For Progress on Delicate Conservation Issue, Communication May Be the Key

Taking on illegal logging in Guatemala’s Western highlands has not been easy, but a series of communication tactics are starting to grab people’s attention


In the Communal Forest of Los Altos de San Miguel in Totonicapán, Guatemala, EcoLogic partners with a local Maya Q’iché indigenous governance body, the Association of Communal Mayors of the 48 Cantones, to conserve and protect the 21,000 hectare forest.

This forest includes the largest old-growth stand of Guatemalan Fir (Abies guatemalensis) in the country and is home to significant biodiversity. The Communal Forest also has deep cultural significance to the Maya Q’iché. However, numerous pressures threaten the forest’s health. Our joint project, generously supported by the US Fish and Wildlife Service Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act, aims to: 1) restore degraded habitat, 2) build upon and strengthen local capacity to sustainably manage the Communal Forest, and 3) reduce pressure on the forest caused by human consumption.

The Association of the 48 Cantones is an extremely well respected and revered local authority. It has a commitment to and focus on small communities that fall outside the reach of the official state government. Through our staff in Guatemala and the project’s technician, Fernando Recancoj, EcoLogic has partnered with the Junta de Bienes Naturales to build and maintain nine tree nurseries, produce and plant seedlings for reforestation, manage watersheds, and monitor the forest with community patrols. However, the issue of illegal logging had increasingly become an urgent concern that needed to be incorporated into our holistic approach to conserve the forest.

Forested areas (green) actively managed by the 48 Cantones

Forested areas (green) and the communal forest (purple) actively managed by the 48 Cantones

The upper reaches of the surrounding valleys are the most threatened by illegal logging. These include the communities of Chomazán, Chuipachec, and Casablanca. While the communities have long recognized that a problem exists, making this problem visible and diagnosing it, in order to fix it, has been another challenge altogether. In a recent global report, the International Union of Forest Research Organization concluded that:

Understanding the drivers of illegal forest activities is necessary to identify effective governance responses. Often, the drivers for illegal logging, forest degradation and deforestation overlap. Forest lands in rural regions are modified by complex interactions of social, economic, political, cultural and technological processes at the local, national and global levels. At the core lie land users influenced by the economic and cultural contexts in which they live, fostered by poor governance. Power imbalances among economic actors lie behind many decisions for illegal land uses, and frequently it is economic and political elites that reap the most benefits. 

Illegal Logging and Related Timber Trade – Dimensions, Drivers, Impacts and Responses. A Global Scientific Rapid Response Assessment Report. Editors: Daniela Kleinschmit, Stephanie Mansourian, Christoph Wildburger, Andre Purret (2016).

Enter the Multi-Stakeholder Illegal Logging Technical Board of Totonicapán, which was established in 2016 and has since been meeting on a monthly basis. The Technical Board includes the active participation of 14 institutions, with the front-and-center leadership of 48 Cantones, government agencies such as INAB and CONANP, as well as the Totonicapán University Center (CUNTOTO). EcoLogic and the Technical Board wanted to target the illegal logging issue, which tends to undermine other natural resource management strides, yet is something that generates embarrassment and reticence from community members otherwise inclined to work together on local development concerns.

One of the activities identified by the Technical Board was to conduct an awareness raising campaign. To this end, in 2017, we partnered with the Guatemalan Center for Communication for Development (CECODE) to develop an initial diagnostic of how using C4D approaches could surface some solutions to this seemingly intractable challenge. The goal was to begin to unseat conventional acceptance of illegal logging, shift public opinion, and open up discussion of people’s feelings about the issue.

Local participants at a CECODE meeting

Local participants at a CECODE meeting

After a series of consultations and interviews, CECODE developed a communications campaign that included public service announcement-style spots on TV, radio, and social media specifically targeted to the media most relevant to communities with high levels of illegal tree harvesting. Outreach with communities helped to ensure that media content was grassroots-sourced and locally-approved. However, the delicate nature of this topic made even those first steps difficult—the project team had to change their strategy and find completely new participants when they realized that whole communities were not interested in sharing any information about this sensitive issue. Nevertheless, the media strategy has begun to permeate the public consciousness in this area. This is manifest in the increased willingness of community members (additional to ones where video or audio was initially recorded) to sit down and have a dialogue about logging practices and forest resources. TV and radio spots have touched on sub-themes as diverse as medicinal plant harvest and forest law, to using propane gas for energy instead of biomass, to alternative livelihoods.

CEODE anti-Illegal logging workshop

Monthly meeting of the Anit-Illegal Logging Technical Board

The communication strategy pursued doesn’t just include direct media promotion, but also more personalized strategies. Workshops with local communities are a starting point, and training sessions with extractors of lumber and firewood are centered on pointing out the costs and benefits of changing how they go about their subsistence activities, and the importance of bringing their practices into compliance with legal bounds and licenses. Part of the expected result is that workshops and a more continual education approach will have a multiplier effect in terms of bringing the necessary environmental awareness to a larger audience. This is why the program is working directly with users and producers of these forest resources.

Some next steps to expand the C4D strategy are underway, building from one campaign to a more in-depth process that leverages the inter-institutional space created by the Technical Board and the initial interest and awareness at the community level. The Technical Board and EcoLogic look forward to taking advantage of these communications opportunities as part of a multi-pronged approach to halt and reverse deforestation in the Communal Forest.

We will be monitoring the results including change in illegal logging and net change in forest cover over time and look forward to keeping you updated.

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