The 75 families that live in Carmelita, deep in northern Guatemalan’s Petén region, share their forest home with raucous howler monkeys, stealthy jaguars and brilliantly feathered scarlet macaws. Since 1997, when the government awarded the community rights to manage 132,938 acres (53,798 hectares) of land, members have been working to conserve their forest resources through the sustainable harvesting of xate, chiclé and wood. The Rainforest Alliance has certified Carmelita’s forestry operations and helped the community find markets for its wood products to international buyers. While this arrangement has meant steadily increasing profits for the community — which members have invested in the building of a new school, a health center, and a soccer field — it has not been enough to deter the illegal loggers who continue to threaten the forest. “In many cases, after extracting wood illegally, these invaders burn the forests,” explains Carlos Federico Barrios, manager of the Baren Commercial Plant, a leading manufacturer of certified wood products in the Petén. “With a dry summer, the fires can spread and destroy more forest. This process of turning a lush forest into a burnt area only suitable to agriculture is happening every day here and we must stop it.”
To provide Carmelita, Uaxactún and other communities with a greater incentive to conserve their lands, the Rainforest Alliance is spearheading Payments for Environmental Services in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, a project that will help to avoid carbon emissions while creating a new source of revenue for communities that will enable them to invest in conservation and meet pressing social needs. “We understand that climate change is caused by pollution and deforestation,” reflects Benedin Garcia, president of the Management and Conservation Organization in Uaxactún. “We have come to find out that this has affected the world system. To reduce this problem we want to work hard to maintain the forest cover and the environment. With this project, we believe we are halting deforestation and maintaining the equilibrium of the forest. This will not only help to maintain our health, but it has social, ecological and economic benefits.” The Maya Biosphere Reserve project has the potential to offset an estimated 0.8 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year through avoided deforestation or approximately 16 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent over 20 year life span. Or in other words, the emissions avoided through reducing deforestation annually are equivalent to the annual emissions from over 145,000 passenger vehicles.
As Jeffrey Hayward, manager of the Rainforest Alliance’s climate initiative, explains, “Deforestation accounts for between 12 and 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. By giving communities the incentive to stop deforestation, we’re helping to both sequester carbon gasses through avoided deforestation and to mitigate the emission of the gasses that lead to global warming. At the same time, we’re conserving biodiversity and helping to provide economic and social benefits in these areas.”
Under the terms of the project, the government and communities in the Petén hope to be able to sell credits for avoided carbon emissions on the international carbon market within the next six to nine months. But laying the groundwork for the project’s administration and implementation has been a lengthy three-year process that is still ongoing. “Without a law on the books that specifically addresses environmental service payments for carbon benefits, the process to establish this arrangement has involved complex negotiations between the communities and the government with the Rainforest Alliance acting as facilitator,” explains Hayward. “These issues that don’t have a legal precedent must be addressed in order to ensure that communities and other legitimate stakeholders have their rights to the carbon fairly established.”
Meanwhile, the communities are eager to finalize a deal and move ahead with their conservation plans. “The communities need more money to look after the forests. Management comes at a high cost,” observes Marcedonio Cortave, executive director of the Association of Forest Communities of the Petén. “FSC certification means that you have to pay for audits, annual improvements, and do all the activities that certification requires.”
Income from the project will not only be applied toward increased community vigilance but improved education. “For me, education is crucial,” notes president of the Carmelita concession Carlos Crasborn. “Sadly, most of the children in our community leave to study elsewhere at the age of 15 because we don’t have the facilities or teachers to educate children up to 18 years. We want children to stay in the community. Educating them here will be a step towards achieving that.”
Cortave believes that with enough financial incentive and support, the most qualified people to protect the forestlands are the community members themselves. “The people from the community are key to the vigilance of the forests. By having a direct interest in the forests, they are more likely to care and protect them,” says Cortave. “For the xate collector, the forest is crucial to his livelihood — it’s his fountain of life.”