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.
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.
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.
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.
Pro Peten, Attn: Abby Reis
1015 18th St. NW Suite 1000
Washington, DC 20036 USA
Fax: (202) 587-5188