Guatemalan protected areas sideline the protectors

Guatemala's protected areas safeguard some of last remaining forests, but they are also threatening the livelihoods of the very people who have maintained these reservoirs of rich biological diversity for generations.

Related stories

Brett Fernau

Indigenous peoples have the right to retain a certain degree of control over their resources, experts say. Brett Fernau

LIMA, Peru (11 June, 2013)_Guatemala’s protected areas safeguard some of last remaining forests, but they are also threatening the livelihoods of the very people who have maintained these reservoirs of rich biological diversity for generations, a new study says.

“The study emphasizes the importance of new access and exclusion rules from forest resources which are are redefining ecological systems in the Guatemalan highlands,” said Anne Larson, principal scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and coordinator of a special issue on forest tenure reforms published in Conservation and Society.

Indigenous communities’ traditional forest-management practices have kept deforestation in the country’s western highlands region to about 1 percent per year, which is below the national average of 1.46 percent, according to a study by Silvel Elías, Universidad de San Carlos in Guatemala.

But international and domestic environmental organizations, worried that social pressures will lead to tree clearing, have lobbied for the creation of forest reserves that prohibit activities on which these communities depend for survival, like gathering firewood or pasturing sheep.

Even the passage of a law meant to give local people a greater voice in managing these areas has failed to ease tensions.

That’s because the power of local governments often trumps the historic and customary rights of indigenous communities, according to the study.

“The communal forests in the western highlands are unique areas where biodiversity has been maintained thanks to the communities’ own management efforts,” Elías said.

“Indigenous people in the highlands believe that biodiversity – and natural resources in general – should not be seen in isolation, but are part of an interrelated whole.”

Studies around the world have shown that despite land-tenure reforms meant to give local people greater control over forest management, governments often limit the role communities can play.

Some researchers have criticized conservation projects for displacing local people or restricting their access to resources, although other studies show that problem may be less common than claimed.

Nevertheless, data do show that deforestation rates can be even lower in community-managed forests than protected areas.

The mountainous area of western Guatemala holds conifer, broad-leaf and mixed forests. Most are on land collectively used by indigenous communities, which have developed systems for managing their resources.

It is essential that indigenous peoples have the right to retain a certain degree of control over their resources through collective territorial management.

“They benefit from the products and services that these forests provide for family subsistence,” Elías said. “So these communities understand well that it’s also in their interest to preserve them.”

In many places, the forests safeguard the headwaters of rivers while providing local residents with medicinal plants and firewood.

They are also home to places that are central to the communities’ spiritual beliefs. That makes forests a form of “collective wealth, which transmit from generation the goods, knowledge organization and relations that are fundamental to local livelihoods,” Elías said.

In Guatemala, Elías examined three cases in which the creation of protected areas undermined indigenous people’s rights to forests in their territories.

Maya-Ixil people objected to the creation of the 45,000-hectare Visis Cabá Biosphere Reserve in their ancestral territory in the district of San Gaspar Chajul in the country’s northern Quiché region, arguing it would curtail livelihoods and give control over their lands to groups outside the community. They continue to demand respect for their rights, although they have not convinced authorities to repeal the decree creating the biosphere reserve.

When the 16,000-hectare Los Altos de San Miguel Totonlcapán Regional Municipal Park was formed in the territory of the Maya-K’iche people, environmental organizations lobbied for the creation of an organization of indigenous communities to help manage it. Because the organization did not follow traditional community structures and was subordinate to the municipal government and political parties, however, the indigenous people finally decided to disband it. They too argued it responded more to outside interests than their own.

In the Huehuetenango region, the municipal government took the leading role in managing a municipal forest reserve created to protect the 7,068-hectare Todos Santos Cuchumatán communal forest. That led to conflict with indigenous communities, because it limited their use of forest resources. The rules also restricted grazing land for sheep, which was important for family subsistence, especially for women.

The 1996 Forestry Law gave municipal governments a leading role in forest management and paved the way for creation of protected areas in municipalities. In many places, those governments have replaced or eroded the authority of traditional indigenous governing structures, the study found.

The communities’ traditional systems for ensuring sustainable use of firewood and other resources were partly or completely replaced by outside control and sanctions that did not follow customary practices.

“The transformation of communal forests into protected areas has involved a significant change in natural resource management,” Elías said.

“There is a contradiction between traditional forms of governance of community forests and the official administration of protected areas.”

A law passed in 2005, stemming from commitments connected with the peace accords that ended Guatemala’s civil war, established a registry of land rights, but most communities of indigenous people and smallholders still lack formal title to their land.

Although there is a provision for them to gain recognition of communal lands, many people are unaware of it, and it is not enough to guarantee collective rights to those lands, Elías said.

“It is essential that indigenous peoples have the right to retain a certain degree of control over their resources through collective territorial management.”

In a few cases, communities are receiving direct support for forest management and conservation in their territories without creating official protected areas.

“Those examples might serve as the basis for a more equitable approach to conservation planning,” Larson concluded.

For more information on the issues discussed in this article, please contact Anne Larson at

Copyright policy:
We want you to share Forests News content, which is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). This means you are free to redistribute our material for non-commercial purposes. All we ask is that you give Forests News appropriate credit and link to the original Forests News content, indicate if changes were made, and distribute your contributions under the same Creative Commons license. You must notify Forests News if you repost, reprint or reuse our materials by contacting