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Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Relocating People Out of Private Reserves

July 29, 2002

By Cheryl Margolius, John Beavers, & Marie Claire Paiz

In the Peten, the northernmost department of Guatemala, people stake their claim to land by establishing “ax rights.” If land is cleared, it indicates that it is not available to others. So when people come upon a forested area in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, they assume it is unclaimed. And it is not difficult to see why. The reserve is vast, with long borders and many points of access. There are few boundary markers to indicate when people enter the reserve or to delineate where core conservation zones (where settlements are legally prohibited) end and a multiple-use buffer zone begins. In fact, the border separating the buffer zone from one of the core zones is so packed with families that it is difficult to remember you are even in a reserve.

Since the Maya Biosphere Reserve (a lowland forest connecting protected areas in Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize) was created in 1990, people have steadily moved in. Each year, hundreds of square kilometers of the reserve are deforested. To stem this flow and to improve the well-being of the settlers, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the Guatemalan government, and Defensores de la Naturaleza, (a Guatemalan non-governmental organization that subsequently joined in), experimented with a new strategy in 1996. They began talking with communities in the Maya Biosphere Reserve to see if they were open to the idea of small-scale voluntary resettlement.

While resettlement is common in the development realm, it is not something we encounter much in conservation. In fact, we generally shy away from it, perhaps due to the social stigma it carries. Most resettlement projects throughout the world have been, and continue to be, non-voluntary. The voluntary nature of the Guatemalan initiative makes it fundamentally different than earlier resettlement efforts-and it may be the key to resettlement finding its place among conservation strategies.

Voluntary resettlement for conservation is not entirely new to Guatemala. In 1991, Defensores de la Naturaleza began discussions with the community of Vega Larga in the eastern highlands of Guatemala. The community had been living in a pristine cloud forest considered ideal for a reserve but less so for a community. It was remote and isolated, located on hilly slopes that were not best suited for agriculture. After eight years of negotiations that resulted in land titles and new homes for the families living there, they agreed to resettle because they felt they would have a better life in the new area. The cloud forest they left is part of the Sierra de las Minas Biosphere Reserve.

The goal of the Vega Larga resettlement-and the Peten resettlement that followed-was twofold: to benefit conservation and the community. The idea was to move families to areas more appropriate for development and land tenure security and that were closer to public services. Most of the families in the Maya Biosphere Reserve had been moving from place to place for many years. They never truly settled down because they were unable to buy land and, therefore, were always squatting and living with the uncertainty that they would need to move again soon. Families knew that if they remained in the reserve where land was titled to the government, they would never be able to pass it on to their children or use it to gain access to credit. One man seemed to voice the opinion of many when he said he simply wanted “a place of my own, where I know nobody can ever come to bother or displace me.” As he is the third son in his family, the plot his father farmed in another part of the country could not support him, so he and his wife and their five children had been looking for their own land for over six years.

As such, land title is crucial for resettlement. The thinking behind the plans goes like this. If a community agrees to move, the government and collaborating NGOs find it a piece of legal land outside the core zone. The agencies physically move the community, assist the community members with the land titling process, give them access to a long-term low interest loan, and provide technical assistance to help them adapt to the new area. But is this enough?

I talked with 118 relocated families to see if resettlement did in fact create a better life for them. In some cases it clearly did-in others it did not. Working with TNC, I wanted to find out where and when small-scale voluntary resettlement could be an effective conservation tool. After just a few interviews, I realized that the program hinged on the satisfaction of the resettled families. If the families are not satisfied or cannot adapt to the new area, they will return to the protected areas, thus defeating the biological and social objectives of the resettlement.

I arrived in the communities wanting to talk about their future. Resettlement is, after all, an inherently long-term process. By moving outside of the core zones, families essentially move closer to urban areas, which increase their access to social infrastructure such as schools and health facilities as well as to markets and economic opportunities. I thought these were strong incentives for the move. While the families were kind enough to accommodate my questions, it soon became clear that far more pressing issues were on their minds.

Immediate Concerns

In one community there wasn’t enough clean water to last the dry season. In another, the road to the community was washed out in the seasonal rains. During the adaptation period, the three most urgent necessities are an adequate water source, decent road access to the community, and good soil fertility. Communities that lacked any one of these three showed signs of instability-evident by the many families who were discussing leaving the new community and heading back to the reserve. They argued, effectively, that without these basic needs, they were better off where they were before.

Composition of the New Community

Resettlement is not easy. Although families are used to moving around, uprooting, and starting again in a new area where they may be unfamiliar with their surroundings and even their neighbors, it is traumatic. Ideally, an entire small- to medium-sized community is resettled as a whole. But that’s not always possible.

Land is scarce. Few areas remain open or large enough to accommodate an entire community. Even though smaller communities are more cohesive and easier to move, they can lack the critical mass to attract the government attention necessary for road and school building. The typical solution is to settle a smaller community into an already existing community.

But predictably, combining different social structures and power relationships can lead to conflict.

Ethnicity appeared to matter most. One of the most successful resettlements by anyone’s standards was in 1997 when a Q’eqchi’ community that had been living in the Sierra del Lacand-n National Park resettled into an existing Q’eqchi’ community outside of the park, forming the new community of Tierra Linda Zapotal. The leaders met beforehand and agreed that combining communities would be beneficial for both and that they could increase their bargaining power with the government.

Land Title and Security

The titling process in the Peten is arduous and confusing. This is why many people have never bothered to get the title to their land even when possible. It is not uncommon for families to submit the necessary papers and then wait ten years before receiving the title. The agency charged with land titling has changed three times in the past 15 years, is deficient in staff and resources, and is limited by the lack of a reliable land cadastre. When problems develop in the land titling process, they can disrupt the entire resettlement.

In one community, when families experienced long delays in legalizing their land and there were errors in the land census, people became worried and confused. “The government abandoned us,” was the claim of one man, who appeared to echo the general sentiment in the community. Worry and confusion turned to anger. Heated accusations flew. “They threw us off the land so they could have it themselves, and now we are lost.”

This conflict could have been reduced by better follow-up from the outside agencies that negotiated the move. Support, in terms of communication and assistance with the legalization process, can help maintain relationships and stem concerns. Because Guatemala is just coming out of a brutal 36-year civil war, many people remain cautious about engaging in any type of relationship with the government. Trust is essential. For many, entering into a contract with the government is truly a leap of faith.

Just a year after my visits to the community, there has been a marked improvement in the resettlement process. Based on lessons learned from earlier experiences and my recommendations from interviews, the Guatemalan organizations have made several important changes. For example, in some of the first resettlements, an adequate water supply was provided after the resettlement. Now, knowing that the initial adjustment period is crucial, the agencies look for a natural water source when choosing land for the resettlement; if a natural source does not exist, they try to begin digging a well before they resettle people. Also, communities are now resettled onto lands purchased from private owners rather than on unclaimed national lands; this change has sped up the titling process for resettled families.

Many families are clearly content to have resettled and are quickly adjusting to their new communities. Other families are not happy and will probably not remain in their new communities for long. Nevertheless, my interviews in Guatemala suggest that under the right conditions, people will indeed voluntarily move themselves out of a situation that we have come to refer to as “people versus parks.” The key to making resettlement work as a conservation tool is to ensure that it is voluntary and that there are clear benefits to the communities as well as to conservation.

For More Information:

Schwartz, N.B. 1990. Forest Society: A Social History of Peten, Guatemala. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

Nations, J.D. ed. 1999. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Tropical Forest. Conservation International, Washington, DC.

About the Authors:

Cheryl Margoluis is at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University

John Beavers is with the The Nature Conservancy

Marie Claire Paiz is with Defensores de la Naturaleza

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