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Conditional cash payments reduce poverty and deforestation
Four communities within the Maya Biosphere Reserve that voluntarily agreed to adhere to conservation practices in exchange for economic development assistance showed a decrease in deforestation of 49%, and a 34% reduction in the incidence of forests fires over the six years of the program. At the same time wellbeing, assessed by families’ access to basic necessities (i.e., goods and services local communities felt every family should have and none could live without) increased, on average, 5.7% among the 178 households that were surveyed. Access to piped water, a doctor, solar panels and road access were especially dramatic, showing improvements ranging from 27% to 36%.
The 2.1 million hectare Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR) is located at the heart of the largest contiguous block of forest in Mesoamerica, the central Selva Maya of Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico. It anchors the northern section of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, providing a refuge for threatened wildlife and hundreds of ancient cities once populated by a sophisticated pre-Colombian Maya civilization. The reserve contains two Ramsar wetland sites, and five national parks are located within the MBR. The MBR is also home to an innovative system of community-based and private industry forest management within the reserve’s multiple use zone. This is consistent with its status as a UNESCO-recognized Biosphere Reserve, which seek to safeguard natural and managed ecosystems and promote innovative approaches to socially and culturally appropriate, and environmentally sustainable, economic development. Nonetheless the MBR faces significant challenges. Natural forest habitat has been reduced by an average of 1% annually since 1990, and its population grew at an average rate of 3.93% annually, between 2007 and 2013, a rate that is well above Guatemala’s national average rate of population growth. The area’s current population is about 187,000 people, about 60% of whom are considered to live in poverty, or extreme poverty, based on the Guatemalan government’s classification system. Addressing these challenges is complicated by a significant presence of activities associated with drug trafficking, along Guatemala’s western and northern borders with Mexico. Also, wealthy landed interests encourage poor rural people to carry out illegal invasions as part of a strategy to extend their holdings, while the rural poor assume the risks of the invasion and bear the brunt of any official response. Chronically weak national government institutions are ineffectual in addressing these challenges, and efforts to respond sometimes lead to violence while failing to resolve underlying issues. Given the purpose of the MBR to safeguard natural and managed resources and promote economic development that is culturally and socially appropriate and environmentally sustainable, conservation strategies need to focus on the quality of life of the people living there, as well as ensuring the conservation of species and habitats. Alleviating the poverty that afflicts the majority of the people in the MBR must necessarily be a central concern of any strategy to influence land use and regulate access to land and natural resources. Addressing these multiple priorities, some of which exist in tension with one another is challenging under any circumstances, and the combination of weak government agencies and widespread illegal activity driven by powerful economic interests makes this particularly true in the MBR. In an attempt to address this problem, WCS and two national non-governmental partners, the Fundación Balam and the Fundación ProPetén, worked with Guatemala’s National Council of Protected Areas (Consejo Nacional de Áreas Protegidas, or CONAP), the government agency responsible for managing biodiversity and protected areas, to implement and assess the effectiveness of Conservation Agreements as a tool for achieving conservation and livelihood goals, in the context of the complex challenges summarized above. In general, conservation agreements involve negotiating and delivering financial and material incentives for the inhabitants of rural communities to observe production and resource management practices that will contribute to conserving biodiversity and habitat, and, in the process, contribute to improving the quality of life of community members. WCS and partners worked with community organizations in four villages, Uaxactún, Paso Caballos, Carmelita and Corozal (see map) to define agreements that were appropriate for the production systems and sociocultural contexts of each village. Agreements were developed in coordination with Conservation International’s Conservation Stewards Program (CSP), using CSP’s “Conservation Agreement Model” as the framework for each initiative. Community commitments were negotiated with full participation of pre-existing community leadership structures, and subsequently ratified by all community members in open assemblies. The levels of financial incentives provided varied and specific commitments were adapted to the context of each community. Incentives for protection activities focused on addressing the major threats to biodiversity identified through participatory evaluations. Implementation of the agreements led to significant decreases in deforestation and the occurrence of forest fire hot points, as well as improvements in quality of life as measured by access to what local people defined as “basic necessities”. In addition, participants identified indirect benefits associated with the agreements such as enhanced sense of security regarding their rights to land and natural resources.
Within the Maya Biosphere Reserve, communities do not have free-hold rights over their traditional lands, rather they have concessionary rights for 25 year periods that are renewable depending on community compliance with concession regulations monitored by Guatemala’s National Council of Protected Areas (Consejo Nacional de Áreas Protegidas, or CONAP). Conservation Agreements did not resolve the lack of legal recognition of community land and resource rights. Yet they did improve communities’ sense of security regarding their continuing access to land and resource, because CONAP formally reported on their compliance with the conservation easements, leaving evidence that partnering communities were indeed compliant and good stewards of their areas. One consequence of the program was an improved working relationship between concession communities and CONAP. Another was improved confidence of the Uaxactún and Carmelita communities that CONAP would renew their 25 year concessions agreements. In addition, Paso Caballos has backed away from plans to colonize new areas, substantially reducing the chances of being evicted by CONAP from its current agricultural lands.
Development assistance cash transfers led directly to improved access to goods and services considered basic necessities by local people. Maybe more importantly, these funds were leveraged by participating Community Development Councils to secure an additional $992,000, of which $731,000 came from proposals and funding requests developed in coordination with municipal government and federal agencies.
The agreements contributed to building a constituency for conservation by providing a structure for collaboration between villagers and government authorities that led to an increased sense of security regarding access to land and natural resources. However, while villagers consented to the agreement, participated in negotiating the specific terms of each agreement and recognized the improvements in areas like education and infrastructure that took place during the time the agreements were in place, a surprisingly large portion of villagers surveyed, approximately one third overall, did not see the improvements as deriving specifically from the agreements.