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GUATEMALA BLOG #8 (no) land governance and deforestation in Guatemala

Sometimes, an image says more than any numbers. Who needs tables and graphs on the pace of deforestation the Petén department in Northern Guatemala? –  when it is clear from the two satellite pictures below how fast this is happening and what the differences are with its neighbouring country on the East, i.e. Belize.

Source: About the Dispute. Government of Belize (2018):

In the right half of the illustration, one does not even need to draw the border line (that is not very well visible anyway) to see where Guatemala ends and Belize begins, or vice versa. The photographs are a perfect visualisation of the failure and (near-) absence of land governance mechanisms in Guatemala (see instalment #7 of this blog), with uncontrolled tree loss as a result. What you see above is caused by two factors: the demand for (fire-)wood in Guatemala, and changes in land use in Petén, i.e. the replacement of trees by agriculture and cattle breeding. Obviously, both mechanisms reinforce each other.

It is a familiar image along the roads in rural Guatemala: people carrying a heavy bundle of wood on their shoulders. Either they will sell it to their fellow-villagers, or they will use it for their own household needs; many people do not have access to any other fuel for their cooking and heating.  This phenomenon accounts for the lion’s share of timber demand in Guatemala, and in the absence of any controls, timber is transported from the sparsely populated North to the cities in the South massively and illegally: it is estimated that only 2,5% of all timber extraction in Guatemala is formally authorised.[1] 

But trees are also cut or burned in order to prepare the land for other activities. Two separate processes occur. One is spontaneous agricultural colonisation: smallholders with no or little access to land turn to the primeval forests in Petén, slash and burn a few hectares and start to work the land. The other process entails large portions of forest being turned into pastureland for extensive cattle breeding, often as a cover for clandestine drug trafficking operations: the Petén is comparatively flat and therefore an ideal place for airstrips that accommodate small planes. It is estimated that in the Laguna del Tigre national park alone, in 2017 there were some 65 illegal airstrips.[2] One can only guess at the figure for Petén as a whole. The authorities are ill-equipped to do much about it, or indifferent.

So much for the bad news. On a brighter note, and speaking of parks, most of Petén is a sort of protected area: the Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR). Within this reserve, the sections that are under a regime of community forestry are doing best, as this 2018 map by the Rainforest Alliance shows. Thanks to concessions for sustainable marketing of timber and non-timber products, deforestation has been strongly reduced and incomes of community members have increased.[3] The work of the regional community forestry association ACOFOP, that represents 24 local organizations of agroforestry producers and sustainable management of natural resources,  was key in the consolidation of this effort, offering an alternative to the ‘fortress conservationist[4]’ set-up of the MBR.

Another promising experience is the PINPEP program of the National Forestry Institute (INAB), with incentives for farmers to use part of their land for forestry, for both conservation and production purposes. Over the past 12 years, about 127,000 hectares have been covered by this program, with 35,000 beneficiary families.[5] It is of particular interest to note that the most important incentive is security of tenure for the participating producers: with proof of participation in PINPEP, a producer can get a land title from his or her local government.

So, despite all the problems and setbacks that I have signalled in both this instalment and previous ones, there are glimmers of hope for land governance and tenure security in Guatemala. And it is on this positive note that I say goodbye: a few weeks ago, I have left the country and my blog ends here.  However, and with some pride, I can refer you to another recent text of mine on land governance in Guatemala. It won the third prize in the Land Portal’s Data Stories Contest and you can read it here.

[1] O. Monterroso, G. López y J. Gálvez (2012): Análisis sistémico de la deforestación en Guatemala y propuesta de políticas para revertirla. Guatemala, Universidad Rafael Landívar, serie técnica No. 38.

[2] S. Escalón: A new secret runway found in Laguna del Tigre National Park in Guatemala. Mongabay, 18 May 2017 (

[3] Community: The Secret to Stopping Deforestation in Guatemala. Rainforest Alliance, August 2018 (

[4] = without any human presence.