The Uaxactún (pronounced Wash-ak-toon) community is pioneering a model of forest protection in Guatemala.
A conservation agreement signed in June 2009 in this Guatemalan subtropical rainforest community not far from the borders with Belize and Mexico is the first of its kind in the country. The communal forest concession of Uaxactún is located in the heart of the Mayan Biosphere Reserve, in one of the most important archeological sites of the Mayan civilization. The success of this agreement could make it a model for future community conservation efforts in the reserve and beyond.
Under the agreement, the community pledged to protect nearly 84,000 hectares of forest. Conservation International Guatemala, Conservation International’s Conservation Stewards Program and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) supported the design of the agreement with the Uaxactún community in close coordination with Guatemala’s National Council on Protected Areas (CONAP). The partners expect that the contract will advance socioeconomic development in the community while helping to protect the immense biodiversity of the Maya Biosphere Reserve.
Under the agreement, the community of Uaxactún agreed to prohibit new deforestation and cattle farming, protect key species like the jaguar, control fires, use zoning to limit agricultural expansion, abide by financially transparent business practices and work with the supervision of CONAP.
In return, the community receives help in preventing uncontrolled fires, assistance with monitoring its lands and funding for improved education. The main source of income for the roughly 1,300 Uaxactún residents is harvesting xate palm fronds, used around the world for household decorations and in church services (such as on Palm Sunday). The agreement promotes more sustainable use of this economically crucial resource by providing financial and technical support for a nursery to restock forests with xate plants, as well as facilitating a price premium for the sale of the plants.
“Everybody in this community knows about the agreement and I think everybody will benefit from it,” said America Rodriguez of WCS. “You see it in the teenagers involved with xate collection and the little kids who are planting their own xate gardens. It’s a community project and they’re all really excited about it.”
The Uaxactún residents believe the agreement will provide development opportunities for their town and a better way of life for their children. Community leaders say residents are most enthusiastic about learning opportunities. The agreement also provides environmental education and training, salary for a permanent teacher and money for school supplies and equipment to improve overall education for youth. “Traditionally, the youth here work basically as farmhands, dealing with the extraction of things like chewing gum (“chicle”) and the xate plant from our land,” said WCS technician Julio Zetina, who helps implement the agreement. “Now, with this they see that they could become professional workers. They see we can stop living off the forest resources and there are different lifestyles within our reach.”
Community leader Benedin Garcia said there were some who feared the impacts of opportunities provided by the agreement, thinking that, with increased education, their children would leave the community and the village’s way of life would be forever altered.
“Now most people feel this could be the only way to go,” Garcia said. “There are opportunities for development here, and, of course, the benefit of keeping the environment healthy.”
The government of Guatemala sees the agreement as a potential model to demonstrate how to safeguard the country’s natural resources while improving the quality of life for its people. Eliseo Gálvez, a program director for CONAP, notes that national leaders are watching.
“We are very much observing what happens here in Uaxactún,” Gálvez said. “We’re hoping [the community will] be excited about conservation, excited enough to go tell other areas about their experience, because if it works, we want to be able to replicate this agreement in other protected areas.”
Based on the experience in Uaxactún, CONAP is exploring the possibility of replicating agreements to implement the National Strategy of Communal Lands, which was recently approved.
Conservationists are looking to several possible sources for long-term funding for the project, including carbon credit deals, a debt swap enacted in Guatemala under the U.S. Tropical Forest Conservation Act, and possibly the establishment of an endowment to provide long-term financial security. Global funding sources have an important role, as the significance of this agreement extends well beyond Uaxactún.
As Doña Neira Herrera Pinero, a former teacher in Uaxactún, said, “It’s been a little tough, but I think men and women alike have learned that doing the right thing for the forest is not just good for us and our way of life, but good for the entire universe.” Editor’s note: This article includes reporting by Kathleen Miller.