Illegal Logging Threatens the Survival of the Community Forest of Totonicapán

A tree stump in a forest
No Ficción
Illegal Logging Threatens the Survival of the Community Forest of Totonicapán

“Va corer arta sangre” is the message that appeared written on a wall of the forest nursery of the Totonicapán communal forest, on March 5, 2021. "Blood will flow".

On one side of the nursery, criminals knocked down two trees and a warehouse where community organizations and authorities kept seeds and other belongings. 

That morning, Agustin Par got scared. He is an old man, he has been taking care of that nursery for more than 20 years and nothing like this had ever happened; now this incident has him worried.

In 2021, the Board of Directors of 48 cantons, one of the boards that make up the community governance system in this department of the Guatemalan Western Highlands, called this group that cuts down the forests an organized criminal structure. And both authorities from the National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP) and the Nature Protection Division (DIPRONA), an instance of the National Civil Police (PNC), maintain that it is a dangerous structure.  

This criminal structure operates in an organized manner, for example, if one of its members is arrested, the others mobilize quickly to prevent him from being imprisoned or fined, explains Germán García, head of CONAP in that department. 

“Here there is an organized structure, those who are visible and those who are not; the ones you see are the operatives, the operatives are the loggers,” says García, who recalls that in a mishap three months ago, CONAP personnel sustained injuries that required hospitalization. 

"Going to the forest is a risk, it scares me, but we do it, that's our job," says Garcia, who recounts that if they meet the perpetrators during their rounds through the forest, they attack them with machetes, sticks or whatever they have within their reach. 

Loggers are tough. "You can't say the names of the members of the structure, but we already know who they are," says this man who is afraid to enter the forest, but does so bravely.

“Five months ago we had an altercation, we consigned a car full of boards. We stopped the driver of the vehicle and he stopped. The next step was to request the documents of the wood he was transporting and he did not present anything. We stopped the driver, but before we could put the shackles on him he made a phone call and spoke in his language (K'iche'), we did not understand anything. At the time of transferring the detainee to the police station, a swarm of pickups appeared with people in the basin. At that moment we understood the purpose of the call. In less than three minutes, the hundreds of people who came in the pickups opened the patrol car and took the detainee away with handcuffs and everything. The wood and the vehicle are still in custody,” says Adán Eliseo Ramírez, Head of DIPRONA in Totonicapán.  

DIPRONA is a government entity whose mission is to stop the transgressors of nature and educate the population not to destroy the country's natural assets. This division of the PNC is found in 19 delegations of the national territory.     

A police officer stands outside his car
DIPRONA personnel in the department of Totonicapán are scarce, which is why they do not patrol the forest on a constant basis / Credit: Gilberto Escobar.

But the aforementioned incident is not the only one that DIPRONA agents have witnessed in Totonicapán. Another was the day they were arrested in a community where they tried to verify the existence of a huge amount of wood in a private house. "We only wanted to see if the wood had any certificate that guaranteed the origin of the wood, but the population clung to the fact that agreement 169 protects them," says Ramírez. 

Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization was ratified by Guatemala in 1996. This convention has two principles: the right of Indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their own cultures, ways of life and institutions, and their right to participate effectively in the decisions that affect them.  

However, for Ramírez, the inhabitants of the communities misuse the concept of being Indigenous. "I am Indigenous, but in my culture we do not preach cutting down trees, attacking people, on the contrary, our vision is to live in harmony with nature," she explains. 

“It's complex with the loggers, they watch over the PNC and DIPRONA, they know where we are, that's why they evade the checkpoints. Another modus operandi is violence; although we have not seen them use firearms, they do use machetes, sticks and waves, with that they have attacked us,” says Ramírez.

The number of DIPRONA agents working in Totonicapán is small, no more than five, and they must cover the eight municipalities that make up the department. Ramírez points out that this is one of the reasons why there are no permanent operations in the 22,000-hectare community forest. 

But the illegal felling of cypress (Cupressus) and oak (Quercus) trees, which amounts to some 68,412 trees a year, not only worries or concerns CONAP representatives or environmental organizations that have projects in that department. It also concerns the president of the Board of Directors of Natural Resources of the 48 cantons. Until August 2022, that position was held by Francisco Noé Aguilar Hernández, who shares that the issue of illegal logging keeps him up at night, because that structure that operates in the forests in an organized manner is violent and is impacting the ecosystem. Likewise, for José Santos Sapón, former president of 48 Cantons, this structure does not manage itself, it needs local politicians to exist: municipal mayor and deputies.

The departmental Governor and the municipal mayor of Totonicapán were asked for an interview so that they could offer their version of events and explain what actions they are taking to stop the criminal group that is cutting down the communal forest, but they did not grant it.

“Local politicians try to fit in with them (the structure). One of the ways to achieve this is not to attack illegal logging, there are no serious efforts to reduce it. It is a problem that no one wants to address,” says Sapón.

The criminal structure is not made up of many people, say some residents of Totonicapán consulted about it and who requested anonymity. "They don't exceed 100 people, maybe there are about 50," they indicate. What the interviewees do say is that they use children and women to stop the punitive actions against them. They are placed in the front row, as shields, when the authorities intend to arrest them. 

“Recently we fined a man for Q8,000 (US$1,066) who was transporting firewood whose legal origin he could not indicate. Not even five minutes passed when a group of people gathered the money and the logger left, just like that,” says Aguilar.

There are currently two cases of illegal logging in court. Germán García, in charge of CONAP, says that reaching a legal penalty would be a success to have a precedent and stop the illegal structure that operates in the forest. He also comments that CONAP is following up on one of the two cases cited. But, the judges are not prepared in the field of forest crimes and they do not rely on the law of protected areas to issue their sentences. 

García cites article 81 of this law: “Attacks the Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Nation: whoever, without having a license granted by a competent authority, cuts, collects live or dead specimens, parts or derivatives of species of wild flora and fauna, as well as whoever transports, exchanges, markets or exports archaeological pieces or derivatives of these, will be punished with imprisonment from five to ten years and a fine of Q10 thousand (US $1,333) to Q20 thousand (US $2,666). 

When consulting the authorities of the Public Ministry (MP), the Justice of the Peace and the Drug Activity Court in Totonicapán, none of the people in charge of these three government institutions indicated that they were aware of any complaint or case of illegal logging. 

A truck carrying logs
In Totonicapán it is common to see pickup vehicles loaded with firewood, at any time of the day, and nobody says or does anything. Everything is solved by paying bribes to the authorities that should prevent illegal logging, say sources who requested anonymity / Credit: Gilberto Escobar.

If the competent authorities do not act, how do we protect the forest?

The ancestral organization of Totonicapán is made up of the 48 Cantons, it is recognized for its service to the people and for taking care of its natural resources.

In addition to the Board of Directors of the 48 cantons, there are the Board of Directors of Natural Resources, the Board of Directors of Sheriffs of the First Fortnight, the Board of Directors of Sheriffs of the Second Fortnight and the Board of Directors of Delegates of Baños de Agua Caliente. Each board has a specific mission. The Natural Resources, for example, is the one that watches over the care of communal forests. The time that the president of each board presides over it is one year, and the election of the directors is made by the people of each community, who meet in assemblies. During the 365 days that the members of the boards are in charge of them, the leaders hold the position ad honorem (without receiving any economic incentive) and this practice is known as k'ax k'ol.

In her book: Systems of Indigenous Communal Government, women and kinship plots of Chuimeq'ena', the anthropologist Gladys Tzul Tzul, explains that the k'ax k'ol is a K'iche' work strategy. Etymologically k'ax means pain and k'ol work or service. This means that it is an activity in which men, women, girls, and boys work to produce communal well-being.

Another form of governance in the forests of Totonicapán are partialities, which are derived from direct ancestral family nuclei. For example, there is the Sapon bias and the Baquiax bias. Each one is made up of members of a family, which is why they bear the surname of the family they represent, and are responsible for managing, caring for, and protecting a certain number of hectares of non-communal forest, lands that are their property. They function alongside the board of directors structure, for one year. In total, the 13 partialities that exist are: Baquiax, Quiaquix, Batz, Caxaj, Tax, Ajpacajá, Velazco, Chipuac, Paquí, Chuamazán, Vásquez, Chaclanes and García. 

For the non-governmental environmental organization EcoLogic Development Fund, the type of governance in Totonicapán is a strength to implement environmental projects, like the ones they have carried out for 19 years working in the department. Other institutions that see the potential of this organizational model and that also carry out projects in this department are: CARE Guatemala, Utz Ché Community Forestry Association of Guatemala, Western Rural Development Cooperation Association (CDRO) and Legal and Social Services ( SERJUS).

A man stands amongst tree seedlings
Agustín Par watches over the growth of more than 100,000 seedlings that are planted annually in the communal forest of Totonicapán / Credit: Gilberto Escobar.

The wealth of biodiversity that protects the communal forest 

Ten minutes from the center of Totonicapán is the forest nursery of the 48 Cantons; It can be reached by car and, on foot, the journey can take 45 minutes. Agustín Par regularly stays in that place and is in charge of watching over the growth of the seedlings of different forest species until they are ready to move to the final soil. Agustín speaks to them and takes care of them, so he also suffers when he sees how pickup trucks full of wood and firewood pass in front of the nursery, coming from the ancestral forest of the 48 Cantons. His eyes are cloudy when he remembers those images “no one can stop them”, he says.

The communal forest of Totonicapán covers an area of ​​22,000 hectares, of which 11,377 were declared protected areas by CONAP in 1989. More than 19 species of flora grow there, including: mazote (Acaena elongata L), yarrow (Achillea millefolium L), fern (Adiantum andicola Liebm), rayjan (Baccharis vaccinioides HBK), horsetail (Equisetum arvense L. E Hyemale).It is also inhabited by more than 25 species of animals including: emerald toucanette (Aulacorhynchus prasinus), chipmunk (Basileuterus belli), sparrowhawk (Buteo albonotatus), blue hummingbird (Colibri thalassinus), mound magpie (Cyanocorax melanocyaneus), patched woodpecker (Dendrocopos). scolaris) highlights the degree thesis "Importance of environmental education in the conservation of the flora and fauna of the Chajil Siwan Community Ecological Park",  

To guide the management and conservation actions of this communal forest, by the competent environmental authorities, the municipality of Totonicapán has had an Environmental and Natural Resources Policy since November 2020, which aims to strengthen gender equality, governance, local social and economic development through a monitoring commission that will allow coordination between the municipality and local actors. 

As indicated in the environmental policy, the Totonicapán forest is mostly made up of conifers with species of pine (Pinus ayacahuite) and oak (Quercus sp) and is the biggest area at the national level for the natural regeneration of pinabete (Abies guatemalensis Rehder ), an emblematic and highly demanded species at Christmas time, due to its characteristic aroma. 

Another aspect that highlights the environmental policy is that the forests of Totonicapán are cloudy montane forests, so their protection would contribute to guaranteeing the flows of more than 1,500 water sources that exist there. According to a study by Sergio Godínez, from the Forestry Engineering Academic Program of the University Center of the Northwest, of the University of San Carlos de Guatemala, these forests experience high rainfall and persistent fog, and fulfill the function of regulating the quantity and quality of water they capture This function of effective interception of rainwater and mist condensation is related to the architecture of the branches and leaves of the trees that form them, in association with plants that only use them for support (epiphytes). Likewise, they are ecosystems with great diversity,

Some of these springs dry up in the summer, so with the increase in global temperature due to climate change, there is a risk that they will dry up permanently. To this risk must also be added the contamination of the tributaries, due to the lack of wastewater treatment, the abundance of solid waste and its inadequate management in this department and the country in general, as indicated in the aforementioned document.

Fernando Racancoj, an agronomist who works at EcoLogic and has more than 16 years of experience in forestry, points out that "apart from the 1,500 water sources provided by the Totonicapán forest, it provides oxygen and favors ecotourism, it has a lot of potential for its sustainable use, but, unfortunately, on the part of the community and governmental authorities there are no clear plans for its good management”.

For this reason, EcoLogic works with organized communities in the conservation of natural resources, through reforestation and restoration activities, strengthening community organization, forest production, the implementation of clean technology and environmental education, says agronomist Mario Ardany De León, country representative of EcoLogic. 

A road running through a forest
The forests of Totonicapán are montane cloudy, so their protection would help guarantee the flows of more than 1,500 water sources that exist there / Credit: Gilberto Escobar.

A story of a lumberjack  

Manuel, a young man who is no more than 25 years old, agreed to grant this interview with a fictitious name, because doing it with his real name would bring him serious consequences.

Manuel says that in his community, those who have authority over the mountain's resources: water and trees, are the community authorities. And the same happens in several places in the department, where the communities have autonomy and their own local governments. Therefore, every Sunday, in the community where he lives, several men line up in front of the community hall to request permission to cut down trees for the sale of firewood. The community leaders accompany the applicant to see the tree, evaluate it and, depending on its size, charge them a fee that can range between Q150 (US$20) and Q400 (US$53). The money that is collected is used in some local projects, to improve some road, or the pipe that transports water to each home. Permits are valid only in the community in which the applicant lives and trees located near water sources may not be touched. Then, to compensate for the loss of trees, the loggers must participate in the reforestation days promoted by the community authorities. "No one can deny that," says Mauel. 

 "If the tree we want to cut is large, good profits are made, but if not, little is earned from the sale of firewood," adds Manuel, who prior to becoming a lumberjack was only dedicated to transporting firewood, a job he practiced for more than five years. years. “Per trip I earned up to Q150 (US$20), but I didn't just make one trip, there were up to four a week, so my income could reach Q450 (US$60). The most commercialized type of firewood in Totonicapán is pine and oak”, indicates the young man.

From his years as a firewood transporter, Manuel also remembers that he had to have money on hand for “the waters (bribery)” of the policemen. “They stopped us and we left them Q20 (US$3) or less for each firewood pickup and they let us go without much trouble,” he says.

“Then I realized that you earn more by cutting and selling. A friend (woodcutter) left for the United States and left me all his clients (firewood buyers), at that moment I formally entered the business”, he recounts.

Manuel continues speaking and says that the community authorities do not allow the loggers to use chainsaws. "Only the ax or a big saw is used to fell trees." "If a chainsaw were used in my community, there would no longer be trees," says this legal lumberjack who makes express deliveries of firewood every Tuesday and Saturday. His clientele is loyal, some of them are his neighbors and also the owners of several local bakeries, who know his schedule and receive him at the door of his home or business.

This young lumberjack indicates that even if he wanted to leave his trade, he does not have many options, since he did not study and thus it is more difficult to get a well-paid job. He would like to go to the United States illegally and does not rule out the possibility of doing so, but “raising the money (about Q120 thousand or US$16 thousand) is complicated, so being a lumberjack is what I have,” he adds.

Why do they continue to use firewood in Totonicapán?

According to the study, firewood consumption and its environmental impact at the level of the municipality of Totonicapán published in March 2022, with the support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Rainforest Alliance, EcoLogic, CONAP and the Board Directive of the 48 cantons, the issue of logging is a practice that puts the forest cover of the place at risk, since there are no plans for its sustainability.  

Another of the findings of this study is that there are 68,412 trees that are cut each year in Totonicapán to use them as firewood. That translates into 71 pickup trucks that enter the municipality of Totonicapán daily from the communal forest. Only Manuel adds 96 annual pickups to that amount. To determine this amount, the investigators carried out an ocular inspection at different points in the municipality of Totonicapán, where they verified the transit of vehicles loaded with illegal firewood. What the institutions that work in the communal forest lack is historical data to be able to make projections of how many years it will end if illegal logging continues at the current rate.  

The most used trees for firewood are Pinus aristata, Pinus Chiapensis, Quercus, Alnus glutinosa and although the price of each firewood task can be Q255 (US$34) this will depend on the tree species. For example, oak firewood is more expensive because it takes longer to consume, users argue.

The aforementioned 68,412 trees felled per year in the municipality of Totonicapán is equivalent to an area of ​​310 deforested hectares, indicates the study in question, and the total firewood consumed annually in that place is 73,881 cubic meters. Therefore, one of the recommendations that the authors of the study to alleviate the situation is to implement a program of wood-saving stoves.

Fernando Racancoj, from EcoLogic, one of the organizations in charge of the study, says that the results of this study were presented to organizations related to environmental issues and to the Departmental Government of Totonicapán, but they have not commented on it.

A fire
Most families in the municipality of Totonicapán use firewood to cook their food, or to keep warm at home / Credit: Gilberto Escobar.

Wood versus gas 

In Totonicapán, a 35lb gas cylinder costs Q171 (US$19) and can last 20 days, while a firewood task that can last up to 15 days costs between Q250 (US$33) and Q300 (US$40), depending on the type of fuel. firewood, with oak being the most expensive because it takes longer to consume. 

Juana Amalia Sapón Hernández, a housewife, says that there are cultural practices that are good and others that are bad. She categorizes the use of firewood as bad, because buying gas is cheaper. 

However, she also comments that many people like her: “we use gas and wood, because we have that opportunity to have a stove, so what we do is cook corn or beans with fire (wood), and quick cooking things we make them on the stove”, says Sapón.

A pile of oak logs
Oak firewood is the most consumed by the inhabitants of the municipality of Totonicapán / Credit: Gilberto Escobar.

More reasons why illegal logging continues

Totonicapán is located more than 250 kilometers from the Capital City of Guatemala, it is the department where more than 98% of the population identifies as Mayan K'ICHE', according to data from the 2018 National Population Census, which makes it the place with the largest indigenous population nationwide.

Totonicapán is also one of the three most unequal departments in the country, since together with Alta Verapaz and Quiché they share the highest figures. 

The most recent data from the National Institute of Statistics (INE) dating from 2014 indicate that the three most unequal departments in Guatemala and with the highest figures for extreme poverty are Alta Verapaz, Quiché and Totonicapán: 53.6%, 41.8% and 41.1%. , respectively. 

According to the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC), extreme poverty means not having the financial resources to meet basic food needs, or living on less than US$1 a day. That is the situation of the indigenous population in Totonicapán. 

Another challenge faced by the indigenous population of Totonicapán is to obtain food for their subsistence and that explains why 70% of its population under 5 years of age suffers from chronic malnutrition, according to the latest National Maternal and Child Health Survey (ENSMI) carried out in 2014.

Until 2018, the population of Totonicapán was 160,343 inhabitants, according to the most recent data from the National Institute of Statistics (INE), and they are dedicated to three economic activities, which, according to the Ministry of Economy (MINECO) are: sale of crafts, weaving and agriculture. 

For a 10-hour day of work in the field, farmers receive Q75 (US$10) and it is with this income that they support families of up to seven members.

EcoLogic's Racancoj acknowledges that to date there has not been a large program with financing for loggers to stop being loggers and dedicate themselves to another productive activity, there have only been some specific efforts. “On the other hand, people are not going to want to change that practice that they already have ingrained,” he says.

“The logging trade has been inherited from one generation to another, but it is also an economic issue. As for the economy, the loggers persist because many of them live from the sale of firewood; They do not have studies and have little or no economic income, so the immediate work activity that allows them to survive is cutting down trees, either for sale or for use in their homes,” adds Racancoj.  

Mario De León, from EcoLogic, says that progress in forestry issues in Totonicapán depends on the dynamism of the Boards of Directors that change year after year. “There are cycles in which we see the management of the Natural Resources of 48 Cantons as passive, there are others in which it is stronger; this year's has not shown much interest, ”he says.

Likewise, De León indicates, the dialogue table on illegal logging that was established in 2014 with the aim of creating strategies to reduce the felling of trees, make diagnoses and promote alternative ventures for loggers was no longer activated. This table was chaired by the Natural Resources Board of Directors of 48 cantons and other organizations such as the Public Ministry (MP), the Judicial Body (OJ), NGOs and representatives of the loggers.

And with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, reports German García from CONAP, illegal logging increased, because no authority could go out to patrol the forest and when they were able to do so, "what we found was a cemetery of trees".

Francisco Miguel Yax, current president of the Board of Directors of Natural Resources, although he only has four months left in the position, says: "We are monitoring the forest to reduce illegal logging, but there are strong conflicts there."

This is how, given the indifference, little will and capacity for action of many government actors to stop illegal logging, the criminal structure that operates in an organized manner in the forests of Totonicapán continues to fell more trees every day. “They don't start to analyze the great impact that this situation will have, perhaps the water will begin to be scarce,” Agustín Par laments, as he continues to water the pylons of different tree species that will be planted next year.  

This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published  in Spanish by No-Ficción on 7 July 2022. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Evidence of indiscriminate logging / Credit: Gilberto Escobar.

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