Published on Monday, August 22, 2005 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Village in Guatemalan Rain Forest Thrives with Ecological Logging
Lumber Sold in U.S. Through Program that Certifies Wood
by Jill Replogle
|CARMELITA, Guatemala -
The loud drone of a gas generator and the buzz of power saws break
the jungle silence. While a logger strips the bark off a mahogany tree, six
teenage boys sand boards of Santa Maria, a popular hardwood used in furniture
Some of the finished product is destined for a college campus in the East Bay and a pool in San Francisco's Sunset District.
But unlike so much logging that has devastated forests throughout Latin America, including other areas of this 5 million acre rain forest in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, these workers toil under strict guidelines issued by a European organization that encourages responsible management of the world's forests. Many of their wood products are shipped to the United States and Europe.
"It's the best model in Latin America," said José Román Carrera, Central America forestry coordinator for the New York-based Rainforest Alliance.
The cooperative that works the 130,000-acre concession in the rain forest here consists of 56 impoverished families from the jungle village of Carmelita. It is one of 13 locally managed forest concessions the Guatemalan government has given to communities living in the reserve.
"We started by just selling mahogany logs and boards at the national level," said former cooperative president Juan Trujillo, who like other Carmelita residents once eked out a living collecting coagulated tree sap used to produce chewing gum. "Now we are trying to increase business" by selling processed wood abroad.
The concessions, which range from 125,000 acres to 200,000 acres, are logged in accordance with rules laid down by the Forest Stewardship Council, a nonprofit organization based in Bonn, Germany. Under the guidelines, only one or two trees per hectare (2.4 acres) can be extracted inside concession areas.
Environmental organizations credit the approach with reducing deforestation, protecting watersheds and wetland areas while providing a steady income for local residents.
"The best preserved places in the reserve are in the concession areas," said Liza Grandia, a UC Berkeley anthropologist who has worked with Carmelita and other reserve communities. "They have done an incredible job, even though many have only a third-grade education."
The Maya Biosphere Reserve is Central America's most biologically diverse rain forest, one of the largest jungle areas north of the Amazon. It is home to such endangered species as jaguar and scarlet macaw and more than 200 Mayan archaeological sites.
Although 36 percent of the reserve is protected by law, some of its most prominent national parks have suffered major destruction in recent years due to illegal settlers, ranchers, poachers and drug traffickers. More than half of Laguna del Tigre National Park, a vast wetland area, has been burned for ranching and farming in the past several years, environmentalists say.
Yet recent satellite photos by the U.S. Geological Survey show forest coverage remains mostly intact in the area under concession to 11 communities and two timber companies.
To be sure, these rain forest communities are taking advantage of the rapidly expanding green building movement in the United States and increased demand for certified wood.
Last year, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order requiring all new or renovated state-owned facilities to be certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program created by the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED rates facilities on a range of eco- friendly standards, including energy and water efficiency, and the use of environmentally sound building resources, including certified wood.
Robin Bass, a member of LEED's steering committee for Northern California, says an increasing number of private companies have pledged to meet the group's eco-standards. "It's good for business ... great for your bottom line, " she said.
In June, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to enact a law that requires city departments to buy products that do as little harm as possible to people and the earth. More recently, Mayor Gavin Newsom announced the city had become the nation's first to apply high environmental standards to all its new affordable housing developments, including the use of solar panels and recycled building materials.
San Francisco architects also say they plan to use wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council from the Maya Biosphere Reserve for a construction project at Sava Pool in the Sunset District, and similarly certified wood from Brazil to be fashioned into benches near the new de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. But Mark Palmer, the green building coordinator for San Francisco's Department of the Environment, says both projects are on hold until city regulations can be modified. In the early 1990s, San Francisco barred tropical hardwood because of unfettered logging. Palmer says a public hearing on approving certified wood is scheduled for next month.
"We want to encourage well-managed forest practices, and this is the way we can do it, through purchasing practices," Palmer said.
Early this year, Oakland's EarthSource Forest Products bought 300,000 board feet of mahogany and 600,000 board feet of lesser-known tropical hardwoods from the reserve. The East Bay company supplies such Bay Area firms as San Francisco's MBT Architecture, which is using a reddish Guatemalan hardwood known as machiche in the construction of Ohlone College's new satellite campus in Newark, according to MBT architect Susan Seastone.
Meanwhile, eight reserve communities -- including Carmelita -- are hoping to increase their income with recently opened sawmills financed partly by Rainforest Alliance and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Although logging has brought Carmelita running water and a new primary school, villagers hope the new venture will soon bring them electricity and other advances.
"There is now more work and more possibilities for our children," said Ana Centeno, a member of the Carmelita cooperative.
© 2005 San Francisco Chronicle