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Mapping Mahogany on the Border with Belize


January 2016. In my mind mahogany is one of nature’s wonders, one of the most beautiful woods in the world. Maybe that’s because my dad decided to use mahogany paneling in my bedroom when he was building the house where I grew up. It wasn’t veneer, either. That was back in the day when, I’m sure, Guatemalan forests were being pillaged for mahogany to make such then cheap, but beautiful, wood products. And so I slept surrounded by the warm rich brown of mahogany until I left home for college. Because of that history, I felt a personal interest in seeing how rural communities in Petén are trying to implement a sustainable harvesting system for mahogany and other high-value timber species in the lowland forests of northeastern Guatemala, on the border with Belize.

My alarm went off in the dark in my room at Casazul Hotel in Flores. It was still dark when we picked up Don Jorge, the ACOFOP community concessions coordinator, who was going with us for the day, at 6 AM. ACOFOP is the Asociación de Comunidades Forestales de Petén, a support organization for the 23 communities with community forestry concessions in the multiple-use zone of the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

We stopped for gas at a brightly-lit Texaco station on the highway going east out of town, and then watched as the red and pink band of the coming sunrise painted the horizon ahead. I remembered those colors, watching another sunrise from the top of the Temple IV at Tikal in 2014. We were passing just south of Tikal on this road from Flores. As we drove we encountered patches of fog, spilling over the hills and ridges, and I wondered if they would see the sunrise from Tikal today. The dawnlight was rich and beautiful, and calming, now with a salmon-colored fog hanging in the valleys. Finally we drove up and over a ridge, not really so high, and the fog was suddenly gone. Don Jorge, who had been telling us the names of all of the little clusters of houses along the road, announced that this place was Puerta del Cielo, the “Door of Heaven.” Perfect name, I thought. Below us to the east was a sea of clouds, with hilltops poking out here and there. We soon dropped down into the fog layer again.

At around 8 AM we reached Melchor de Mencos, the main town on the frontier with Belize. Don Jorge directed us to a tiny, chaotic market plaza, where we parked and went into the Comedor Las Delicias. Ah! Huevos rancheros : two crispy-fried eggs, black beans, crema acida, white cheese, and tortillas of course. It tasted delicious. The coffee was powdered Nescafé.

After breakfast we turned north in the sunshine as the disorganized, colorful chaos of the day was just getting going. Roosters in the road, mothers taking their kids to school, tuc-tucs and motos, a pickup with a cow in the back, dilapidated sidewalks, bumpy cobbled roads, brightly painted buildings. A bit like Africa in a way, this energetic disarray makes the order and predictability of home feel a bit boring.

We stopped at the office of the Sociedad Civil “El Esfuerzo” to learn about their efforts – esfuerzo means “effort” in Spanish – to bring economic benefits to their local community from the sustainable management of mahogany and other high-value timber species. El Esfuerzo manages one of the community forestry concessions located in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. As I explained in a recent story, “More Ecological Musings from the Maya Forest,” the Maya Biosphere Reserve was established under the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Program in 1990 to protect the largest area of tropical forest remaining in Central America. The total area of the reserve is around 22,000 square kilometers. A buffer zone of around 5,000 square kilometers, or 24% of the total area, spans the southern side; 36% of the reserve is a core zone, consisting of national parks and nature reserves; and multiple-use zones of around 8,500 square kilometers make up the remainder. Today we would be passing through the buffer zone and into the multiple-use zone where the El Esfuerzo community concession is located.

Jaguar on the sign at the office of Sociedad Civil “El Esfuerzo”

Jaguar on the sign at the office of Sociedad Civil “El Esfuerzo”

We talked with the director for about ten minutes, and then headed north again, taking two El Esfuerzo staff as our guides for the day: Roberto, a forester, and Sergio, the treasurer of the organization. The road was rough dirt, not even graveled, and in this limestone landscape there were a lot of rocks, and some muddy patches. We were driving through the zona de amortiguamiento, the buffer zone, of the biosphere reserve, which here, north of Melchor, is about 20 kilometers wide. The road passed through large cattle ranches, with some patches of forest on the hilltops and ridges. In about 45 minutes we drove through a huge commercial maize farm that looked like Iowa – this clearly was not the subsistence farming that is all that is supposedly allowed in the buffer zone – and came to a green wall of tall trees that marked the boundary between the buffer zone and the multiple-use zone of the biosphere reserve. The contrast in vegetation was stark. This boundary was as “hard” as any protected area boundary I’d seen anywhere in the world.

Just inside the forest, maybe 100 meters, was the control post, where a ranger from CONAP checked our credentials to enter the reserve. CONAP is the Consejo Nacional de Areas Protegidas, or National Council for Protected Areas, responsible for managing the biosphere reserves, national parks, and other protected areas of Guatemala. An armed soldier from the Guatemalan army stood at his shoulder. While we were waiting for the paperwork to be completed I walked up the road a short distance. It was dark, moist, and cool under the forest canopy, a stark contrast to the bright sun of the buffer zone ranches and maize fields. I heard the morning roaring of howler monkeys, not far away.

We drove north, paralleling the border with Belize, which was only three or four kilometers to the east here. We passed a junction where a road as bad as the one we were on turned east, toward El Pilar, a Mayan ruin spanning the border of Guatemala and Belize. In about an hour we came to a clearing – a zona de acopiliación, or collection point – where a 2014 timber harvest by the El Esfuerzo concession had pulled in the harvested trees on a spoke-like network of skidder trails and loaded them onto trucks. This was the objective of our long drive, the place where we could get a tutorial on sustainable forest management in community concessions.

Mahogany seedling from natural regeneration in an old log loading area

Mahogany seedling from natural regeneration in an old log loading area

As soon as we stepped out of our truck we noticed that in this area, which had been cleared and the soil exposed by log-loading operations, was thick with baby mahogany seedlings, some a meter tall. Roberto, the forester, pulled out the map of this location from the overall forest management plan for the El Esfuerzo concession. The skidder trails from this collection point were mapped, and we followed one of them out to the site of a mahogany tree that had been harvested in the 2014 cut, labelled “D52.” The trails where logs had been dragged and bare soil exposed were now thick with young trees and shrubs. With a GPS unit to confirm it, we found the stump of D52, a caoba (the local name for mahogany). Tropical trees, often growing on thin soils, often develop thin, fin-like buttresses at ground level to stabilize them. D52 had been a mahogany with three buttresses, and a trunk diameter inside the buttresses of about 18 inches. Although not really a very big tree, Sergio, the El Esfuerzo treasurer, estimated that the wood from D52 might have been sold for around $2,000 US dollars, which is a lot of money in rural Guatemala.

ACOFOP community concessions coordinator Jorge Soza explaining how mahogany is measured to determine the growth rate for management planning

ACOFOP community concessions coordinator Jorge Soza explaining how mahogany is measured to determine the growth rate for management planning

I was completely fascinated to be on the ground, for my first time ever, in a certified, sustainably-managed tropical forest with a forester who had crafted the management plan. I have been so skeptical in other cases where I’ve read secondhand reports about supposedly-sustainable forest management, and I was looking for problems. I asked Roberto all the probing questions I could think of, but he could answer them all. The plot-by-plot mapping of high-value species they have done – and he showed me the species-by-species tree census of this plot we were walking in – is what is needed to develop a plan for a sustainable cut of those species within their community concession. Setting sustainable quotas for harvesting trees is similar to, but different than, the science of setting sustainable quotas in fisheries. Trees don’t move, but grow and reproduce. Fish move, grow, and reproduce. The ecological understanding needed to underpin sustainable management is complicated in both cases, in different ways.

Map showing locations of mahogany and other high-value timber trees from the El Esfuerzo concession forest management plan

Map showing locations of mahogany and other high-value timber trees from the El Esfuerzo concession forest management plan

In their management plan El Esfuerzo is mainly going after mahogany, and another related high-value species, cedro, or Spanish cedar, although they also harvest a dozen other timber species, as well as xate, a species of palm found in the shady forest understory that is used in the international floral industry.

After exploring the skidder trails radiating out from the log collection site, we crossed the road and walked about 50 meters through the deep selva to the east to see a big, straight-trunked mahogany that had been designated as an arbol de semillas, a seed tree, to be left and never cut in order to provide the seeds for natural regeneration. Don Jorge explained the criteria for selecting seed trees: clean, straight, and with a crown in the canopy. This one was undoubtedly the mother of the baby trees we saw in the former log loading area.

Mahogany seed tree left to promote natural regeneration

Mahogany seed tree left to promote natural regeneration

Mahogany, scientific name Swietenia macrophylla, or caoba in Spanish, is sometimes called big-leaf mahogany to distinguish it from a couple of related species. Its seeds are winged, dehiscing from pods when mature, and can fly long distances like maple, spruce, pine, or other winged, wind-dispersed seeds. Writing about the natural history of mahogany in A Natural History of Belize: Inside the Maya Forest, Samuel Bridgewater summarized the conditions that favor mahogany reproduction, which we were observing here: “Occurring as a tall tree in mature forest, mahogany is a light-demanding species, and moderate disturbance is ideal for its development. Indeed, light hurricane damage or fire can provide ideal conditions for mahogany regeneration, with mature trees withstanding damage better than many other species. The fast-growing seedlings are also well adapted to exploit canopy gaps caused by treefall.”

Along the road we saw another example of enthusiastic mahogany reproduction created by a combination of a mature seed tree and bare, disturbed soil. We stopped where thick forest of young mahogany was growing right along the road. The roadside had been graded bare about ten years ago, and a big mahogany that we could see towering on the east side of the road had seeded it. The El Esfuerzo foresters were using this young roadside forest as an experimental plot. They had individually marked and were measuring the diameters of the trees in to get better data on mahogany growth rates in the area, information that would help them refine their management plan.

Mahogany saplings from natural regeneration along the road

Mahogany saplings from natural regeneration along the road

In the early afternoon we drove south again, and passed out of the cool, tall, rich selva, into the sad sunny pastures of the buffer zone with its cattle ranches. Having seen the native forest, I could now really feel what had been lost. This time I noticed the names of the fincas, posted on the gates along the road. Many names were inspirational: Finca Nueva Amanecer. Finca La Esperanza. New Dawn Ranch. Hope Ranch. But these were obviously rich peoples’ ranches – I would be a lot more sympathetic if the forest had been cleared by poor campesinos struggling to feed their families. Roberto and Sergio said this was an area of narco-ganaderia, where drug money was being laundered through land purchases and cattle ranching. Don Jorge chimed in to say that the #1 threat to forests in Petén was this kind of drug-lord ranching.

We passed through Melchor de Mencos, dropped our guides Roberto and Sergio at the El Esfuerzo office, and stopped quickly for a late lunch of fast food, fried chicken and french fries, at a local joint, Pollo a la Prisa or something like that. Then back westward toward Flores, passing again through the Door of Heaven. In a little town called Ixlú we stopped to visit a community forest-based enterprise, Alimentos NutriNaturales, run by an entrepreneurial cooperative of women. These local ladies harvest, process, and sell various products made from the fruits of a tree called ramón, gathered in the forests of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Ramón, whose scientific name is Brosimum alicastrum, is a member of the fig family. Its fruits are round, about the size of grapes, and with a brown husk. When dried they can be ground into a flour, which can then be mixed with water to make a beverage something like hot chocolate, or baked into cookies. Ramón has a sweet, nutty, unique flavor.

Ramón (Brosimum alicastrum) fruits collected in the Maya Biosphere Reserve

Ramón (Brosimum alicastrum) fruits collected in the Maya Biosphere Reserve

One of the Guatemalan conservation experts we interviewed made a statement that really stuck in my head. Talking about the challenges of stopping narco-ganaderia, he said “No puede frenar la narco-ganaderia con galletas de ramón.”: “You can’t stop narco-ranching with ramón cookies.”

Ramón cookies from the women’s cooperative Alimentos NutriNaturales, Ixlú, Flores, Petén

Ramón cookies from the women’s cooperative Alimentos NutriNaturales, Ixlú, Flores, Petén

Well, he is probably right. In our assessment interviews with a wide range of Guatemalan experts on biodiversity and forest conservation we had already heard their collective opinion that what is needed to protect the environment in Petén is for the Guatemalan government to regain control of this part of the country. They suggested that the government should use the army, police, and judicial system to stop illegal land conversion like narco-ganaderia and other illegal activities.

But, on the other hand, I had an immediate sympathy for these ramón-harvesting women. The Guatemalan experts we interviewed provided a long list of actions needed to conserve forests and biodiversity in Guatemala, and there were other themes besides stopping illegal forest conversion. Another main need was, they told us, to support community organization, empowerment, and capacity – such as in the community forest concessions like El Esfuerzo, or the women’s ramón cooperative in Ixlú. In both cases, we also saw examples of how providing economic options for poor rural people who depend on natural resources from forests can support development while conserving biodiversity, another key need identified by the people we interviewed.

Although I am often a skeptic when it comes to believing that people can figure out how to sustainably manage natural resources, I’m also somehow a congenital optimist. What I saw in the El Esfuerzo concession gave me hope that mahogany can survive to enrich future generations with the beauty of its wood. And the galletas de ramón ? ¡Deliciosa !

Toucan on the sign at the office of Sociedad Civil “El Esfuerzo”

Toucan on the sign at the office of Sociedad Civil “El Esfuerzo”

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About Bruce Byers

Bruce Byers Bruce Byers Consulting provides technical assistance to government agencies, NGOs, and the private sector in the U.S. and over­seas. We carry out assessments, analyses, and applied research that provide the background information needed to design effective strategies and actions in complex ecological and social contexts.

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