CLAG 2020 Special Symposium

CLAG Special Symposium: January 6, 2020

The Maya Forest: Reflections and Projections for the Next 30 Years

The Maya Forest – a region key for global learning on environment and development – is facing a new and critical juncture. Its forests stretch across Guatemala, Mexico and Belize; the Maya Forest is the second largest contiguous tropical forest north of the Amazon. The region boasts a panoply of rich experiences on community rights, conservation and development as well, and is a globally important site for learning around community forest management. Yet these experiences are not uniform across the Maya forest: the past 30 years have seen a dramatic reconfiguration of territories as strict conservation projects, top-down development (such as through the Plan Puebla Panama and its successors), and grassroots initiatives intersected in markedly different ways. The result has been a mosaic of truly striking territorial contrasts, as strong communities with notable experiences in sustainable resource management stand amidst top-down development projects, social fragmentation, violence and impunity, resource degradation, and the resulting outmigration. Climate change is a major stressor as well: the region is well known for its vulnerability to hurricanes and severe weather, and temperature and precipitation changes are already affecting basic livelihoods, in addition to sparking unprecedented fires in the Maya Forest.

Perhaps most importantly, recent political shifts could either worsen or alleviate these current conditions. It is not at all clear that the lessons of the past 30 years for sustainable community development will prevail against external economic and political interests. Foremost among these are related to the rights of communities. In Guatemala, the first of the 25-year community concessions in the Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR) – which form the last standing block of forests in Guatemala´s portion of the region – will expire in 2022. The failure to renew these community concessions would likely catalyze the loss of the Maya Forest in Guatemala, the last bastion against an illicitly fueled agricultural frontier, associated with increasingly intense forest fires. Efforts to enact large-scale economic development projects, including a proposed strict-protected area around Mirador archaeology site in the Northern MBR, could displace existing communities and undermine important livelihoods. A key component for this initiative includes the construction of a train that would make the currently remote Mirador area accessible to large-scale tourism, bypassing community-led sustainable tourism initiatives.

The President-elect in Guatemala (incoming in January 2020) has demonstrated interest in supporting this train, and even linking it with the Mexican government´s proposed “Maya Train”, which would also cut directly through the Maya forest. Land speculation around train routes has already begun, threatening Maya communities throughout the region. Despite bearing the name of Maya Peoples, the government has not adequately consulted its plans with local communities, many of which fiercely oppose the project. In recent years, communities on both sides of the border have faced major setbacks from climate events coupled with lack of policy support, despite having been an epicenter for community resource management experiences in the 1980s and 1990s. In contrast with Mexico and Guatemala, recent titling advances in Belize offer a slightly more hopeful view, offering hope to 25,000 Maya Peoples that have customarily managed large areasof the Maya forest.

All of these changes are occurring as the region gains increasing attention due to geo-political interests around narco-trafficking and migration. New national and international initiatives are emerging that could either alleviate or aggravate the conditions facing this region, if they do not sufficiently learn the lessons of environment and development of the past three decades. The ongoing devastation of the Amazon under populist and growth-oriented national strategies, coupled with international demand for commodities, provides an urgent reminder of the importance and threatened nature of all tropical forests for climate change, biodiversity, and the diversity of peoples and cultures. The Maya Forest faces similar pressures, but the past 30 years provide significant evidence of pathways that work to preserve vital socio-environmental systems. Especially in the context of the increasing international attention to Central America given narco-trafficking and migration trends, a symposium to highlight these lessons is particularly timely.

Leveraging historical perspective in this moment of uncertainty, this symposium convenes international and Central American scholars to assess and debate the lessons learned through the collective land management processes of the Maya Forest since the establishment its major protected areas. This symposium will consist of several themed panels and a keynote address focusing on distinct, yet interrelated dimensions of sustainable development in the Maya Forest. These panels will address or relate to one or more of the following themes, ideally with a focus on evidence of past, contemporary, and future challenges and successes:

• Climate change: mitigation, carbon storage, and participation
• Indigenous and community rights
• Illicit actors as drivers of land use change
• Economic development models and initiatives
• Participatory governance and community forestry
• Environmental degradation and ecocide
• Criminalization and community movements

Symposium proceedings and invited papers may be considered for publication in a special issue.

The Regional Research Program on Environment and Development (PRISMA) are sponsors of the symposium and worked to coordinate the event with the CLAG conference organizers. It will be held in the Casa Santa Domingo on Monday, January 6, from 8 am – 5 pm. CLAG attendees are encouraged to contact the organizers, Jennifer Devine ( and Laura Sauls (, to register for participation in the daylong symposium at no additional cost to conference participation by November 1st, 2019. This conference is open to all who register and will take place in English and Spanish.