Proposed new park on indigenous land treads fine ethical line

  • Community leaders and environmental groups are working to expand protected areas around a mountain cloaked in rare cloud forest in central Guatemala that is home to several indigenous communities.
  • There are many pitfalls to avoid: Conservation efforts have often historically overlooked the needs of local communities, excluding them from project planning and imposing disagreeable regulations on land use that threaten traditional ways of life.
  • The NGO leading the effort is taking a two-pronged approach: One entails propping up local communities to reduce their dependence on the forest without altering their customs, and committing to getting their input into the protected area proposal.
  • But the other entails buying up land in advance of lobbying congress for a new protected area. Because this part of their plan has all the earmarks of traditional “fortress conservation,” some outside experts are expressing concern.

LA GLORIA, Guatemala — The sun was still rising when Ovidio Yat Sacul set out, machete in hand, in search of a waterfall near the top of the mountain overlooking his village.

The mountain is called Cerro Amay, a mix of Spanish and the indigenous Q’eqchi’ language meaning “mountain where one cannot survive.” And at 2,600 meters (8,530 feet) above sea level, it resembles many of the small, rounded peaks that populate much of central Guatemala. But Cerro Amay is different. It has something special other mountains don’t.

At the top sits more than 250 square kilometers (97 square miles) of cloud forest, an extremely rare type of forest that forms in cooler, low-light mountain environments, and exists in a near-constant fog.

That would not make Sacul’s hike an easy one.

Because Cerro Amay is a cloud forest, it exists in a near-constant fog. Image by Max Radwin for Mongabay.

From a plastic container, he took out tortillas, beans and eggs to share with the two friends accompanying him, Elías Barrera and Pedro Chipel.

We’re going to need the energy,” he told them.

The three men hiked for nearly three hours through the forest on a trail that was often too overgrown to see. Fallen trees blocked the way. The footing was slippery. Cloud forests have the unique characteristic of gathering water not just from rainfall, but also by stripping it from the air. Almost everything was wet to the touch. Moss covered the ground.

Their hike passed through a 200-hectare (490-acre) community reserve owned by Sacul’s village, La Gloria, one of about 30 villages dotting the base of the mountain. La Gloria recognizes how special the area is. Less than 2 percent of the country is cloud forest, according to the U.S.-based NGO Community Cloud Forest Conservation. And often, the species there are endemic to just that area. But the majority of Cerro Amay remains unprotected and under threat from development and expanding agriculture.

Community leaders and environmental groups are working to expand protected areas around Cerro Amay while also educating residents about sustainable agricultural practices and the damage done by deforestation. But no strategy has proven quick or easy.

Map shows the location of La Gloria in central Guatemala. Image courtesy of Google Maps.
Map shows the location of La Gloria in central Guatemala. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

Through openings in the trees, Sacul waved down at workers in the fields of La Gloria, speculating about what crops they were growing, who might sell their land, whether the sale would come up at such-and-such meeting. The three men were lost in conversation when the waterfall appeared up ahead. Then they fell silent.

The waterfall broke over a cluster of rocks and sprayed like a shower into a small pond below. A small stream flowed from the pond, under a fallen tree and down the mountain. Sacul watched with Barrera and Chipel, taking photos. Chipel stripped down to his underwear and waded into the middle of the pond.

“It’s so cold but also really nice,” he said.

This waterfall is of particular importance, not just because it epitomizes the beauty of the cloud forest, but because it feeds into the river that powers La Gloria’s mini-hydroelectric dam.

Barrera and Chipel work for the Foundation for Eco-development and Conservation (FUNDAECO), a Guatemalan NGO. For more than two years, the pair worked closely with Sacul, who is the secretary of indigenous affairs for La Gloria’s Integral Development Association, on the mini-hydro project, driving several hours from FUNDAECO’s regional office a few days a week.

FUNDAECO stepped in to help the community finance the mini-hydro project when it nearly fell through in 2017. A resident had volunteered his property for construction, but later backed down, and the community lacked the funds to buy it from him until FUNDAECO arranged a donation. The project was finally installed  later that year.

Now, standing before the waterfall, the three men almost seemed to be checking in on an elaborate old machine — to be making sure that all the moving parts of the cloud forest were still intact.

“It doesn’t make sense to have a river and not take care of the forests,” said Barrera, who coordinates FUNDAECO’s local chapter. “You have to first ensure the permanence of the forest because that’s where your water comes from. If you cut down the forest, you won’t have water in a few years and then you won’t have light.”

One of countless waterfalls within Cerro Amay, which supplies water to local communities living down below. Image courtesy of FUNDAECO.
One of countless waterfalls within Cerro Amay, which supplies water to local communities living down below. Image courtesy of FUNDAECO.

Communities vs. protected areas?

In Guatemala, the friendship between Barrera, Chipel and Sacul — and by extension La Gloria and FUNDAECO — is a rare and unlikely one. Sustainable development and conservation efforts have often historically overlooked the needs of local communities, excluding them from project planning and imposing onerous regulations on land use that threaten traditional ways of life.

On the Caribbean coast, the Q’eqchi’ people spent two years fighting a government-imposed “multiple-use area” restricting fishing and agricultural activity, about which they had never been consulted. Only after a 2007 constitutional court ruling were they given the power to influence decisions about their land — though the protected area remained—and the group eventually welcomed the new regulations.

A resident of La Gloria, Doming Chen, walks through the cloud forest. Image by Max Radwin for Mongabay.
A resident of La Gloria, Doming Chen, walks through the cloud forest. Image by Max Radwin for Mongabay.

Conservationists in Guatemala, and abroad, are still grappling with the ethical implications of establishing protected areas where native communities reside. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, has said there should be a move away from “traditional fortress conservation,” in which land is set aside for non-use. In its place, she advocates for a “rights-based” approach that treats local peoples as stewards of the environment, capable of managing the resources of their own land.

Around Cerro Amay, the population is majority indigenous — a mix of Quiché, Q’eqchi’, Uspantek and Poqomam — but what complicates the situation is that these same people are responsible for much of the area’s deforestation. It’s made Tauli-Corpuz’s long-term, rights-based approach to conservation a little tricky to pull off.

Cerro Amay communities look to the cloud forest for timber and agricultural opportunities when resources are scarce, one reason Global Forest Watch recorded approximately 1,366 hectares (3,377 acres) of tree-cover loss between 2001 and 2016. The area’s alarming and persistent rate of poverty, characterized by food scarcity and a population boom, could see that number spike if something doesn’t change soon.

A white-eared Hummingbird (Basilinna leucotis), a resident of Cerro Amay. Image by Dominic Sherony via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).
A white-eared Hummingbird (Basilinna leucotis), a resident of Cerro Amay. Image by Dominic Sherony via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

For now, FUNDAECO’s approach to saving the cloud forest mostly involves propping up the local communities in accordance with Tauli-Corpuz’s vision. It aims to promote sustainable production practices and establish health clinics and educational programs, ultimately lowering residents’ dependence on the forest without altering their customs.

But at the same time, the NGO is buying up land in advance of lobbying congress for some form of government-protected area. So far, it’s purchased at least 403 hectares (995 acres), set aside as the private Cerro Amay-Chimel Cloud Forest Preserve. And because this part of their plan has all the earmarks of traditional “fortress conservation,” some outside experts are expressing concern.

“Whatever project that an NGO brings to a community can be a good thing,” said Victor Lopez, an adviser with the Nicaraguan NGO MesoAmerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests. “Agriculture, health care — it can be a good thing. But none of that justifies a behavior that is practically colonial, to take control of a community’s resources.”

Since its founding in 1990, FUNDAECO has been responsible for creating more than 15 natural reserves through land acquisition. The NGO says it follows a “new model” of conservation that is “community-based” and “participatory.” But it also supplies forest guards, among other services, to 120 communities that need to patrol their natural resources, often because the government simply doesn’t have the funds to do it alone. That’s a lot of power for one private environmental group to wield.

Deforestation creeps into Cerro Amay. According to FUNDAECO, families may increasingly look up into Cerro Amay, where the cloud forest seems to offer an infinite supply of both lumber and land. Image by Max Radwin for Mongabay.
Deforestation creeps into Cerro Amay. According to FUNDAECO, families may increasingly look up into Cerro Amay, where the cloud forest seems to offer an infinite supply of both lumber and land. Image by Max Radwin for Mongabay.

“For them it’s all about the forest and biodiversity,” Lopez said of FUNDAECO. He added, “They say they have money to benefit communities, but in the end it’s, ‘we have the money and we want to be the owners of the land,’ while neglecting community traditions, ancient knowledge and local organizations that are essential to achieving long-lasting conservation.”

In the case of Cerro Amay, Barrera said it was only buying property as a “co-owner” with residents, or in situations involving “absentee” owners who live outside the area. It also has a policy of never buying land from indigenous peoples. As for La Gloria’s mini-hydro project, FUNDAECO rejected the idea of buying the site from the original owner who was backing out. Instead, it purchased land to expand La Gloria’s forest reserve and gave the community the funds it needed to buy the mini-hydro project site on its own terms.

Owning a contiguous swath of land on Cerro Amay will make appeals to congress for a protected area go much more smoothly, as there should, in theory, be fewer conflicts over property titles. But Barrera said communities would participate in the land demarcation process, providing input on and an endorsement of what areas could end up being a national park, a reserve or some other form of protected area.

“We aren’t an organization that imposes what we want, what we believe,” Barrera said. “We can’t define in one or two years what a reserve will look like. This is a process that could last five, 10, 20 years if we don’t reach a community agreement. The process has to be well-established and understood by everyone who lives around Cerro Amay.”

Pedro Chipel of FUNDAECO checks on the growth of a macadamia tree, one possible cash crop that could help preserve the cloud forest on Cerro Amay. Image by Max Radwin for Mongabay.
Pedro Chipel of FUNDAECO checks on the growth of a macadamia tree, one possible cash crop that could help preserve the cloud forest on Cerro Amay. Image by Max Radwin for Mongabay.

Population, land, forests

After returning from the waterfall, Barrera and Chipel joined Sacul at his house, a one-story wooden structure with dirt floors located at the foot of Cerro Amay. The three men sat on the porch eating cooked bananas, the cloud forest looming overhead. Out on the lawn, three of Sacul’s five children and several nieces and nephews were playing with a soccer ball, running between giant ferns to escape the afternoon heat.

Even larger families than Sacul’s, some with as many as 10 children, are common in Guatemala. Since 1990, the country’s population has nearly doubled, according to the World Bank, from more than 9 million to nearly 17 million. With little knowledge of or access to family planning and few opportunities for women outside the house, communities are increasingly stretching their limited resources to impossible ends.

It’s not uncommon to see girls aged 14 or 15 forced into marriages with older men who can better provide for them. Sacul’s second-oldest daughter, Sabrina, was proposed to at just 17. She rejected the offer and managed to find work as a chauffeur, driving between communities around Cerro Amay.

. Residents living near Cerro Amay catch a ride in a passing truck. Image by Max Radwin for Mongabay.
. Residents living near Cerro Amay catch a ride in a passing truck. Image by Max Radwin for Mongabay.

Many residents remain unemployed, relying on subsistence corn and bean farming to feed their families. Their slash-and-burn techniques erode the land around Cerro Amay’s base and deplete its productivity.

In years past, life was easier. Residents survived on the cultivation and sale of cardamom spice. But around 2015, a plague hit the area. Crops died. Prices dropped. Some residents, desperate to feed their families, cleared their land around the base of Cerro Amay and sold off the wood. Cardamom isn’t expected to rebound for at least another three years.

Now, with no lumber left to sell, families are splitting up, with one parent typically traveling to the U.S. in hopes of finding work and wiring back money to the other. What concerns Barrera is that families will increasingly look up into Cerro Amay, where the cloud forest seems to offer an infinite supply of both lumber and land.

A margay (Leopardus wiedii), a resident of the Cerro Amay cloud forest. Image by Malene Thyssen via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.5).
A margay (Leopardus wiedii), a resident of the Cerro Amay cloud forest. Image by Malene Thyssen via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.5).

Establishing a protected area won’t dissuade desperate families from using the resources of the cloud forest. Barrera said he believes combating the source of the problem, poverty, is a better solution. Though radio programs, seminars, scholarships and home visits, FUNDAECO intends to teach residents about women’s empowerment, family planning and caring for the environment.

“Every day they have less land and the population keeps going up and up,” Barrera said. “What we do with people is teach them a method of planning — because if they have smaller families, they are much more likely to be able to support their children, to give them an education and have a future on their land.”

FUNDAECO is also helping residents sign up for government forestry incentive programs that offer landowners a yearly payout for keeping trees standing. The largest program, Probosque, pays about $323 per hectare up to the first 15 hectares (37 acres), and about $193 for each additional hectare. 

Sacul, who has about 40 hectares (99 acres) enrolled in Probosque, said he used his extra funds on miscellaneous property expenses, schooling for his kids, and a car. It’s made a big difference in his family’s finances.

Though Probosque has funding through 2047, the program serves more as a stop-gap solution than a permanent one, as it doesn’t create long-term work for communities around Cerro Amay. What communities really want is a sustainable cash crop, something they can rely on.

FUNDAECO’s current plans do not include projects to develop such a crop, but it has partnered with the Cloud Forest Conservation Initiative, part of the U.S.-based NGO Conservation Imaging, to evaluate which crops might serve the area best should the funding for a project materialize.

“I understand that this Cerro Amay project is a very big, important project,” Sacul said. “I just hope that the communities continue to coordinate so that we will be able to say in the future that this forest is a legacy for generations to come.”

The critically endangered Guatemalan spikethumb frog (Plectrohyla guatemalensis), a resident of the Cerro Amay cloud forest. Image by Josiah H. Townsend via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).
The critically endangered Guatemalan spikethumb frog (Plectrohyla guatemalensis), a resident of the Cerro Amay cloud forest. Image by Josiah H. Townsend via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Banner image: A black howler monkey (Alouatta pigra), a resident of Cerro Amay photographed in Belize. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

Max Radwin is a writer and journalist based in Guatemala City.

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