Documentation:Open Case Studies/FRST522/Community Forest Management in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, Petén, Guatemala: Challenges and Opportunities

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Petén was considered the last agricultural, immigration, and geopolitical frontier of Guatemala by the 1990s[1]. Today, it holds 30% of the country’s maize production, around 20% of the nation’s cattle production[1]. More than half of the population is dedicated to agricultural activities, which exerts pressure on these fragile forest ecosystems[1].

Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR), located in the Petén region of northern Guatemala, is part of the largest area of tropical forests north of the Amazon and the northernmost tropical forest in the Western Hemisphere[2]. Since the establishment in 1990, the history of Maya Biosphere Reserve has been shaped by ongoing competition over natural resources, including timber (especially high-value tropical hardwoods such as mahogany Swietenia macrophila and cedar Cederela odorata), non-timber forest products (such as chewing gum Manikara zapota, palm leaves Chamaedorea sp. and all-spice Pimenta dioica) and non-renewable resources[3].

Background of Maya Biosphere Reserve

In 1955, ten national parks were created in the Petén by the national government[4]. However, since the government was not able to monitor and enforce regulations in these remote regions, the majority of the parks suffered from deforestation and degradation[5]. The regulations for allocation of usufruct rights were unclear during this period[1]. There was no physical presence of Guatemalan Government’s official institution in the Petén before 1959[1]. In 1959, Empresa de Fomento y Desarrollo del Petén (FYDEP) was created[6]. From 1959 to 1987, this area was governed by FYDEP, the only governmental presence in the Petén, which had close ties with the Guatemalan military[4].

International ENGOs and the US government through USAID exerted pressure on Guatemala to bring order to the Petén region and halt the destruction of the forest[6]. The National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP-Consejo Nacional de Áreas Protegidas) replaced FYDEP in 1989[6]. In 1990, with the help of US NGOs, CONAP established the protected areas in the North Guatemala, including MBR[1][5].

MBR is divided into three different zones(the following)[1].

1.     The core zone represents 36% of the MBR. It is formed by five national parks and two protected biotopes, a restricted area for the conservation of natural and archaeological resources. It is worth noted that strict activities are the only activities allowed[1].

2.     The buffer zone represents 24% of the MBR. It is located at the southern part of MBR, being a 15-kilometer strip. Under sustainable management plans, productive activities and human settlements are allowed[1].

3.     The multiple-use zone (MUZ) represents 40% of the MBR[1]. No population settlements are allowed, given it is established to promote sustainable activities[1]. Originally, this area was to be given to private timber companies by concessions to commit to strict sustainable management criteria[1].

In 1992 the Guatemalan Government approved a system for establishing the co-administration of concessions in the MUZ[1]. Because the environmental groups were advocates for strict conservation, community forest concessions were not included in the original plan for the MBR[4]. In 1994, with the strong backing of USAID, the Government legalized a formal community concession system in the MUZ of the MBR[1]. Between 1994 and 2001, 12 concessions (above 70% of the total management units) were allocated in large areas surrounding the core protected areas of the biosphere, for organized community groups and two industrial enterprises (15% of total management)[1].

From 1995 onwards, the conservation NGOs were designated to provide the technical assistance to the communities located within the MUZ with regards to timber management[1]. By the end of 1995, with the support of the rubber tappers' union Síndicato Unico de Chicleros y Laborantes en Madera (SUCHILMA), a Consultative Council of Forest Communities of Petén (CONFOCOP) was established by community leaders who wished to establish a legal entity at the secondary level[1]. In 1997, this council became a legal secondary level entity called the Association of Forest Communities of Petén (ACOFOP)[1]. Working as a political advocate for their own interests, ACOFOP had expanded the number of member organizations from 4 to 23[1].

From 2002 to 2012, the concession groups had tried to consolidate the concession system in the MUZ of MBR. Meanwhile, with the increasing external interests over renewable resources and tourism in Petén, new conflicts arose[1].

Tenure arrangements

There were two "long-inhabited" communities: Carmelita and Uaxactún, emerging as gum tapper settlements in the early 20th century[6]. Other communities such as Cruce La Colorada, La Pasadita and San Miguel La Palotada, with traditions in agriculture and cattle ranching, were the result of two spontaneous colonization booms[6]. Since these newcomers had a background of agriculture, they tended to break the rule to not clear the forestland, which later contradicted the conditions of obtaining FSC certificate to renew the concessions[7].

In order for a community to have a concession, it needed to be recognized as an entity backed up with an NGO or a certified agent[5]. After being granted the concession, communities would have 3 years to obtain the FSC certificate, failing to do so would possibly lead to the revocation of the concessions[8].

Bundle of rights

  1. Access rights: Granted by the State, community concessions holders have access rights to forest concession units and archaeological sites(guiding tours)[3].
  2. Withdrawal rights: Community concession holders can extract timber and NTFPs under the management plan. In practice, extraction of NTFPs and agro-cultivation and pasture, hunting are still under de facto agreements[3].
  3. Management rights: Community concession holders have the management rights to set land management plans and make decisions for timber, NTFPs and pasture[3].
  4. Exclusion rights: Community concession holders have the exclusion rights to outsiders[3].
  5. Alienation rights: State owns the alienation rights, which means concession groups cannot sell or lease the land within the forest concession units[3].
  6. Duration of rights: The community concession is a temporary, renewable, 25-year period concession[3].

Main characteristic of Petén's tenure reform

  • A recent on-going reform[3]
  • Emerged from conservation interests instead of forest decentralization or policy reforms[3]
  • Strong regulation of access rights from the State; the renewable resources such as petroleum and gas are owned by the State[3]
  • Tenure rights over natural resources[3]
  • Collective actions within each collective community[3]
  • Concessionaire organizations responsible for allocation of resources[3]

Administrative arrangements


From 1959 to 1987, this area was governed by the FYDEP, the only governmental presence in the Petén, which had close ties with the Guatemalan military[4]. The objective of FYDEP was to promote rural colonization policies, which led to large numbers of landless farmers moving to the region to have some arable lands[4]. These newcomers formed agricultural cooperatives and were granted tracts of land from FYDEP[4]. Although over 74 peasant cooperatives were established in Petén during this time period, the majority of the land was granted to people who had connections with the military or of the middle- and upper-classes[1][9]. The main functions of FYDEP were agricultural colonization of lowlands, natural resources administration and land distribution and establishment of communities in Petén[3]. In 1969, FYDEP conducted a forest inventory with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), determining that 92 percent of the Petén was covered with primary forests[4]. After that, FYDEP granted considerable forest concessions (approximately 50,000 ha) to logging companies with the objective of extracting mahogany and Spanish cedar[5]. This area was under de facto individual open access scenarios during this period[1].


CONAP replaced FYDEP in 1989[6], and established protected areas including MBR one year later[1][5]. The role of state entity changed towards the conservation and preservation of forests, which also challenged the existing de facto rights of forest dwellers[3]. As the Peace Accord was signed in the mid 1990s, the land rights were finalized, leading to the greater participation of communities in protected areas over natural resources[3]. In addition, CONAP promoted sustainable use of resources and halted spontaneous migration movements[3]. Due to the strict conservation policies, the conflicts between CONAP and conservation NGOs versus local population arose, which forced CONAP to come up with a model that can accommodate the interest of all parties[6].

The technical team of CONAP did not trust the peasants were able to manage the forests, which caused the delayed granting of concessions after the first concession to San Miguel La Palotada[10]. Total of 12 community concession contracts were signed from 1994 to 2001[3].Of the 2,112,940 ha in the MBR, 445,804 are now managed by community forest concessions holders[9]. CONAP and USAID, as well as other international conservation organizations, refused to give concessions to industrial logging companies because they would not manage the forests sustainably if granted access[9].

Affected stakeholders and their relative power

In the lecture given by Dr.Janette Bulkan, she introduced the definition of affected stakeholders. Affected stakeholders refer to any person, groups of person or entities that have a long-term welfare dependency in the area and are subject to activities happening in the area, and/or have an emotional tie with the place[11].

Community People

In the case of MBR, long-inhabited people (people live in Carmelita and Uaxactún community) are affected stakeholders, who use the collection of non-timber forest products as their primary source of income (e.g. xate and chicle) and have lived within the MBR boundaries for multiple generations[7]. These people had strong incentives to protect the area granted to them via concessions, partially because tourism and the collection of NTFPs require that the forest remain intact[7]. Their relative power was low although things happened in the area would affect their livelihoods. Under the concessions granted by CONAP, community people were permitted to have rational use of wood, the extraction of non-wood products such as xate palm leaf and chicle, and tourism[9]. However, the land still belongs to the Government[9].

As for the recently inhabited people from communities such as Cruce La Colorada, La Pasadita and San Miguel La Palotada, who moved due to two spontaneous colonization booms in the 1980s, they are also affected stakeholders[6]. These migrants had strong traditions in agriculture and cattle ranching[6]. Therefore, they tended to clear the lands for other uses, which contradicted with the conditions of maintaining FSC certificate to renew the concessions[7]. In 2009, many of the recently inhabited concessions were cancelled because the forests were not being managed sustainably[7]. Concession membership does not increase income in these recently inhabited areas[7].


At first, instead of granting concessions to the communities, the Guatemala government sought to provide concessions only to private companies[5]. However, after the communities knew that, they started to campaign for creation of a community-based forestry system[12]. As one of the largest supporting organizations, USAID donated 10 million dollars to support conservation effects in MBR[12]. USAID also required the concession holders to manage the granted area with the help of NGOs[12]. There were few national NGOs in the county after the civil war[4]. Therefore, ACOFOP(the Advisory Council of the Forest Communities of Petén) emerged as a secondary grassroots organization, which was established to represent their common interests[4]. ACOFOP represented about 14,000 individuals from 13 concessions and 9 cooperatives, which increased the share of the market and its bargaining power[13]. ACOFOP provided supports to individual concessions administratively and technically, meditated and represented the community concessions, and executed development and projects in concession villages[12]. In addition to the technical support offered by a small team of extension staff, ACOFOP also worked closely with coordinating production (e.g. a company of forestry called Forescom) in order to develop collective saw milling and commercialization[14]. ACOFOP, with some negotiation and political power, was able to pressure CONAP to accelerate the concession process[6]. In the Mirador Basin Expansion Project, ACOFOP, together with concessionaires, successfully reversed a green grab, which will be discussed in the "critical issues and conflicts in MBR"[12]. ACOFOP is now representing 23 peasant and indigenous organizations, manages development projects and participates in creating political policies that will have an impact on Petén’s conservation, economic development and security[15].

Interested Stakeholders and their relative power

Interested stakeholders refer to any person, group of persons, or entity that is linked in a transaction or an activity relating to a forest area, but who does/do not have a long-term dependency on that forest area[11].


CONAP is the central authority managing the concessions, which is responsible for establishing rules, granting concession status, and monitoring and compliance[5]. People who work for CONAP are linked with the activities happening in MBR, but they are paid by the Government, which means they do not have any long-term dependency on the forest area. The relative power held by them is large. In order to gain concession status, the community groups must submit forest management plans to CONAP. After the plan is approved by CONAP, the community can gain legal property rights over the forest area for a renewable period of 25 years[4]. If the community failed to obtained the FSC certificate or violated the management plan, CONAP would probably revoke the concessions[8].

USAID and international NGOs

International aid was a major contributor in the development of the concessions, which would not have been possible without such support[4]. USAID, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and a German organization, Forestry, Work, and Technology (KWF) were the primary funders[9]. As interested stakeholders, people worked for USAID and other NGOs had some connections with MBR, but they were paid by the donors, so they did not have any long-term dependency on the area. Between 1989 and 2003, over 92 million US dollars was invested for projects in the MBR[9]. The majority of the funding was assigned to national and international NGOs that worked with the concessions, not directly to the community[9]. This led to the dependence on NGOs among the concessions and the incentives for the NGOs to maintain the dependency to avoid funding chain breaks[9]. The heterogeneity among different concession groups from the wide range of backgrounds and experiences, were neglected by NGOs, which means the approach for providing training and technical support was the same for different groups[9]. In addition, the projects for different areas were designed before they reached communities, which met donors' or members' tastes, not communities'[16].

Critical issues and conflicts in the MBR

Internal issues for the concessions

  1. NGOs play an important role and some communities applied for the concessions without a thorough understanding of the complicated statutes associated with legal concession status[4].
  2. People living in for-profit community groups (e.g. Carmelita) that registered as cooperatives can receive dividends, while people living in non-profit community groups can only receive in-kind benefits (e.g. school and medical fee)[4][13].
  3. The conflicts arose since non-members wanted to join when the concessions began to turn profits[13]. However, the current concessions member had already invested their money and time[13].
  4. Lack of businesses management skills due to the fact that NGOs mainly focused on the forestry technical skills[13].
  5. A lack of trust among the communities caused inefficiencies when it came to the purchase and sharing of equipment[4].

External issues for the concessions

  1. Lack of authority and stability of CONAP: CONAP is responsible for monitoring the concessions and conducting on-site inspections[4]. However these inspections should be less frequent or rigorous, in order to cause less burden to the communities[4].
  2. Inflexibility of the regulations in their contracts with CONAP: CONAP can only cancel or suspend the contract if the operating plan is not approved, which could lead to extreme actions taken by community members[4].
  3. Conflicts over petroleum exploration and extraction between long-inhabited communities and newly moved-in workers[4].
  4. Drug trafficking continues to be an issue in the reserve as Petén is a major road for drug trafficking through Mexico and to the USA[4].

Mirador Basin Battle

Despite the efforts of Government trying to organize the land-use regime shift by the legal establishment of MBR, there was unforeseen local resistance and conflicts[1]. Mirador Basin Project was identified by the MBR residents as a green land grab, an act of land dispossession that threatened their rights to timber and other forest products in the area of the community forest concessions[12]. Carmelita's community concession would be reduced by 60% and Uaxactún’s concession by almost 15% in the Mirador Basin Project[12]. In addition, residents who lived in unaffected community concessions considered the green grab as a threat to the integrity of the system, so they organized in response[12]. Members of ACOFOP, the umbrella organization for Maya Biosphere community forestry concessions, enunciated a political front opposed to the Mirador Basin green grab[12]. Shortly after the decree's publication, the legal representatives of the affected and solidarity communities traveled to Guatemala City to present an appeal for legal protection[12]. The second appeal was filed on September 1, 2003, followed by a peaceful protest receiving national press coverage in Guatemala's capital city[12]. Late April of 2004, two special commissions investigating the Mirador Basin legal controversy presented a joint recommendation letter to congress[12]. The commission concluded that the decree should be discarded[12].

Assessments and recommendations

The success or failure of the MBR project should be considered from following aspects: the decreased rates of deforestation and forest cover change due to reductions in logging, agriculture, forest fires, as well as the financial stability and profitability of the community forest enterprises[4].

There have been many positive social and environmental effects: a decreased impact from forest fires, few illegal logging and illegal settlements, as well as the successful entry into the certified wood market[9]. Meanwhile, the livelihood strategies of community families have been reorganized and improved[9]. It is also worth noting that, compared with the buffer zone of MBR and some national park (Laguna del Tigre and Sierra del Lacandón), there is a considerable reduction in forest fires in the community concessions[9]. Besides, stabilization of the agricultural frontier is also indicating the forest has been managed well[9].

For communities that voluntarily chose to manage the forest under concessions have experienced the greatest success with least internal conflict[17]. Long-inhabited people tend to have strong ties with the communities and are willing to manage the forest sustainably[7]. In turn, sustainable forest management also provides them with income in the long run[7]. As for concessions with recent immigrants, the major reason they wanted to obtain forest concessions was to retain the rights to settle in the area[17]. These people tended to treat forests as an open access resource, which led to the failure[7].

However, the high dependency of concessions on donor aid makes it unknown whether they can financially be self-sufficient or not[9]. As reported in 2005, the most successful concessions cover about 95% of costs, the rest of concessions cover about 80% of costs[13]. For communities that have value-added processes, processing the wood could increase the number of work days, and thus have higher market prices and higher salaries generated for concession members[4]. The lowest three groups sold unprocessed wood, smaller areas of forest per concession member[4]. Overall, it helped both members and non-members[4]. It was reported that in 2004, 9 community forest enterprises generated 24,338 permanent jobs and 46,692 temporary jobs[18].

It is important for the less developed concessions to have greater participation in ACOFOP, which will strengthen human capital, as well as reduce infighting and cronyism[4]. Policies that can help them to have an equitable access and benefit sharing need to be implemented. For example, they can cooperate with communities that have equipment to process the wood, or attaching tags on souvenirs to attract potential buyers. In addition, communities need to be flexible in order to survive in the changing market and continue to build up the existing organizational structure if they want to develop and incorporate a wider range of activities into the forest management plan[4].


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 1.19 1.20 1.21 1.22 1.23 Monterroso, I., & Barry, D. (2007). Community-based forestry and the changes in tenure and access rights in the Mayan Biosphere Reserve, Guatemala. International Conference on Poverty Reduction and Forests: Tenure, Market and Policy Reforms, Bangkok, Thailand: RECOFTC.
  2. UNESCO MAB Biosphere Reserves Dictionary. (2011). Biosphere Reserve Information. Retrieved from
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 3.14 3.15 3.16 3.17 Monterroso, I., & Barry, D. (2012). Legitimacy of forest rights: The underpinnings of the forest tenure reform in the protected areas of Petén, Guatemala. Conservation and Society, 10(2), 136-150. doi:10.4103/0972-4923.97486
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  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 7.7 7.8 Bocci, C., Fortmann, L., Sohngen, B., & Milian, B. (2018). The impact of community forest concessions on income: An analysis of communities in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. World Development, 107, 10-21. doi:10.1016/j.worlddev.2018.02.011
  8. 8.0 8.1 Gretzinger, S. P. (1998). Community forest concessions: an economic alternative for the Maya Biosphere Reserve in the Petén, Guatemala. In R. B. Primack, D. B. Bray, H. A. Galletti, and I. Ponciano, editors. Timber, tourists, and temples: conservation and development in the Maya forest of Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico. (pp. 111-124) Island Press, Washington, D.C.
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  10. Carrera, F., & Prins, K. (2002). Desarrollo de la política en Concesiones Forestales Comunitarias en Petén, Guatemala: El aporte de la investigación y experiencia sistematizada del CATIE. Revista Forestal Centroamericana, 37, 33–40.
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  12. 12.00 12.01 12.02 12.03 12.04 12.05 12.06 12.07 12.08 12.09 12.10 12.11 12.12 Devine, J. A. (2018). Community forest concessionaires: Resisting green grabs and producing political subjects in Guatemala. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 45(3), 565-584. doi:10.1080/03066150.2016.1215305
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 Nittler, J., & Tschinkel, H. (2005). Community forest management in the Maya Biosphere Reserve of Guatemala: protection through profits. United States Agency for International Development, Washington, D.C., and Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management Collaborative Research Support Program, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, USA.
  14. Taylor, P. L. (2010). Conservation, community, and culture? New organizational challenges of community forest concessions in the Maya Biosphere Reserve of Guatemala. Journal of Rural Studies, 26(2), 173-184. doi:10.1016/j.jrurstud.2009.09.006
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