In forests around the world, there are about 1.6 million dwellers, most of whom are indigenous people. They have their livelihoods and cultures depend on forests. However, 45 million acres of forest are destroyed every year, which is the equivalent of 50 soccer fields per minute.
When it comes to forest conservation, indigenous and local communities understand the importance better than anybody else. For centuries, they have been caring for 80% of the Earth’s biodiversity, and have become some of the best environmental stewards. According to research by the Rights and Resources Initiative, the conservation results achieved by indigenous people are at least on par with those by government-run projects, but only with a fraction of the budget. Another study by the World Resources Institute shows that deforestation rates inside indigenous-held lands are 2-3 times lower than outside of them.
The conservation efforts led by local communities have been bearing fruits in the Petén Jungle. With many areas once seized illegally and burnt down for agricultural purposes, the jungle is now home to the Mayan Biosphere Reserve, a 5-million-acre area that is part of the largest intact tropical forest north of the Amazon. Rather than a single expanse of state-controlled land, the Mayan Biosphere Reserve is a network of over two dozen management units. Nine of these units are managed by local communities, where their members have been making a living from the forest with a net-zero deforestation rate for the past 14 years. They built micro businesses that are rooted in their traditions and values, and with help from organizations like Hearts in Action, linked to the global marketplace.
The approach of combining reforestation and local economic development is called community forestry. Over the past decades, it has created thousands of jobs in the Petén region, where formal employment is scarce. Thriving local economies have empowered communities to better withstand threats to their way of life and to the health of their land. Healthy revenues brought by sustainable businesses have significantly improved the wellbeing of residents, and as a result, kept the local population from emigrating.
The Mayan Biosphere Reserve is now a center for ecotourism and ecological awareness, with so much to be discovered by tourists and researchers from all around the world. Unique treasures can be spotted throughout the jungle, from Ceiba trees to jaguars, ocelots, scarlet macaws, and ancient ruins of Maya civilization. The greatest hidden gem, however, is a lesson we can learn from the people that have been dwelling on this land for generations - their untapped wisdom about life, conservation, and human-nature coexistence.