Study Shows that Community Forestry Outperforms all Others in Managing Valuable Tropical Timbers, Including Mahogany

Study Shows that Community Forestry Outperforms all Others in Managing Valuable Tropical Timbers, Including Mahogany

A new study on mahogany and other lesser-known species of trees that took place in the Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR), in Peten, Guatemala suggests that local communities with strong rights to their forests can sustainably harvest even the most valuable and endangered timber sustainably.

In Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve, community foresters harvest timber, while keeping the deforestation rate to near zero

GUATEMALA CITY– [5 November 2015]

A new study on mahogany and other lesser-known species of trees that took place in the Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR), in Peten, Guatemala suggests that local communities with strong rights to their forests can sustainably harvest even the most valuable and endangered timber sustainably.

The first of its kind in the context of community forest management, the study found that over 16 years of operation, communities that had been granted secure rights to manage and use forest concessions—comprising 40 percent of a protected forest—were able to use evidence-based solutions to benefit from their timber harvest while keeping the deforestation rate to near zero, at 0.4 percent.

The study examines 11 community forest concessions located in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR), in the heartland of ancient Mayan civilization. CATIE led the study, in collaboration with the Rainforest Alliance, the Association of Community Forest Concessions of the Petén (ACOFOP), FORESCOM (a service provider to the community enterprises), and Guatemala’s National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP), which administers the reserve.

This contrasts with the decline of tropical forests and big-leaf mahogany across much of Latin America, and with an overall deforestation rate in Guatemala of 1.4 percent, as found separately by the Rainforest Alliance, the Wildlife Conservation Society and CONAP.

“The community forest concessions of Petén in Guatemala are practicing some of the best tropical forest management in the world,” said lead author Dr. James Grogan, a forest ecologist, one of the world’s foremost experts on mahogany and collaborator of the Tropical, Agricultural, Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE). “By letting biology set the ground rules, they are ensuring the regeneration of the forest and of mahogany, a precious and threatened tree across much of the tropics, while suggesting a model for sustainable development and forest conservation that could be replicated globally.”

Cesar Beltetón, national director of Guatemala’s Department of Forest Management (CONAP) said that “the results of the investigation confirm that the technical guidelines and effective monitoring systems developed by CONAP—as the governing body for forest management in protected areas—are consistent with sustainable management and conservation. ”

The MBR is the largest protected forest in Central America with about 2.1 million hectares, and is home to 180,000 people. It houses a cultural heritage of world importance, as the ruins of ancient Mayan temples emerge above the canopy. It is also home to an array of globally important wildlife, including jaguar, puma, tapir and scarlet macaw. The MBR comprises 20 percent of the territory of Guatemala. Bordered by Belize and Mexico, it lies within the largest remaining tropical forest area of ​​Mesoamerica.

Soon after establishing the MBR in 1990, the Guatemalan government allowed the granting of forest concessions to community-based and private entities on 40 percent of the reserve. The government also required concession operators to comply with the conservation standards of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

“Although many people were strongly opposed to putting forests in a protected area in community hands, we now see they are in the best of hands,” said Marcedonio Cortave, executive director of ACOFOP. “This study shows that when rural communities have the rights to use and manage the forest, we can do better forestry than the biggest industrial concessions.”

The study authors conclude that the community forest concessions in Guatemala are a powerful source of economic development and conservation of natural resources and the best model for Mesoamerica, combining social and economic development that also ensures the sustainability of forests and communities in the long term.

Government set stage for sustainable timber

Following government regulations, the communities base their harvesting decisions on both a medium-range management plan and on an annual 100 percent inventory of every tree of a certain diameter in the area to be harvested. They note diameter, age, and species. By applying knowledge about growth rates of different species, the foresters can then estimate the number of trees that will grow to commercial size by the time of the next harvest, and adjust their harvest accordingly. The larger the number of small trees in the inventory area, the greater the number of big trees can be harvested. This approach helps to ensure that young trees grow up to replace those that are harvested.

The report notes that this approach stands in stark contrast to how harvesting volumes are determined in most of the tropics, usually based on arbitrary minimum tree diameters. In Brazil, for example, timber companies can harvest 80 percent of large mahogany trees (those over 60cm diameter). This means they might harvest 80 of every 100 trees, leaving only 20 standing. By simply applying a formula, and without taking into account the number of younger trees in the area, timber companies prevent mahogany populations from recovering between harvests, leading to a rapid decline in their number.

The big leaf mahogany, known as the jewel of tropical wood, is coveted for its beauty, grain, and its durability, and for these reasons has the highest prices in the world and has been overexploited for decades. Research in Guatemala examined the management of the five species of greater commercial exploitation in the reserve: the big leaf mahogany, cedar, manchiche, the pucté tree and Santa Maria. Communities opened markets for each of these species through FORESCOM, a business value-added processing and marketing self-managed.

The Guatemalan study examined management of the top five commercially harvested species in the reserve, starting with big-leaf mahogany. Known as the jewel of the tropical timber world, mahogany is coveted for its beauty, grain, strength, and technical working properties. It garners some of the highest market prices in the world, and has been overharvested for decades.

It is now afforded international protection in trade. The four other species studied were Spanish cedar, manchinche, pucté and santa maria. The communities – working through a value-added processing and marketing business they have formed called FORESCOM – have carved out markets for each.

The study recommends the strengthening such partnerships between community forest enterprises and government agencies, including the provision of technical assistance to support the operations of forest communities through contracts or other legal means to ensure more long-term stability.

Benjamin Hodgdon, Senior Technical Manager at the Rainforest Alliance, notes that based on the study’s results, “It’s time to move beyond questioning the capacity of communities to sustainably manage their forests, and give them to rights and support to do so.”

Hodgdon, a peer-reviewer of the study, notes that community forests work best when communities have control over a large area of high value forest, which allows them to build profitable businesses. As noted, this approach has proven to be more effective than strict protected areas in the tropics in maintaining forest cover, while supporting locally driven economic development.

James Grogan, Christopher Free, Gustavo Pinelo Andrea Johnson and Ruby Joy authored the paper, entitled Analysis of the conservation status of the big leaf mahogany, cedar and other lesser-known species of the Biosphere Reserve Maya, Peten, Guatemala.

“For the good of the world’s remaining tropical forests, the model analyzed in this study should be recognized and replicated elsewhere,” Grogan said. “It has shown beyond doubt that community forestry can be a powerful source of economic development and natural resource conservation.”

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