Getting the Goods out of the Woods

By Barbara L. Dugelby

The establishment and management of extractive forest reserves has been proposed as an alternative to unsustainable forms of land use such as clearing for agriculture or grazing cattle. Extractive reserves have traditionally centered around existing or historical patterns of sustainable nontimber forest product use. Most importantly, they "provide legal rights to lands historically occupied by social groups that utilize forest products in an ecologically sustainable fashion" (Allegretti 1990).

In 1990, the Guatemalan government established the Maya Biosphere Reserve, a 1.7 million hectare multiple-use protected area located in the northern Department of Peten. A large portion of the Reserve will be dedicated to multiple-use management, including the extraction of export-oriented nontimber forest products.

Nontimber forest product use has a long history in the Peten. Researchers claim that the Mayan civilization manipulated and exploited these tropical forest ecosystems extensively and sustainably for centuries. Today, many Peteneros still possess a profound knowledge of and dependence on the forest for medicinal, subsistence, construction, and commercial products.

Three important nontimber forest product industries in Peten play a key role in the future of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Xate palm fronds (pronounced sha te) (Chamaedorea sp.), an understory jade palm used for greenery in floral arrangements, chicle latex (Manilkara zapota) used in chewing gum, and allspice (Pimenta dioica), provide part- and full-time employment for over 7000 people and together represent an annual income of US $4-7 million.

Harvesting and Marketing Activities

Harvesters are organized into teams and taken to forest camps (campamentos) by contractors (contratistas). Camps are scattered throughout northern Peten and teams range between 8 to 30 harvesters with one cook, usually a woman. Contractors provide harvesters with basic food supplies, and transportation to and from camps, and transport of resources to warehouses in the Flores area.

Xate harvesters, or xateros, move through the forest, removing palm leaves with a small pocket knife and loading them into a sack on their back. Each xate plant produces 2 to 5 harvestable leaves over a 2 to 4 month period. In camp the leaves are sorted into bundles (manojos) of 45 marketable fronds which contractors carry to the processing warehouses. Waste is very high; at times up to 50% - 60% of harvested leaves are discarded as unmarketable.

The chicleros "bleed" chicle trees using a machete to place cuts zigzagging up the tree to the crotch, and occasionally the limbs. Tapping wounds, placed at intervals of about 16 inches, generally require two to five years to heal, depending on the extent of injury to the cortex. Observations indicate that about five percent of the trees die after each tapping, largely from destruction caused by wood-boring insects and wood-decaying organisms. Several investigations reveal lower densities of Manilkara trees in regions of heavy exploitation.

Pimenteros prune the branches of allspice trees bearing sufficient fruit, remove the berries, and dry them over an open fire or under the sun. According to experienced harvesters, allspice trees resprout after pruning and can be harvested again after six to seven years.

How to Harvest Successfully

The long-term sustainability of the extraction of forest resources is crucial to successful development of extractive reserves. As common-pool resources, not subject to proper regulation and protection, many nontimber forest products are vulnerable to over exploitation and mismanagement.

A primary ecological factor affecting the sustainability of an extractive system is the density at which the exploited species occur. Densities of Chamaedorea, Manilkara zapota, and Pimenta dioica plants are on the whole quite high due to the relatively low overall species diversity of Peten's subtropical forests. A recent survey of three sites in Peten found plant densities of 47, 33 and 23 adult chicle trees/ha; 9, 31, and 12 adult allspice trees/ha; and 2279 and 2479 xate palms/ha (only the two latter sites have numbers reported for xate). Higher densities increase harvesting efficiency.

Another important factor is the temporal availability of products. In Peten, chicle is harvested only during the rainy season (July or August to February) when the latex flows more easily. Although xate palm leaves are harvested year-round, the peak demand period occurs between March and June. Allspice is harvested in July and August, when it's fruit is almost ripe, between the end of the peak xate period and the onset of chicle tapping. The sequential nature of harvest seasons provides harvesters and contractos with a steady income year-round while moderating the demands placed on continually available resources such as Xate.

Potential Barrier to Success

A key element promoting unsustainable harvesting behavior is the lack of regulation or monitoring of harvesters. The dispersed nature of the resource, the thick understory of the forest, and the rapid and continuous pace of the harvesters make monitoring very difficult and time consuming, if not impossible. Thus, harvesters are free to harvest as much as they can, using any method they wish (e.g., cutting down allspice trees rather than pruning them, although there appears to be social pressure against such behavior).

In both the xate and allspice industries, harvesters are paid for the quantity of the harvest regardless of quality, even though Xate exporters penalize contractors for high percentages of non-marketable leaves. For various reasons these penalties are not passed on to harvesters.

In addition, prices paid to harvesters are very low, particularly for xate. Harvesters often take loans for their family or themselves when first entering a camp. It may take up to three months to repay this loan given the high price of food in camp and the low price paid for Xate.

In the chicle industry, harvesters are paid by weight of latex collected, yet contractors and government officials sporadically test cooked latex for impurities. In all industries, the conditions described above essentially create incentives to harvest as much as possible as quickly as possible, regardless of marketability, thereby increasing the potential for stressing plant communities beyond ecologically sustainable levels. All of these factors add up to increased uncertainty regarding the availability of nontimber forest resources. Harvesters cannot be sure that the forest resources will be available when they return to a certain camp. This further reduces the incentive to sustainably harvest resources.

Allegretti, M.H. 1990. Extrative Reserves: an Alternative for Reconstructing Development and Environmental Conservation in Amazonia, in Alternatives to Deforestation: Steps Toward Sustainable Use of the Amazon Rainforest. A.Bl Anderson (ed.), New York; Columbia Univ. Press


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