Project Bill 6054: Guatemala's controversial conservation law

The sweeping new bill to centralise the country's conservation projects under a 'super ministry' is unconstitutional and could create huge uncertainty if passed, critics say.
María Sagastume and Jorge Rodríguez

Marlo García is a citizen scientist whose life goal is to teach others to learn the value and importance of the natural resources of the planet. He is a bird watcher with access to one of the greatest sources of biodiversity in Guatemala: his birthplace, Petén, in the north of the country.

Situated in Petén is the Mayan Biosphere Reserve (RBM), the largest protected area in all of central America. Home to jaguars, tapirs, toucans, macaws and poisonous snakes, the reserve is also a part of the great Mayan Jungle, which Guatemala shares with Mexico and Belize, one of the five great forests of central America.

The Mayan Biosphere Reserve, the largest protected area in all of central America. Image: Mario Bollini/Flickr.

Due to its biological importance, the RBM is the subject of many projects, some financed by the Guatemalan government, but most by the international community. These projects are all managed either by the National Institute of Forests (INAB) or by the National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP). 

It is, in part, thanks to this culture of conservation that Marlo, who leads a bird conservation program, and thousands of people throughout Guatemala have been able to get involved in the effort to protect the country's natural life. 

“We mainly involve young people who are starting to work, and who have expressed an interest in tourism [as a source of income],” says Marlo. “With the community science programs, we support them so that they can become birdwatching guides, have access to information that they did not have and with that, we also benefit from all of this, because we have bird data in areas that we did not have before." 

Marlo leads a bird conservation program. Image: María Sagastume and Jorge Rodríguez.

CONAP manages a wide variety of protected areas in the country, such as RBM, where several resident populations are part of a forest management model. This allows them to carry out extractive activities without degrading natural areas. In Guatemala they are called community forest concessions.

This model is based on the extraction of timber products, such as mahogany and cedar, which the community members carry out in a sustainable manner, and which has allowed them to generate economic development without degrading the forest. As the entity in charge of managing the protected areas, CONAP gives them these contracts.

Like CONAP, INAB also manages projects to protect natural resources, through a program of economic incentives which are given to local communities, municipalities and private individuals who own territories with forest cover, and want to protect them, either as conservation areas or as sustainable management zones.

Protected areas like RBM are managed through community forest concessions. Image: USAID Biodiversity & Forestry/Flickr.

This year alone INAB has encouraged the establishment, maintenance and sustainable management of 16,739 projects, equivalent to 126,333.26 hectares, benefiting 25,893 families.

Both CONAP and INAB, and other offices dedicated to the management of environmental resources in Guatemala, carry out their work with barely 0.13% of the country's GDP. Organised as a decentralised network, they have managed, over some four decades, to create and sustain a series of programs aimed at benefitting Guatemalans like the Mayan Biosphere Reserve.

Project bill 6054

Despite the obvious achievements made by these state agencies, president Alejandro Giammattei's administration began in 2020 with an idea: to create a 'super ministry' that would be in charge of making all decisions related to the management of the country's natural resources. 

President Alejandro Giammattei's wants to create a 'super ministry' that would be in charge of managing of Guatemala's natural resources. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In March the administration put forward a bill to achieve this, known as Project bill 6054. The bill will, it says, reduce the excessive "bureaucracy and poor execution of actions aimed at public policy and environmental protection." It proposes that all the work currently carried out by CONAP and INAB be centralised and managed by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (Marn). 

Centralising current efforts in a single ministry, would, the bill says, allow the optimisation of "human, financial and other related resources, at the time of the execution of substantive activities for development", and speed up "processes in the implementation of investment."

All the environmental, technical, forestry and scientific sectors of Guatemala have rejected the initiative because, according to them, it violates the principle of decentralisation promoted by the country’s constitution.

"Far from seeking environmental sustainability, [this law] would seriously threaten the governance of nature inside and outside protected areas and natural heritage zones," said opposition congressman Luis Fernando Pineda, who is also a member of the Environment Commission, Ecology and Natural Resources of the Congress of Guatemala, which is in charge of deciding whether the initiative is approved or not.

The Congress of Guatemala will decide whether the initiative is approved or not. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

“Article 97 of the Constitution of the Republic establishes a shared responsibility of the inhabitants, the municipalities and all state entities in decision-making on environmental issues,” added Diana Monroy, a researcher associated with the Center for Conservation Studies, “because we are talking about the administration of territories and the governance of goods and services. ecosystems.” 

Centralisation is not only unconstitutional, opponents say, but also creates a climate of uncertainty for current conservation programs, according to those who oppose this bill. They also claim that MARN is not capable of running the country’s conservation sectors.

'An unprecedented setback'

Another big concern for this project bill is the aura of impotence that surrounds MARN. It is an institution that is considered weak against crimes against the environment that national and international companies commit in the country. “Although I would like to believe that this initiative will benefit us, how can we believe in it if MARN has not had the experience?” said columnist and environmentalist Vida de Paz, in the local newspaper Prensa Libre. "It seems that we are going through an unprecedented setback for the conservation of forests and protected areas, and in relation to incentives for reforestation or industrial activities."

For this reason, the Chamber of Agriculture of Guatemala last April rejected the possibility of centralising the management of natural resources in a single institution. It justified this on the basis that it would put at risk all the previous work that has been carried out during the last decades throughout the country, the conventions and agreements that have been signed over the years and the money that exists, via donations and international loans, to carry out this work.

The Chamber of Agriculture rejected the bill because it said it would put at risk all the previous work that has been carried out during the last decades throughout the country. Image: Benjamin Recinos/Unsplash.

With all of this against the bill, there are some that believe that it will not be approved by the plenary session of congressmen, due to everything that is at stake. It was presented to the Legislative Directorate on March 22 and known by the plenary a day later. There is no set date for voting yet.

Given the backlash, there are some social sectors that believe that this will have a negative effect during the next electoral process in 2024. “The ruling party would do well to shelve and definitively withdraw this initiative. Any deputy who votes in favor of this initiative runs the risk of being left out of the next Congress,” said columnists Nicholas Virzi and Gonzalo Cabrera.

No matter what, keep going

The protection and proper management of resources in Guatemala has hardly ever been a priority for its rulers, as evidenced by the fact that only 0.13% of the national GDP (roughly $86 billion last year) is allocated to it. Despite this, there are currently 337 protected areas managed by CONAP and the forestry incentive program, managed by INAB, has injected $31 million into the local economy in 2022 so far.

The current situation is just another challenge to overcome in the daily effort to create spaces for community participation. Image: María Sagastume and Jorge Rodríguez.

It is universal knowledge that public policies and financial resources are necessary tools to manage the cultural heritage of countries. However, for Marlo, and for all the people who live to protect nature and the wildlife that inhabits their territories in Guatemala, the current situation is just another challenge to overcome in the daily effort to create spaces for community participation — but one communities will face head-on.

"I am convinced that, through citizen education and research, we will not only be able to value what we have, but I also know that we will be able to create development opportunities for the people of these regions," he concluded.

María Sagastume is a freelance bilingual journalist based in Guatemala City. She’s passionate about covering social issues, immigration and poverty.

Jorge Rodríguez is a journalist based in Guatemala. He specializes in topics related to the environment, climate change, sustainable development and indigenous peoples of Guatemala and Central America.

Feature image: US Aid/Wikimedia Commons.

María Sagastume and Jorge Rodríguez

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