Management of the BioItza Indigenous Community Reserve, Guatemala

The 3,600 hectare BioItzá Reserve in Northern Guatemala is of critical conservation importance as part of a larger network of protected areas. Located on the public lands of the San José municipality, in the centre of Petén, it lies adjacent to the much larger 34,934 hectare El Zotz (San Miguel La Palotada) Biotope, a “core zone” afforded strict protection status under Guatemala’s Protected Areas System. In turn, El Zotz borders the 55,054 hectare Tikal National Park to the east, one of Guatemala’s premier protected areas. With such connectivity, biodiversity within the reserve is high; 139 species of ethno-botanic use plants, 95 species of trees, 73 species of birds, 53 species of reptiles and amphibious and 44 species of mammals have been identified here.

BioItzá Reserve is also home to the last community of the Itzá Maya in Guatemala. Living on the north shore of Lake Petén Itzá, the town of San José has approximately 2,000 people, 95% of whom are Maya Itzá. Arriving in Northern Guatemala after their migration from the Yucatan in the 12th century, here the Itzá have developed a way of life based on the sustainable use of the forest resources. Today, that culture, which has until now helped sustain the forest, is under threat. Immigration from other regions of Guatemala and the clearing of forests for agriculture and cattle pasture means that the forests the Itzá have always depended on are disappearing at a rapid rate. The Maya and their way of life are in decline as the rate of colonization by outsiders increases.

Reginaldo Chayax – former chicle tree tapper, mayor, farmer, and forest inspector – is committed to conserving both the Maya culture and their forest home. A self-educated man, Reginaldo never went to school. Himself a member of the indigenous Maya Itzá people, he came from a poor family, but today is one of the community’s most valued leaders, knowledgeable in the Mayan language, medicinal plants, apiculture, and carpentry. He has promoted the continued use and survival of the Maya Itzá culture in his own community for the past 12 years through a community organisation which he established in 1991, BioItzá Association.

The Association is a local indigenous organisation fighting for the protection of its cultural legacy and the ancestral rights for natural resources management. In 1998, Reginaldo’s campaigning resulted in the Association being awarded the rights of the BioItzá Reserve for the next 30 years. BioItzá Association aims to use this great responsibility to improve natural resource management regimes to strengthen the protection of the forest and improve agroforestry practices. In addition to direct management, such as the protection of the forest from fire through prevention, the project’s main objective is to save ancestral practices and share this knowledge with five communities located around the Reserve.

The BioItzá Association aspires to become a key facilitator in protecting the Reserve, and by 2010 a management plan will be in operation, through which protection efforts, resource planning and management, and support for the forest guards and other infrastructure will all be improved. The programme is supported by comprehensive monitoring to understand the status and impact of management regimes on both people and wildlife.

In addition to the construction of an information, training, and research centre on traditional production systems to serve as a nexus for research and education, the members of the BioItzá Association are continuing to work towards the development of small businesses that will enhance the long-term sustainability of the Association whilst also providing an improved income for local families. A language school for tourists wanting to learn Spanish, an eco-tourism project, a medicinal plant garden and laboratory are among the alternative income generating projects that have already proved successful.

It is hoped that in the long terms, and with support from WFN, indigenous management of natural resources will come to be accepted as a new and effective approach to natural resources management in Guatemala.

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