Glass interviews Nigel Sizer of the Rainforest Alliance about its work with Guatemala’s rural communities


Glass talks to Nigel Sizer, Chief Global Alliances Officer of the Rainforest Alliance, about its work with Guatemala’s rural communities, and why this is such a pivotal time for the future of a country emerging from conflict and political instability


IT FEELS stupid to preface “civil war” with “bloody”, however involuntary the urge may be. For one: something so blatantly implicit doesn’t need spelling out. Secondly, while there may be ever-present themes (authoritarian government versus guerrilla forces, all-powerful Western nation tipping the scales of power for personal gain …) civil wars aren’t uniform events worthy of blanket adjectives. Rather, each is defined by its own brand of awfulness.

The Guatemalan civil war, for example, is distinct by virtue of providing Latin America’s first cases of state-sponsored forced-disappearances targeting the opposition, a tactic now synonymous with corrupt administrations and narco gangs throughout the region.

With as many as 50,000 Guatemalans “disappeared” between 1960 and 1996, the old regime was truly a trailblazer in the worst possible way. Another 150,000 were recorded killed – figures eventually adjudged to constitute genocide – as part of a conflict fought over land distribution and indigenous autonomy, following decades of banana republic subjugation.


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However, there’s another mark of distinction dating back to the immediate aftermath of Guatemala’s civil war that’s become a source of national pride and international admiration. Briefly bucking the trend of self-serving power vacuum opportunism, the 1997 Guatemalan government used the post-civil war period to introduce a series of positive pieces of legislation called CFCs (community forestry concessions).

In effect, CFCs – there are nine in total – are government-endorsed land leases granting rural communities self-governance over their environment (specifically, sections of the Amazon rainforest), with the aim of developing sustainable logging practices and localised jobs infrastructures.

To assist in building overseas trading relationships while providing funding, guidance and awareness of the scheme, the international NGO Rainforest Alliance was brought in. In advance of the scheme’s silver anniversary, the organisation’s chief programme officer and former president, Nigel Sizer, Chief Global Alliances Officer, discusses CFCs’ success, and why the government scheme is particularly relevant in 2020.

Ruins in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Photo Sergio Izquierdo

For those who may be unfamiliar with the CFCs, why are they so important, both locally and internationally?
In the heart of Guatemala is the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Established in 1990, it covers around two million hectares of Central America and is the continent’s largest intact area of tropical rainforest. It is within this reserve – in rural areas populated by extraordinary communities who call the forest home and play a very important part in protecting it – that community forest concessions (CFCs) have been operating for the past 25 years.

At the end of the civil war, Guatemala’s National Council of Protected Areas granted the communities, who have lived in these areas for many generations, the legal right to live on and manage the land. These areas are of enormous value to the global environment and the communities who live there. From an archaeological standpoint, CFCs cover some extremely important archaeological remains from the Mayan civilisation.

The problem we’re currently facing is that these “leases” are coming up for renewal in the next year or two. Essentially, they’re expiring. So, the Rainforest Alliance has been working on getting them extended in advance of their expiration date to ensure that the local communities are secure and safe to stay there for another 25 years. One of the community forest concessions was extended in December 2019, which was brilliant news.

Workers on the MBR. Photograph: Sergio Izquierdo

Alongside the obvious global importance of rainforest protection, the local ramifications of CFCs have been equally impressive. Young people no longer have to leave home to find work, and there’s been an increase of women in the workplace within the Maya Biosphere Reserve. How important is it for people to consider the local effects of the land lease renewals, rather than solely considering their impact on a macro level?

The way we view the role of the Rainforest Alliance is that protecting a rainforest is completely interdependent on the wellbeing of the communities who live in and around the rainforest. It’s imperative that we work together. The success of CFCs is a perfect example of that – the data tracking developments over these past 25 years has been striking. In areas where you’ve got the community concessions in place, the rate of deforestation goes down to zero.

In fact, there’s even restoration of forest taking place in some of these areas – a re-planting of trees that were cleared previously. Surrounding areas lying beyond CFC-protected land continue to suffer high rates of forest clearing and fires, such is the lack of local, interdependent communities to provide protection.

Tikal National Park. Photograph: Sergio Izquierdo

Why is it that communities outside of CFC-endorsed land aren’t offering the same level of forest protection? Is it about a lack of an incentive? It feels naïve to expect struggling communities to protect their local environments out of altruism and nothing else.

Areas outside of the Maya Biosphere carry high rates of forest loss – a lot of that illegal – while the communities inside the Maya Biosphere are demonstrably doing an extremely good job of protecting their respective localities. And yes, they’re partly doing that because they are personally benefiting from a “protected rainforest” in very a significant way, in terms of jobs, income and livelihood. This is what we’ve been working with them on for about 20 years – setting up these community-based enterprises. Incomes have gone up significantly, and around 9,000 new jobs have been created. Projects are now led by local men and, more than ever before, women.

Total sales from these enterprises stand at nearly $60 million. Remember, this is in the context of, historically, one of the worst countries in the region in terms of job creation, and some of the highest rates of out-migration – past generations of Guatemalans have been forced to illegally leave for the USA in search of a living wage to send back home. These communities where we have been working do not suffer from that; migration rates are extremely low. Instead the communities are stable, healthy and flourishing.

Xate processing plant in Uaxactun

Suffice to say, these communities have come a long way since the civil war?
Many of our Guatemalan colleagues are from these areas … they’ve seen that whole history. There have been times when we’ve sat together and a table full of macho, fully grown men in their fifties will burst into tears as they talk about their story and what they have seen. There’s a lot of violence in that history, it’s an extraordinary story.

When does a post-civil-war-period cease, and officially become peacetime? When does “the new normal”, become just “normal”? That would depend on whom you ask (Guatemala continues to be plagued by influential narco gangs, corrupt politicians, and boasts alarming wealth distribution statistics). But if it were reduced to an equation, you’d imagine it would revolve around the post-war years exceeding the wartime years.

Guatemala is 12 years shy of this landmark, meaning the CFCs’ renewal would extend into, and contribute towards a period of relative growth, compared to the struggles of the 20th century. If anything, it would ensure that these nine CFC-protected pockets of relative prosperity would continue to prosper – a considerable victory that shouldn’t be underestimated.

Rainforest. Photograph: Sergio Izquierdo


by Charlie Navin-Holder