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Land Rights Help Fight Fires in Guatemala Nature Reserve, Study Contends


FILE - A view of a burned area in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, in San Andres municipality, Peten department, 500 kilometers north of Guatemala City, June 5, 2016. Officials and environmentalists in Guatemala said drug trafficking was behind dozens of forest fires that had damaged 8,000 hectares in the jungle department of Petén, on the border with Mexico and Belize, since January.

Residents of northern Guatemala's Maya Biosphere Reserve, an area of lush jungle and historical ruins, are far better at protecting the forest from fires when they have formal land rights, researchers said Thursday.

The 2.1 million-hectare (5.2 million-acre) nature reserve in northern Guatemala is under threat from forest fires, drug traffickers and cattle barons, researchers said in a study.

Using satellite images, researchers analyzed the severity of this year's forest fires on reserve land, comparing areas of the park where local communities have formal land rights with areas where residents lack them.

Climate change is leading to an increase in the frequency and severity of forest fires in much of the world, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a U.S.-based advocacy group.

Researchers said Thursday's study showed that land rights for local people in nature reserves help nations respond to the increased danger from fires.

Livelihoods at stake

"Communities with land rights are better organized — their livelihoods are intertwined with the forests," said Andrew Davis, a researcher with the PRISMA Foundation, the El Salvador-based think tank that produced the study.

About 14,000 residents have formal rights covering 400,000 hectares (988,000 acres) of the reserve, he said. These rights allow them to use, manage and patrol reserve land, but they cannot buy or sell it.

Only 1 percent of the 8,000 forest fires in the reserve tracked this year by researchers happened inside land formally controlled by local communities, Davis said.

"In the community concessions people have to follow strict guidelines to prevent fires," Davis told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that communities who formally control the land are also better able to patrol the territory to keep intruders out.

Foreign observers backed the study's findings.

"I have traveled through the community concessions, and I have been struck by the deep commitment of communities to conserving their forests," Stefano Gatto, the European Union's ambassador to Guatemala, said in a statement. "By giving these communities concessions over their lands, the government has given them the reason and motivation to fight the destruction."

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