Guatemalan Forest Communities Protect Their Own

Deep within the jungles of Guatemala, a chainsaw echoes across the hills. A pair of young men take their cutting instruments to a nearby sapling. As they begin their work, police show up to stop the illegal cutting. However, these law enforcement agents are not from the federal government or a national park service, but from a local community looking to preserve and protect what is theirs. This enforcement is not done purely out of altruism – the community protects the trees for their own sustainable use.

This is the face of a new conservation program opening up in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. In spite of the best efforts of the national government, Guatemala still suffers from high levels of deforestation. By putting the responsibility in the hands of local communities, it leaves the defense to those with the greatest incentive to protect the forest. Although they have their own mills and logging services, these communities do not have the capability or the desire to uproot and move on when an area is clear. As a result, they are motivated to practice sustainable logging efforts and minimize waste.

The rigid monitoring system employed by these local communities has also helped deter lawbreakers. Rather than saddle the central government with thousands (if not, millions) of square miles of territory to police, local villages are given the task of protecting what is essentially their backyard.

“Nobody is going to take care of somebody else’s house, somebody else’s garden. But they will look after and defend their own livelihood,” says Marcedonio Cortave, the director of an alliance of communities working in the reserve.

The effect of this unorthodox approach to conservation is immediately apparent. Although only 30% of the reserve is parceled out to local communities, the program has been a stunning success. The greatest success story is in Uaxactún (pronounced Wah-shac-TOON). Uaxactún is prospering thanks to the wood and resources extracted sustainably from their own region. Uaxactún wood has been sold globally, with buyers in the US and Europe. This success is accomplished without creating the barren hillsides that are typical of industrial and illegal logging efforts.

The practice has helped prove that environmental preservation and economic growth can go hand in hand. By minimizing waste and only taking what is needed, forests that are essential to combatting climate change and keeping our atmosphere breathable are maintained, while their residents prosper. It is a philosophy that has driven Dispenser Amenities’ business model from the beginning and enabled us to eliminate millions of plastic containers from landfills all over the world.

Prosperity and conservation truly do not have to be at odds. If anything, these two forces work in concert. The use of sensible, sustainable environmental regulation and responsible land use pays itself off many times over when contrasted with the costs sustained by environmental damage and rising sea levels. Hopefully, the Guatemalan model will spread around the world, and provide direction towards a greener future.

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