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Guatemalan communities defend forest from narcotraffickers: Why that matters to the US

Guatemalan communities defend forest from narcotraffickers: Why that matters to the US
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A recent Washington Post article about Guatemala’s Laguna del Tigre National Park had all the makings of a Hollywood thriller: swaths of forest set ablaze to forge illicit landing strips, a crashed plane sending bricks of cocaine sailing into the rainforest, jets filled with $100 million dollars’ worth of drugs taking off for the U.S.

But for anyone concerned about U.S. security, this story offers no entertainment value. It’s highly alarming.

Laguna del Tigre, which sits on the western side of Guatemala’s magnificent 5 million-acre Maya Biosphere Reserve, is largely undefended — a no man’s land. It can be hard for Americans, accustomed to the United States’ pristine public lands, to imagine how a national park could be so vulnerable to crime and deforestation. But in northern Guatemala, “strict” park protection often just doesn’t work.

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So what does work? What keeps narcotraffickers out and forests standing?

The answer lies on the eastern side of the reserve, where nine community concessions (so called because the Guatemalan government “conceded” the right to use the forest sustainably) have maintained a near-zero deforestation rate for more than 20 years, while creating bustling, local, legal economies built on sustainable forestry — while keeping organized crime at bay.

Like in the American West of the 1900s, the remoteness and abundant space in the Maya Biosphere Reserve can mean lawlessness — or the opportunity to make an honest living from the land.

The community concessions have chosen the latter: Between 2013 and 2019, the nine concessions made US $58 million and benefitted 44,000 people — all while protecting the forest.

If sustainable forestry sounds like a contradiction in terms, consider that these communities harvest only one tree per hectare every 40 years, collect nuts and plants from the forest floor (items that regenerate naturally), and maintain banks of native trees in nurseries to plant where needed. In fact, net forest gain equaling 695 American football fields was found in five concessions in 2017 — a landmark achievement that bucks the trend of deforestation in the tropics.

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And because they can support their families, community members have every incentive to protect the forest from fires and illegal incursions. 

Currently the concessions’ 25-year land leases, granted in the 1990s in the wake of a bloody civil war, are up for extension. The Guatemalan government has already granted an extension to one concession, Carmelita. Given the communities’ success at fending off narcotrafficking — and for so many other reasons — it’s vital that all the contracts be extended.

Narcotraffickers don’t set fires only for landing strips — they burn massive areas of rainforest for cattle ranches that serve to launder money. That’s why the concession communities patrol regularly (with the help of drones and GPS trackers) and construct fire breaks. They invest about US $180,000 each year in fire prevention — many times more than the Guatemalan government. (U.S. churches and businesses, whether purchasing sustainably harvested fronds for Palm Sunday or high-grade mahogany for guitar necks, help create these funds.) As a result of these investments in fire prevention and control, in an average year, just 2 percent of the many fires that occur in the reserve happen within the nine community concessions.

Sometimes the communities defend against narcotraffickers more directly. In one community, the son of a community leader was murdered, presumably by drug traffickers wanting the land. The diminutive grandmother who stepped in to lead told my field partners that she was later paid a visit by armed men who came to “negotiate.” Field partners also recounted that in another community, concessionaires discovered illegal drug-running facilities in the forest and disabled them. These people — like so many others who work to protect forests in Latin America — face death threats to this day. They are heroes, risking their lives to protect their livelihoods, their families and their future — and to help stymie the flow of illegal narcotics into our homeland.

Just like countless farmers across the Midwest and foresters from Appalachia to Oregon, the people in these communities labor every day of their lives to support their families with honest work that preserves their land for future generations. And to do so, they’ve become de-facto law enforcement and fire prevention for a precious block of forest.

Their courage and honest labor benefits us here in the U.S., and now they need our support. 

The concession communities have more than proven themselves as worthy managers of their land. And if we care about U.S. security, we will support the extension of the concessions’ contracts — and look to these communities as the leaders they are on the management of the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

Mark Moroge is the Director of Latin America for the Rainforest Alliance, an international nonprofit that has worked with the Maya Biosphere Reserve’s community forest concessions for more than 20 years.