan’s legacy.
Success of the concession model in Carmelita will depend on building the community’s capacity for administrative management, their access to information and ability negotiate good commercial deals for their products, and their adeptness at resolving internal conflict and reaching democratic decisions. If community-based resource management, or co-management, as represented by the concession model, is to be successful over the long term, there will need to be long-term investments in community development and the continuing support of the government.