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Ancient Traditions, Modern Politics & the Future of Forests in Cancun

by Rolf Skar

December 9, 2010

Looking towards the peak of an ancient Mayan pyramid A "chiclero" harvesting sap from a sapodilla tree

The tangled jungle had grown up and over the pyramid so thoroughly, I didn’t see it until I was standing at its base.  Looking up its steep slopes, I was overcome with a sense of history both human and natural.  How long ago was this ancient Mayan pyramid made? 1,000 years? 1,500 years? More? The thick leaf and litter, the tree roots intertwining with misshapen and tumbled blocks of rock all offered hints of a long history shrouded mostly in mystery.  The forest I was exploring was in the Zona Maya near the Caribbean coast of the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico about a three hour drive south of Cancun. Admittedly, it is not the easiest place for pyramid, a forest, or a people to survive.  Shallow karst soils limit the size and height of trees and provide poor environment for agriculture.  Hurricanes storm the coast on an annual basis, often toppling large swaths of forest.  The poverty common to many rural parts of Mexico makes economic development difficult to start and sustain.  However, the descendants of the people who built the pyramid I saw still thrive, their lives interwoven with the forest like the tree roots wrapping in, around, and through the stone ruin.

But something new is taking root in the community as well.  It is a model of development and forest conservation that is getting attention outside of Mexico.  In partnership with the group Organizacion de Ejidos Productores Forestales (the Ejido Forestry Producers Organization), the community manages forests with a well-planned, three zone system.  In the zone nearest the community, they harvest materials for things like construction and firewood. The second is an “agriculture” zone where crops (including a beautiful array of colorful corn varieties) are grown in patches surrounded by forest.  This is also where white “chicle” sap – an ingredient for natural chewing gum – and selective tree felling takes place to harvest fine tropical woods.  The third area is a permanently protected for ecological and cultural values.  The idea is to protect forests while providing economic activities and forest products to sustain local people.

The model is working.  The trees felled by the community aren’t just shipped to far-away shores as cheap, raw logs.  This community is not interested in being another footnote in the history of boom and bust resource exploitation.  In a new woodshop they make beautiful tropical hardwoods into chairs, tables and other furniture.  This means more local jobs and much more money for the community per tree cut. And, it means they do not have to liquidate the forest their people have depended on for thousands of years.

A sink hole or "cenote" filled with water in the middle of the Zona Maya forest as seen from the air

Of course, community members are the best guardians of the forest you could find.  The illegal logging and land-grabbing common in so many tropical forests cannot thrive with an invested, empowered local community watching over it.

Negotiators from 192 countries at the United Nations climate summit in Cancun should not only learn from this example, they should consider carefully how their decisions could affect Mayas and many other forest dependent communities and indigenous peoples around the world.

Community members are earning income from sustainable selective cutting of trees

Of principle importance are the talks to reduce emissions from tropical deforestation and degradation – what policy experts abbreviate as “REDD.”  The concept is fairly simple: rich, developed countries provide funding to help developing countries protect their forests and invest in clean, green development.  In the process, the world benefits since tropical forests are the greatest storehouse of nature’s diversity on Earth.  They’re also critical to counter climate change since deforestation accounts for more climate pollution than all the world’s cars, trucks, trains, planes, and ships combined.

But, the devil is in the details.  As Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo recently observed, REDD done right can help enrich communities and save forests. Done wrong, it can run over human rights and lead to more climate pollution, amounting to little more than a carbon scam.  Recently, safeguards designed to benefit biodiversity and local and indigenous peoples were watered down by negotiators in Cancun.  This is a huge step backwards.  But, there is still a chance to move forward. Ministers in Cancun must realize that they are not just playing with abstract policies on paper – they are making choices that could affect the lives of millions of forest-dependent people around the world. For the sake of our forests, our climate, and indigenous peoples, let us hope they make the right choices.

As future of a fair, effective REDD agreement hangs in the balance Greenpeace is doing more than just hoping.  I am part of a bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived team in Cancun keeping negotiators informed, motivated and (perhaps most importantly) accountable to the world.  Stay tuned as Greenpeace sprints through the finish of the Cancun climate talks.

Rolf Skar

By Rolf Skar

Rolf Skar is the Campaigns Director at Greenpeace USA. Since 2007, Rolf has contributed to international Greenpeace campaigns to stop deforestation in the Canadian boreal forest, the Paradise forests of Southeast Asia, and the Brazilian Amazon.

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