Maya Forest in Guatemala:
When Guatemala’s government created the giant Maya Biosphere Reserve in the north of the Central American country in 1990, it reluctantly (and against the advice of American environmental advisers) set aside a large chunk of forest in the east of the biodiversity hotspot for logging by communities that lived in the area.
But in the three decades since, conventional conservation wisdom has been turned on its head. Rangers in the national parks set up on the reserve have proved powerless to prevent illegal cattle ranchers, often funded by local drugs cartels, invading and clearing a third of the “protected” forests. But the forests that conservationists said would be doomed under collective community management have resisted the land grabs and flourish.
The communities – many of them descendants of the ancient Maya civilization – police their forests tenaciously, preventing wildfires, repelling outsiders and encouraging natural regeneration. One community leader, David Salguero, was shot dead in a confrontation with invading ranchers in 2010.
They harvest forest products ranging from Maya nuts, a tasty relative of the mulberry, to allspice, and xate palm leaves for floral bouquets, to chicle, a natural chewing gum once ransacked by the Wrigley company, and mahogany for guitars made in the US.
At the heart of the community concessions is a strong collective organisation, the Association of Forest Communities of Petén. “The forest is an economic asset to the people,” says its deputy director Juan Giron. “Land rights guarantee access to the forest… this access leads us to take better care of these resources.” On current trends, almost all the trees left in the Maya biosphere reserve will be in the community-run areas.
Mangrove restoration in Indonesia:
Across much of Southeast Asia, coastal mangrove forests have been uprooted to make room for shrimp ponds, exposing shorelines to erosion and leaving communities vulnerable to high tides, storm waves and tsunamis. On the north shore of the Indonesian island of Java, the sea has permanently invaded several kilometres inland, washing away dykes, drowning rice fields and engulfing villages.
But communities living on the edge have turned the tide by planting new mangroves and encouraging nature to do the same by erecting permeable barriers made of brushwood in the shallow mud just offshore. The structures, each around 170 metres long and two metres high, mimic the roots of the old mangroves. They slow the scouring currents and trap sediment that in turn catches mangroves seeds floating in the water, so beginning a slow process of natural restoration.
Over time, the aim is for a restored belt of mangroves to take over the role of the barriers, recreating a natural defence against further erosion and restoring productive mangrove ecosystems.
“Mangroves provide many benefits, like oysters, crabs, and fish growing among their roots, as well as protection of the coastline,” says Mat Sairi, a leader in Timbulsloko village, which pioneered the restoration. One village now offers a mangrove boardwalk as a tourist attraction.
To compensate for lost ponds, villagers have organised field schools run by a local NGO to learn organic methods for increasing yields from their remaining ponds, and how to integrate mangroves into aquaculture. “We get a better harvest if we plant mangroves between the sea and our ponds,” says former pupil Abdul Ghofur of Tambakbulusan village.
The restoration project was launched in 2015 by a consortium of Dutch environmentalists and engineers, based on experience using brushwood barriers to protect and restore salt marshes in the Netherlands. But local villagers carried out the work, and all the mangroves, barriers and mangrove ponds are now owned and maintained collectively by the coastal communities. “We are not leaving. This is our home and we plan to stay”, says Slamet, a fisherman in Timbulsloko.
Wangari Maathai’s legacy in Kenya
Nobel peace prizewinner Wangari Maathai is widely famed for a lifetime of work with her Green Belt Movement, organizing Kenyan women to plant an estimated 50 million trees from thousands of community nurseries she set up across the country. Her trees are on farms, in gardens, at the roadside, in schoolyards and outside public buildings, even in forests. But there is much more to her legacy.
While serving briefly as an environment minister between 2003 and 2005, after the fall from power of her nemesis President Daniel arap Moi, she pushed into law a Forest Act. It created dozens of democratically elected Community Forest Associations that gave local people control over their own forests, including five forest areas on mountainsides regarded as the country’s “water towers” because they create rain that feeds its rivers, irrigates its crops and fills its taps.
Corruption under Moi had seen many of the country’s forests converted into farmland. But under community management, they have recovered, with community associations allowed to use them for grazing livestock, cutting firewood and setting up beehives, provided they are kept intact. Forests on the Aberdare Mountains have extended by a fifth since 2005, mostly through natural regeneration encouraged by local communities.
At Kimunye village near Mount Kenya, Sarah Karungari shows her beehives in a forest clearing. In the old days, she says, forest wardens would have torn down the hives and prosecuted her. Now they encourage her work. “People who used to be poachers and illegal loggers are now defending the forests,” says local warden Simon Gitau. “Farming communities know their ecosystems, including the forests, better than outsiders,” admits Aggrey Naumo of the Kenyan Wildlife Service.
There is still bad politics in Kenya’s forests. Ogiek and Sengwer tribes people have recently been evicted from their forest homes. But a rights-based approach to forest restoration has been shown to deliver. The legacy of Maathai, who died in 2011, lives on.