June 25, 2013 By Erika Vohman, Maya Nut Institute
We just finished our Participatory Maya Nut (Brosimum alicastrum) Forest Management course in El Salvador. We received a very generous grant in 2010 from the Darwin Initiative/Museum of Natural History in London for this work, which will be a useful tool for producers to ensure that Maya Nut harvesting in native forest will have no negative impact on the forests or biodiversity. As usual, we got off to a very slow start, as we needed strong partner buy-in to make the program work. None of the governmental ministries of forestry in Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador or Guatemala responded enthusiastically to our proposal at first. Guatemala, because they already require sustainable management plans for nontimber forest product harvest and commercialization, and Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador, because they have no precedent for nontimber forest product management.
Fortunately, over the three year term of the project we and our local implementing partners were able to convince the forest management entities of the importance of this project. In Honduras, PRORENA was able to work directly with the national forestry department to train several staff foresters in our participatory Maya Nut management plan methodology. In Nicaragua, the ministry of forestry was interested in the topic but never offered any assistance and never participated in any field training we offered them. In El Salvador the Ministry of the Environment (El Salvador has no Ministry of Forestry) never showed any interest in the topic until very late in the project, when there were only 3 months left!
The slow growing interest on the part of the Salvadoran government was late but still more than welcome. They sent a high-level staff person to give opening remarks for the workshop and sent 9 park guards from 4 protected areas to be trained in the methodology. In ten days we were able to train 30 Salvadoran park guards, Maya Nut producers and university students to create maps, establish transects, and use census and other sampling methods to collect the field data we need to create sustainable harvest and management plans for the Maya Nut. We need this information and these management plans to ensure that Maya Nut harvesting does not have any negative impacts on forest regeneration and fauna.
We are inspired to work in El Salvador because the Maya Nut program has so much potential to motivate community based conservation and reforestation. El Salvador is the second most deforested country in the hemisphere and the second most vulnerable to climate change in the world. It is estimated that less than 2% of their original forest cover remains. What remains of the forest in El Salvador is mostly Tropical Dry Forest, the most threatened of the major tropical forest types. When the Spaniards arrived in Central America, there were 550,000 square kilometers of dry forest (approximately five times the size of France) on the Pacific coast of Mesoamerica (from Panama to Mexico). Today, less than 2% is intact enough to be considered representative of native forest. Maya Nut is frequently predominant in neotropical dry forests, so conserving and restoring Maya Nut forests also conserves one of the most endangered ecosystems on earth.
Protected areas in El Salvador tend to be extremely small (averaging 400ha.), highly fragmented, and largely depleted of fauna. Nevertheless, because of the strict level of protection over the past 5-10 years, the country offers one of the best and most accessible opportunities to observe and document natural Maya Nut forest dynamics and regeneration.
Most Maya Nut forests I have visited in Latin America are extremely degraded from human activities ranging from cattle grazing, conversion to annual crops, pasture and biofuels, logging, extraction of fuelwood and construction materials, forest fires, hunting and poaching of wildlife. In contrast, some of the Salvadoran Maya Nut forests can provide excellent data about Maya Nut ecology, phenology, frequency, abundance, size-class distribution, associated species and regeneration potential in healthy, undisturbed tropical dry forest. We need this baseline information to establish conservation and restoration targets for Maya Nut forests where. I was very grateful for the opportunity to conduct vegetation assessments in intact, healthy Maya Nut forests, as these are increasingly rare.
Staff of the Maya Nut Institute, PRORENA-GIZ and the Honduran Institute of Forestry facilitated the course. Financing was from the Darwin Initiative. The Salvadoran Environment Ministry sent 9 park guards to be trained: an indication that the long-entrenched strategy of 100% protection and zero management of protected areas may be changing. The Salvadoran government’s forest management strategy is unprecedented in Central America, where a large percentage of the rural population cooks with wood and depends on construction materials, medicines and foods from the forest. The hands-off, 100% protection strategy has been very challenging to implement but has functioned very well to preserve what little forest remains. Unfortunately, their strategy has done little to foster a sense of responsibility for forest management and protection among the people. This may be changing. We were surprised when the Ministry of the Environment asked if they could send 9 park guards from 4 protected areas (La Joya, Plan de Amayo, La Magdalena y El Trifinio) to the Participatory Management Plan workshop.
Maya Nut is a dominant or co-dominant species in 90% of El Salvador’s protected areas. Harvest, consumption and commercialization of wild-harvested Salvadoran Maya Nut can to help alleviate some of the malnutrition, food insecurity and poverty currently affecting the rural poor in El Salvador. Additionally, Maya Nut harvesting and commercialization has been shown to motivate conservation and reforestation at the individual, family and community levels. This is important, as relying on government and donor funding for forest protection is an increasingly precarious conservation strategy.
At the same time, an additional goal of the course was to create more local human resources to manage the sustainability aspects of wild harvested Maya Nut to ensure the long-term health of these forests and the ecosystem services they provide. This work would not have been possible without the financial assistance of Darwin Initiative and the hard work and dedication of our team, most notably in this instance, Nidia Lara (El Salvador) and Christine Woda (Germany/Honduras).
Thank you for reading. Erika Vohman, Maya Nut Institute. June, 2013
 I have visited Maya Nut forests in Peru (San Martin province), Jamaica (Cockpit country), Cuba (Santiago), Guatemala (Peten, Las Verapaces, South Coast, Izabal), Honduras (La Mosquitia, Choluteca, Olancho), Nicagarua (La Mosquitia, Volcanic Complex, Rivas province), and Mexico (Yucatan, Jalisco, Nayarit, Quintana Roo) and most, if not all, are considerably degraded compared to Salvadoran forests.