An experiment in ‘net zero deforestation’ in Guatemala

By Mike Hower

Guatemala is experiencing one of the most rapid deforestation rates of any country, according to a 2010 report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Across Guatemala’s Petén region, which stretches across the northern half of the country to the border with Mexico and Belize, agriculture is the primary driver of deforestation. Increasing international demand for sugar, palm oil and beef, as well as subsistence communities being pushed off their traditional land, are swiftly destroying the Maya Forest — the second-largest remaining tropical rainforest in the Americas.

Credit: Rainforest Alliance
Credit: Rainforest Alliance

In 2014, deforestation finally appeared to become a priority for businesses, with everyone seeming to want to jump on the tree-hugging bandwagon. “Zero deforestation” became a buzzword for a newfound corporate commitment to eliminating the systematic destruction of forests from global supply chains.

With deforestation driving 17 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, halting it would be a major blow to global warming.

Source: IPCC (2007);
Source: IPCC (2007);

Encouraging as this may be, businesses would do well to take a step back and recognize a cold, hard truth: There’s no such thing as “zero deforestation.”

That’s because for as long as the world demands forest products, it will involve cutting trees. The question is not whether deforestation will occur, but if it will be done in a sustainable way — it is possible to achieve “net-zero deforestation” if products are sourced from producers who harvest forests in a responsible way.

The key to sustainable forest management in Guatemala is empowering communities to manage their own economic destinies by responsibly harvesting forest products and selling them on domestic and international markets. Local communities often are able to combine traditional knowledge with new technology to manage forests better than any company could. In a country plagued by widespread and severe poverty — around 75 percent of Guatemalans live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank — involving communities in Sustainable forest management also can provide a much-needed source of jobs for men and particularly women. This, in turn, can help reduce deforestation caused by subsistence agriculture.



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