Community Rights: A Key to Conservation in Central America

Uaxactún, Guatemala — Research has shown that indigenous peoples and local communities play a key role in biodiversity and forest conservation in Central America and Mexico. Drawing on case studies from across the region, a new report adds to the mounting evidence that securing and implementing indigenous and community rights to their lands and forests effectively reduces deforestation and bolsters the protection of biodiversity.

The report, Conservation and Community Rights: Lessons from Mesoamerica, was authored by the PRISMA Foundation, an environmental and development research center based in El Salvador. The publication was released in Mexico City, coinciding with the thirteenth conference of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which took place December 4 to 17 in Cancun.

Promising success stories are examined in the report, including community forest management in northern Guatemala and indigenous conservation in eastern Panama. The report asserts the region is uniquely positioned to provide lessons in rights-based conservation to the rest of the world.

“From Mexico to Panama, indigenous peoples and local communities have legally recognized rights to approximately 65% of the forests in Mesoamerica, far exceeding any other region in the world,” the report’s authors write. That is more than twice the level of indigenous and community tenure rights of Latin America as a whole (32 percent) or of Asia (30 percent), according to their research.

Gaps in Rights and Recognition

The recognition of rights, however, doesn’t automatically mean they are taken into consideration when it comes to conservation policy.

“As a nation, Mexico has recognized the rights of indigenous and rural peoples to a large part of our country’s territory,” Gustavo Sánchez, a representative of the Mexican Network of Community Forest Organizations, said in a December 8 statement marking the release of the PRISMA report.

“Over time, however, those rights have been eroded by various policies, and one of them is the current model for conserving biodiversity. With few exceptions, it tends to be restrictive and fails to recognize the rights of our peoples,” Sánchez said.

Conservation at the expense of local people dates back to the late 1800s, when the first national parks in the United States were established. “The U.S. federal government expelled Native American populations who had lived sustainably for generations in the territories that became Yellowstone National Park and Yosemite National Park,” the report authors wrote.

It’s a conservation model that has since been replicated to varying degrees around the world, and Central America and Mexico are no exceptions. The region is home to conflicts between communities with traditional conservation systems and government officials — and sometimes police and military forces — enforcing protected areas imposed on inhabitants without their consent, consultation, or participation.

Case studies examined in the new report include both conflicts and successes, both acknowledged as pointing the way forward to a rights-based conservation model.

“Rights-based conservation is an approach that recognizes the rights of local communities and indigenous peoples,” Andrew Davis, a senior researcher at the PRISMA Foundation and one of two lead authors of the new report, told Mongabay.

“Rights, of course, is a broad term that refers to the rules on the ground that determine how communities relate to their natural resources, and that is important because the rules that govern these societies are almost universally disregarded in protected areas policy,” he said.

On paper, advancement appears clear. In terms of the frameworks of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the World Parks Congress, and other frameworks that guide conservation, there has been enormous progress, Davis said. However, much of that progress has yet to translate into practice.

“There’s still an enormous gap between the rights-based approach that has been outlined in these frameworks and what’s actually happening on the ground, and what’s actually happening on the ground in many cases continues to be a serious violation of indigenous rights in these territories that in many cases is undermining the communities and the conservation of biodiversity itself,” Davis said.

In cases where protected areas were established with no consideration for local inhabitants, one starting point would be to invest in dialogue and consultation with communities about how best to conserve those territories, according to Davis.

“I think it involves investing in local community and indigenous organizations and enterprises that are aligned with the sustainable use of those landscapes,” he said. It’s one of the key recommendations of the report, but Davis believes it may take convincing.

“There’s a lot of skepticism that these enterprises can function,” he said. “There especially exists the idea that indigenous peoples can’t run enterprises or that indigenous values are not compatible with running these enterprises. But our experiences in Guatemala and Mexico and across the region have showed that that’s not the case, that when you recognize rights and invest in these organizations [then] you can have enterprises that conserve biodiversity and also contribute to the development of the population.”

Community Conservation in Action

Benedicta Dionisio Ramírez would likely agree. She and two other women co-founded Alimentos Nutri-naturales (ANSA) with their own funds back in 2005, she explained to Mongabay while running her fingers through the ramón tree seeds in one of the 100-pound sacks stacked behind her. They now work with some 180 people, predominantly women, who harvest the seeds in private and municipal lands in the buffer zone of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in northern Guatemala.

The enterprise helps keep more trees standing in the heavily deforested buffer zone, and processing the seeds contributes to local livelihoods and nutrition. At ANSA, the seeds were everywhere: drying on covered racks outside, waiting their turn to be roasted for a coffee-style drink, and as flour in the cookies being packaged by Dionisio Ramírez’ colleague. “We sell locally and nationally,” said Dionisio Ramírez. “We have a few clients in the United States, and one in Japan.”

Also known as Maya nuts, the nutritious seeds were an important food source centuries ago for the region’s indigenous Maya inhabitants. These days the seeds are undergoing a resurgence in the area, spearheaded by local associations and rainforest communities. They coordinate together in a commission, with the support of Guatemalan and international NGOs as well as the governmental National Council for Protected Areas.

The commission includes a representative from Uaxactún, a village located within the Uaxactún community forest concession in the multi-use zone of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. The deforestation rate across the zone’s active community forest concessions is lower than that of the biosphere reserve’s core zone, comprised mainly of national parks. Data from the University of Maryland show the biosphere reserve lost 8 percent of its tree cover between 2001 and 2014, that number rising to 13 percent if the reserve’s buffer zone is included. In contrast, the Uaxactún community forest concession lost less than 1 percent of its tree cover.

Floridalma Ax coordinates the ramón tree seed initiative in Uaxactún, where indigenous and non-indigenous community residents also sustainably harvest other forest products such as allspice, xate ornamental palm fronds, and mahogany and other wood. The products are all subject to certification, either by the Forest Stewardship Council or as organic, and their management is closely monitored and regulated by the government and by the community itself.

During the two ramón tree seed harvest periods per year, Ax takes part in inspection work. “In the forest, the work that is done is to see whether a tree has good seed production,” she told Mongabay. “According to the management plan, 70 percent [of the seeds] can be harvested and 30 percent is left for the animals and so the tree can reproduce.”

The Maya Biosphere Reserve’s community forest concessions are highlighted in the new PRISMA Foundation report, and demonstrate how rights need to be recognized, but also actively secured and implemented on the ground.

“It varies on each particular territory how the implementation of rights would actually play out. So in the community concessions we see joint patrols, we see joint work being done detecting forest fires,” Davis said.

The importance of a rights-based approach to conservation was also highlighted by a map published earlier this year by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which presented the massive overlap between Central America’s protected areas and indigenous territories. Research has also shown that securing indigenous and community forest rights can be an incredibly cost-effective way to combat climate change.

“You have indigenous people and local communities that are more organized and more sophisticated than ever,” Davis said. “Given the state of the global crisis of the loss of biodiversity, we do think that this is an immediate solution that is available now to governments and cooperation and to non-governmental organizations.”