Deforestation in Guatemala has been increasing over the last 20 years. It has become — since at least 2010 — the main source of GHG emissions in the country, and the resultant loss of natural habitats has been identified as a major threat to the country’s biodiversity. By leaving soil exposed to the direct impact of rain, deforestation has increased soil erosion, leading to silting of water bodies and reservoirs, adversely affecting water availability and quality, and enhancing flood risks.
The total extent of natural forests in 2012 was estimated at 3,643,436 ha (33.4% of the country’s territory) , , with most being located in the northern part of the country, in the Petén department, the Northern Traversal Strip, and along the volcanic ranges, from the San Marcos to the Santa Rosa departments. Broadleaved forests, covering 25.5% of the country in the Petén, Alta Verapaz, and Izabal departments, are the most extensive forest type, followed by coniferous (2.8%, in the Quiche and Huehuetenango departments), mixed (4.8%, in the Huehuetenango and Quiche departments), gallery (0.34%), and mangrove (0.23%) forests. There also were 411,016 ha (3.8%) of seasonally dry shrubland/low-stature forest, a highly species-rich, endemism-rich ecosystem.
Since 2001, overall forest extent and loss/gain have been monitored by the Interinstitutional Group for Forest and Land Use Monitoring.
Forest coverage has been rapidly declining over the last decades. From the estimated 6,973,924 ha (64% of the country’s area) coverage in 1950, to 5,121,629 ha by 1991/1993; 4,152,051 ha in 2001; 3,675,786 ha in 2010; to 3,574,244 ha (32.8% of the country’s area) in 2016. Broadleaved forests have suffered the greatest losses.
Deforestation has been accelerating. 717,075 ha of forest were estimated to have been lost between 1991/1993 and 2001 (at a rate of approximately 93,127 ha/yr); 1,039,602 ha during the 2001 – 2010 period (106,845 ha/yr); and 680,556 ha in 2010 – 2016 (122,985 ha/yr).
The major losses have consistently occurred in the western part of the Petén (e.g., in the Sayaxché, La Libertad, and San Andrés municipalities) and Izabal (e.g., in the Punta de Manabique region) departments. Deforestation has been more intense within protected areas.
However, such losses have been partially offset by secondary succession and commercial forest and rubber plantations in other parts of the country (e.g., Quiché, San Marcos, Suchitepéquez, Huehuetenango, Chimaltenango departments).
As a result, the countrywide rate of net deforestation has been decreasing: 73,148 ha/yr between 1991/1993 and 2001; 48,084 ha/yr in 2001 – 2006; 38,597 ha/yr in 2006 – 2010; and 18,350 ha/yr in 2010 – 2016 , , , , , .
Forest degradation is difficult to evaluate but has been found to be mainly due to unregulated logging for fuelwood extraction, illegal selective logging, and forest fires . Some 70,598 ha of forest were estimated to have been annually affected by fires during the 2001–2010 period , particularly in the northern part of the country. Just in 2019, a total of 344 fires (affecting 30,330 ha) were reported within protected areas, mainly in the Maya Biosphere Reserve and the Chuchumatantes Special Protection Zone .
The main drivers of deforestation in Guatemala have been identified as : the expansion of livestock ranching, particularly in the Laguna del Tigre National Park, the buffer zone of the Maya Biosphere Reserve (Petén department), and the Punta de Manabique Wildlife Refuge (Izabal department); the expansion of subsistence (maize, beans, rice, vegetables) and commercial (rubber, coffee, oil palm) agriculture; the expansion of cities and rural towns, mainly driven by rapid population growth in the Guatemala, Escuintla, and Petén departments; and infrastructure development.
A 2012 assessment of the expansion of oil palm plantations in Guatemala  found that approximately 24,172 ha of the oil palm plantations established between 2006 and 2010 involved the removal of forest, and most (93%) of that conversion took place in the Petén department. Approximately 25% (22,967 ha) of the area covered by oil palm plantations in 2010 was located inside protected areas, mainly in the Petén, Alta Verapaz, Retalhuleu, San Marcos, and Izabal departments.
A study aimed at setting the country’s forest reference emission levels  estimated that a total of 1,039,602 ha of forest were converted — at an average rate of 106,845 ha/yr — into pastures (35%), crop fields for maize, bean, and rice (31%), coffee plantations (18%), other crops such as oil palm, rubber, cardamom (10%), and human settlements (2%) over the 2001–2010 period.
Degradation of forest ecosystems has been found to be mainly caused by : unregulated logging for fuelwood extraction; illegal selective logging for timber extraction, about two thirds of the timber utilized in the country are estimated to come from illegal logging; forest fires, mainly in the northern and north-eastern region of Guatemala; and forest pests. A total of 50 pest outbreaks (mainly involving the beetles Dendroctonus and Ips, the moth Hypsipyla, and the fungi Fusarium and Nectria) that affected 475 ha of natural forest and 1,109 ha of forest plantations were detected in 2017.
Guatemala is the Central American country with the largest consumption of fuelwood. About 64% of the country’s population (particularly in rural areas), as well as some industries and businesses (e.g., bakeries, restaurants, hotels, brickworks, etc.) utilize fuelwood as their main energy source. Total fuelwood consumption in Guatemala was estimated at 15,771,187 t/yr as of 2010, most (98%) of that by the domestic sector, while the sustainable supply of fuelwood amounts to only 10,045,899 t/yr .
Forest fires are most often triggered by using fire to clear the land for agriculture or to promote regrowth of grass for, or control ticks in, livestock ranching; in dry conditions, these fires can burn out of control and spread into the forest. The incidence of fires in the Petén department has increased considerably since 1998, likely as a means to clear the trees and devote the land to agriculture or livestock ranching.
Key policies and governance approach
Several efforts have been made over the last 50 years — or are ongoing — to construct and implement the institutional, policy, and regulatory framework of Guatemala’s forestry sector.
Overall policy guidelines for the forestry sector are set by the 1999 Guatemala’s Forestry Policy . The policy’s general objective is to augment the socio-economic benefits derived from goods and services supplied by forest ecosystems and encourage territorial planning in rural lands by promoting the productive management and conservation of natural resources, particularly forests and associated resources such as biodiversity, water, and soils, as well as mainstreaming forestry into the country's economy for the benefit of society.
One of the main instruments utilized to attain the policy’s objectives is the PROBOSQUE programme created by the 2015 Act for the Establishment, Recovery, Restoration, Management, Production, and Protection of Forests in Guatemala . The Act seeks to expand the country’s forest coverage through the implementation of a forestry incentives programme. Landowners receive monetary subsidies from the PROBOSQUE programme in exchange for planting trees, executing reforestation actions, or sustainably managing natural forests; the PINPEP mechanism targets small-land owners (< 15ha), while other owners use the PINFOR mechanism .
The principal regulatory instrument is the 1996 Forestry Law , whose purpose is the conservation of forests by promoting their sustainable management, reducing deforestation, promoting reforestation, increasing forest productivity, conserving forest ecosystems, and improving communities’ livelihoods by augmenting the goods and services supplied by forest ecosystems.
The National Forestry Institute (INAB), created in 1996 by the Forestry Law, is the governing body of the forestry sector. Its main purpose is to implement Guatemala’s Forestry Policy and promote the development of the country’s forestry sector through the sustainable management of forests, reforestation, development of the forest product industry, and protection and development of hydrographic basins.
SUCCESSES AND REMAINING CHALLENGES
Efforts to reduce deforestation, increase forest coverage, and promote sustainable management of forests seem to have mainly been channelled through the National System of Protected Areas (SIGAP) and the forestry incentives programme (PROBOSQUE). Currently, 52.7% of the country’s forests are included in protected areas. Over the 1998 – 2015 period, a total of 143,066 ha of previously deforested land were incorporated into the forestry activity through the establishment of commercial forest plantations and agroforestry systems, supported by the PROBOSQUE programme.
Nevertheless, deforestation continues to be more intense within protected areas, partly because most forests remaining outside protected areas are located on steep slopes or difficult-to-access zones, which intrinsically reduce their risk of deforestation, compared to forests within protected areas . As pointed out by some assessments , , , despite the efforts described above, little concrete progress has been attained in halting or reducing deforestation and regulating or counteracting its driving forces.
Initiatives and Development Plans
There are a number of ongoing initiatives aimed at reducing deforestation and forest degradation by addressing some of their driving factors. These include the 2015 Interinstitutional Action Plan for Preventing and Reducing Illegal Logging in Guatemala , the 2015 National Strategy for the Sustainable Production and Efficient Use of Fuelwood 2013-2024  and the National REDD Strategy  which aims to reduce GHG emissions from deforestation and forest degradation by strengthening forest policy and governance.
Community forestry concessions in the Maya Biosphere Reserve  is an innovative forest governance scheme created in the 1990’s. Through which, the Guatemalan government (through CONAP) grants the usufruct rights to timber and non-timber forest resources to local community organizations whose livelihoods depend on the forest (Association of Forest Communities of Petén, ACOFOP). The success of community forest concessions has been widely recognized (e.g., , ); achievements made to date include: forest cover has been maintained, the advance of the agricultural frontier has been halted, and illegal extraction and forest fires have been better controlled thanks to prevention, control, and stewardship activities carried out by the concessionaires. New permanent jobs have been created with great impact on the economic income of communities. Community-based forestry businesses have been created, with their own sawmills and collection centres, setting up product chains of value-added forest products. Some community management units have been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
Goals and Ambitions
Goals of Guatemala’s National Development Plan K’atun 2032  include by 2032, having 32% of the country's territory covered by forests that supply economic and environmental benefits to the population; at least 29% of the country's territory covered by natural forests and forest coverage increased by 3% through the restoration of lands suitable for forest protection and conservation; at least 2.6% of the country covered by forest plantations; and zero net deforestation in the core zones of protected areas attained.
Implementation of the National REDD+ Strategy’s Emission Reduction Programme is expected to avoid the emission of 9.25 Mt of CO2e and sequester other 1.77 Mt of CO2e over its first five years of implementation.
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- The main drivers of deforestation in Guatemala have been clearly identified. However, efforts to reduce deforestation, increase forest coverage, and promote sustainable management of forests seem to have been mainly channelled through the National System of Protected Areas (SIGAP) and the forestry incentives programme (PROBOSQUE). These seem to have been insufficient in the absence of rigorous implementation and enforcement of a more comprehensive regulatory framework.
- Replicating and expanding successful experiences such as the Community forestry concessions in the Maya Biosphere Reserve might be worth considering.
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