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Illegal Logging in Totonicapán: A persistent problem requires a unique approach

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The long, windy highway from the town of Totonicapán to the edge of the communal forest– EcoLogic’s tree nurseries are located

This article is the first installment of a multiple-part story series intended to take a deep-dive into a specific issue — unsustainable timber extraction, or logging — at one of our long-standing project sites: the Communal Forest of Los Altos de San Miguel in Totonicapán, Guatemala. As the story unfolds, you will learn about the complexities of the logging issue, the players involved and their needs/motivations, the impact of logging on forest resources and biodiversity, as well as the unique history and current realities of Totonicapán, Guatemala.

Villages in Totonicapán show great solidarity through their ancestral council, the Association of Communal Mayors of los 48 Cantones, and organize as a community to restore and protect their communal forest. Despite their centuries of effort, and international partnership with EcoLogic that provides critical financial, technical, and project resources, challenges remain; climate change, population growth, and the needs and desires of rural and indigenous people have changed as the world becomes more globalized, economies merge, and traditional practices blur with modern trends. For these reasons, EcoLogic, los 48 Cantones, and a multi-stakeholder working group in Totonicapán, are codesigning a public  communications campaign built on an analysis  of the situation and its unique context and history and engagement with village loggers and fuelwood consumers. Ultimately, the campaign will promote a collective path toward ending unsustainable and illegal logging, through the voices of the local people involved.

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In the back of Fernando’s pickup–taking photos to document the use of wood along highway from the communal forest to the town–where it’s transported and sold for consumption

This first installment will introduce you to the issues in play, provide background of how EcoLogic works with communities, an explain the benefits of taking a participatory approach to define a communications campaign. Subsequent chapters will come in the months that follow. As most EcoLogic friends know, our work is complex. We hope this “deep-dive” helps you better understand its value and impact.

Illegal logging in Totonicapán

As the legal titles to land are held mostly in the urban areas, the 48 Cantones manage the forest with political power and guide its use by traditional practices and ancestral beliefs. Though these practices and opinions are widely acknowledged and accepted in rural and indigenous communities, the needs of a growing population in a changing climate are making it difficult to maintain their traditions. Of the total population of theTotonicapán municipality, which is about 134,373 people,  98% of families in Totonicapán use wood for subsistence activities such as cooking and heating, it is a widely consumed resource. On top of that, there is an economy surrounding this resource as many public baths, other businesses, and even neighboring municipalities transport and sell this forest product. It is truly a complex network of actors involved. Some communities do have their own partially-forested lands, but continue to use the communal forest for a variety of needs and perceptions. It is truly a situation similar to the famous social and economic dilemma of the tragedy of the commons, and with other global factors, conservation actors in Totonicapán have called for an innovative solution.

More about EcoLogic’s approach

To help strengthen the sustainability and effectiveness of the strategy, EcoLogic sent me, Riley Hunter, EcoLogic’s Communications Officer, from our headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts to our regional office in Quetzaltenango (locally known as Xela), to more closely collaborate with Guatemala Country Officer Mario de León and Totonicapán Field Technician Fernando Recancoj.

My background is in Communication for Development (C4D), which specializes in the social process of participatory communication, and intends to facilitate dialogue and foster inclusion, participation, access to information. This approach facilitates the empowerment of local people and amplifies their voices on a local, regional, and international level through the use of various interpersonal, group, and technological communication channels; including interviews, focus groups, radio, photography, video, social media and others.

EcoLogic uses communication to support our mission statement, which is to empower rural and indigenous people to restore and protect tropical ecosystems in Central America and Mexico. Thanks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other donors, EcoLogic has been working with communities to curb illegal and unsustainable logging for several years.

For the past 5 years, EcoLogic has coordinated a multi-stakeholder “mesa técnica,” or working group, to address the logging concern, along with our  local partner, the Natural Resources Committee of the Association of Communal Mayors of los 48 Cantones. Los 48 Cantones is an 800 year old tribal council that represents the villages of Totonicapan. We have had the honor to work with them hand in hand for the past 14 years. Other stakeholders involved in the logging issues include CARE Guatemala, INAB (National Forestry Institute of Guatemala), DIPRONA (The National Police Division for the Protection of Nature), CONAP (The National Council of Protected Areas), MARN (Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources Totonicapán), MINEDUC (The Ministry of Education), OFM (The Municipal Forestry Office), MAGA (The Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Food), associations of rural and indigenous loggers.

In 2017, the working group aims to develop and launch a public campaign to loggers and fuelwood consumers on the issue and inspire new understandings and actions to decrease logging in the forest. Taking a participatory approach will be key to ensure that the messages, messangers, and platforms are right. This focus on inclusion, participation, and  empowerment will allow EcoLogic and our partners to collect many important social and economic perspectives, solutions and barriers to help us paint a better picture of community behaviors regarding unsustainable and illicit logging in Totonicapán. In fact, one of the main purposes of this strategy is to better understand the environment-society relationship (i.e. how conservation initiatives are shaped by cultural values, social diversity, and political relations).

Throughout this process, we have and will continue to use media-based tools to record and collect the first-person experiences of rural and indigenous community members in a process of inquiry and dialogue into the pressing issue of illegal logging, and how if affects their livelihoods and environment. These nuanced experiences, beliefs, observations, and dialogue around livelihoods, conservation, and the environment will be captured and communicated to you, the audience, via written word, photo, video, audio to provide you with engaging insights and compelling stories from the rural and indigenous people with whom EcoLogic works.

Lastly, the design and implementation of this participatory communication strategy in Totonicapán will serve — like all of EcoLogic’s work — as a learning opportunity to be documented and shared through our network of field staff and partners. This way, EcoLogic and our partners can further encourage conservation by building our capacity to facilitate community-led research and communication that promotes the inclusion of diverse community voices. And it will help us synthesize key methodologies, processes, and methods which aim to improve communication, mobilization, and the sustainability of EcoLogic’s conservation efforts through including and amplifying the voices of those families and individuals most directly affected.

What’s next?

Make sure to stay tuned for the next story in this series, which will include photography, a rich history of Totonicapán and Los 48 Cantones, and an elaboration on the context of the current situation of illegal logging in the area, as told by Guatemala Country Officer Mario de León and Totonicapán Field Technician Fernando Recancoj.

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