How Guatemala Blended Existing REDD+ Projects Into a New National Strategy

Guatemalans have engaged in projects to save their highly valuable forests for more than a decade. Now they’re pioneering the nesting of projects in a national strategy – a process that requires a careful balancing of public and private interests.

27 May 2020 | Guatemalans who defend forests have often risked their lives to do so, and they were also among the first in the world to engage in civil society-led projects to reduce emissions from deforestation. As early movers, they pioneered governance and benefit-sharing models that are currently being used by many projects around the world. Now, the country is taking new steps to “nest” those early stand-alone projects in a national REDD+ strategy.

The Guatecarbon Project, for example, was established in 2007 and builds on cooperation between the National Parks Authority (CONAP) and the Forest Communities of Petén. It covers over 721,000 hectares and relies on government-designated community forest concessions. The project is designed to protect the Mayan Biosphere Reserve and support local communities.

This project, together with Lacandón Bosques para la Vida, Caribbean Guatemala-Costa de la Conservación, and Reddes Locales para el Desarrollo-Fundación CALMECAC – which still awaits Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) registration – and other projects in various stages of development, provides essential lessons that feed into the development of the country’s national REDD+ strategy.

Livestock and Agriculture: Main Drivers of Deforestation
Guatemala’s forests form part of the Mesoamerican biodiversity corridor, the strip of land that links South America with North America and contains between seven and ten percent of the world’s known species. Back in the 1950s, these forests covered more than 60 percent of the country, but large areas of this biodiversity hotspot have been lost.

Major rural transformation has driven forest clearance for crop production, cattle ranching, and urban area expansion. Unequitable land distribution and a poor land tenure regime have contributed to deforestation. Today, the forest covers only 33.5 percent of the country. While deforestation has slowed in the past few decades, it still ranges between 30,000 to 40,000 hectares a year. Livestock production has accounted for 73 percent of the deforestation since 2006, whereas agricultural production (staple crops, oil palm, rubber, sugar cane, and coffee) has accounted for 21 percent.

Lately, Guatemala has seen increasing deforestation in the Laguna del Tigre, the country’s largest national park, which has lost 30 percent of its forest cover since 2001. The clearing of forests for cattle ranching has been facilitated by weak governance, poor budgets, and scarce enforcement of protected areas. Furthermore, drug trafficking exacerbates deforestation in the protected areas in the north of the country, by capitalizing on cattle operations to gain access to territory, launder money, and smuggle drugs.

The National REDD+ Strategy
Despite these challenges, Guatemala has set for itself the ambitious goal of stabilizing its forest cover at the 2019 level, and REDD+ is key to achieving this. The government started preparing its national REDD+ strategy in 2012 and last year finalized and submitted its Emission Reduction-Program (ER-Program) to the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF)’s Carbon Fund. In addition, the Government of Guatemala has leveraged a total of USD24 million through the World Bank’s Forest Investment Program, to support the upscaling and improvement of forest incentives programs in 47 prioritized municipalities.

Current efforts build on earlier policies geared towards protecting the country’s precious ecosystems. The Government created the Protected Areas System in 1989, and in 1997 it pioneered payments for ecosystem services (PES) in its Forest Incentives Program (Programa de Incentivos Forestales, “PINFOR”, which later became “Probosque”). In 2010, it launched the incentives program for small forest owners and agroforesters (PINPEP).

These PES programs create incentives for landowners and managers -with or without formal title- to restore, protect and sustainably manage forests. Guatemala also adopted a forward-looking Framework Law on Climate Change, which provides grounds for the implementation of a REDD+ national program and authorizes REDD+ projects.

Guatemala’s REDD+ strategy aims at improving institutions and enforcement and creating incentives for sustainable livestock production and agricultural supply chains. Turning the strategy into action will require a reform of forest policies, as well as the strengthening of institutions and governance. The national REDD+ strategy – operationalized in the ER-Program – builds on existing incentive programs, PINPEP and Probosque. It also relies on the cooperation with existing civil society efforts, and integrates the Guatecarbon and Lacandón projects and, upon VCS registration, the Reddes Locales para el Desarollo project into the program.

Public-private Collaboration in REDD+ Projects
Guatemala’s REDD+ projects are located in regions of the country with low levels of governance. These projects have been developed and implemented with the support of communities and smallholders, and they have managed to measurably (and visibly) reduce deforestation in their project areas.

Most of the existing REDD+ projects rely on close cooperation with national authorities, and some, such as the Guatecarbon project, are designed as part of a public-private partnership on the basis of community concessions. Others, such as the Reddes Locales para el Desarollo project, are developed in close cooperation with national entities and municipalities.

The Guatecarbon and Lancandón projects have been registered with the VCS since 2012, and the Lacandón and Costa de la Conservación projects have benefited from private investment and carbon credit sales.

Aligning Projects with the FCPF Emission Reduction-Program
Integrating forest carbon projects into Guatemala’s national REDD+ strategy makes “nesting” an essential task. For Guatemala, nesting implies harmonizing carbon accounting and measurement across projects and with the national greenhouse gas monitoring system. Most immediately, the country is working to align project baselines (i.e. assumed “business as usual” emission levels used to estimate emission reductions) with the baseline, or reference level, that has been developed for the ER-Program proposed to the FCPF Carbon Fund.

The project baselines were originally established using methodologies that approved for VCS projects. However, these are not completely compatible with the methodological framework of the FCPF Carbon Fund. Their integration into the ER-P reference level results in a substantial cut in projected emission reductions for the projects. This means that the integration of projects into the ER-Program poses technical and political challenges to both the project owners as well as the government.

However, over the last weeks, there has been progress in determining how projects and the government’s ER-Program can be implemented and generate emission reductions simultaneously. The Government of Guatemala has led numerous rounds of consultations with representatives of the REDD+ projects and other stakeholders. This process – which benefited from a cooperative spirit and goodwill from all sides – resulted in the adoption of a National Nesting Strategy. The principles of that strategy have been reflected in the Benefit-Sharing Plan for the ER-Program and will also be included in a national regulation that guides the implementation of the national REDD+ strategy. This Benefit-Sharing Plan regulation will formulate the rules and procedures for REDD+ projects to participate in the proceeds of carbon sales to the FCPF Carbon Fund, but also allows projects to market a portion of their carbon credits independently.

Nesting Projects in the National Reference Level
As elaborated in an earlier blog in this series, efforts to account for emission reductions from stand-alone projects and broader jurisdictional efforts often lead to confusion. Nesting provides a solution to organize—as well as incentivize—efforts at different scales.

In Guatemala, the methodological approach for nesting project baselines into the national reference level is based on a set of principles discussed and agreed upon by the stakeholders. It is designed to integrate and reflect the conservation successes of early REDD+ projects, but also consider variables related to deforestation and degradation risk.

Specifically, the government-approved reference level for the ER-Program is divided into portions or ‘quotas’. In assigning the quotas, two sets of criteria will be used: a primary set of criteria, which is based on the current forest cover and the deforestation/degradation rate in a recent period; and a secondary set of criteria, which depend on whether the covered forest belongs to a protected area, water recharge areas, or a potential restoration area. The primary criteria have a higher weight than the second criteria because they help identify and reward the greater effort needed to implement actions in areas where the risk of deforestation is highest. The secondary criteria allow for the prioritization of areas where the government is implementing natural resources management and conservation actions.

Actual emission reductions will be measured using the national monitoring system, which is capable of estimating emissions and removals during the reporting period in the various areas of interest. New projects may be developed that do not overlap with existing projects; quotas will be estimated for such projects.

Cooperation is of the Essence
Guatemalan governmental institutions and national stakeholders have faced considerable difficulties in designing a national nesting approach to reconcile the different positions and sometimes conflicting interests among projects and the ER-Program. Yet transparency and close cooperation and intensive discussions among all national actors, and ensuring proper inclusion of REDD+ projects’ interests, has proven to be the right approach for Guatemala.

A united front to defend the common position developed by public and private actors is now needed as Guatemala enters the final phase of negotiating the sale of emission reductions with the FCPF Carbon Fund. Moreover, strong local and national agreement on the implementation of REDD+ is essential to ensure the outcome of this negotiation process is considered legitimate, particularly by actors who risk their lives protecting forests in remote areas of the country.

How You Can Participate in this Series
This is the first in a continuing series of articles focused on REDD+. We invite you to post comments or propose your own submissions as the series evolves.


Ecological Regions Of Guatemala

Ecological Regions Of Guatemala

Guatemala is a Central American country with an area of 42,042 square miles. Within this area are a diverse range of habitats. These include lowlands, coastlines, valleys, mountains, and deserts. The climate also varies depending on the region within the country and can range from hot and tropical to cool and dry. The country is filled with lakes, rivers, swamps, and lagoons. Within its borders are a large number of ecological regions. This article takes a look at some of these ecological regions and their flora and fauna.

Ecological Regions Of Guatemala

Belizean Coast Mangroves

One of the ecological regions in Guatemala within the Mangroves biome is the Belizean Coast Mangroves. These mangroves are stretch between Belize and Guatemala, where they make up the Amatique Bay. The climate in this ecoregion is tropical with rainy season between May and February. This mangrove forest consists of red, white, and black mangrove trees which are important to the shoreline because their roots help prevent erosion. This region is also home to a diverse range of animal species, from manatees in the bay to birds on the coast. Some of these birds include Yucatan parrots, brown jays, brown pelicans, and ospreys. Alligators, pacas, black howler monkeys, ocelot, and coatimundi can all be found here as well. The Belizean coast mangroves are considered vulnerable.

Central American Atlantic Moist Forests

The Central American Atlantic Moist Forests form another interesting ecoregion found in Guatemala. This ecoregion belongs to the Tropical and Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forest biome. The Atlantic moist forest is comprised of 34,600 square miles that stretch throughout Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. In Guatemala, it is located on the lowland Atlantic slopes and contains a typical tropical rainforest with trees reaching 164 feet in height. This creates several habitats including a canopy, a sub-canopy, and an under-story filled with dwarf plants. These forests are filled with various animal species, including monkeys, jaguars, and peccaries. The Central American Atlantic moist forest is classified as vulnerable.

Central American Dry Forest

The Central American Dry Forest ecoregion belongs to the Tropical and Subtropical Dry Broadleaf Forest biome. This ecoregion can be found along the Pacific coast and generally only up to 2,624 feet in elevation. Itis classified as dry because it experiences between 5 and 8 months of little to no precipitation. The highest treetop canopy reaches around 100 feet and is comprised of mainly deciduous trees. Evergreen trees grow at lower heights. Underneath both types of trees, thorny trees, woody lianas, and epiphytes can be found. Its unique habitat has resulted in a high level of endemism, with at least 50 endemic plants, such as the Myrospermum. Additionally, a high number of endemic birds make their home here. These birds include the white-bellied chachalaca, giant wren, and blue-tailed hummingbird. Spider monkeys, tapirs, and various wild cats live here as well.

Environmental Threats And Conservation Efforts

The Belizean coastal mangroves are threatened by coastal development, deforestation, sewage disposal, and industrial pollution. The development and deforestation has resulted in erosion and large amounts of sediment washing into the bay which affects marine life there as well. The previously mentioned forests are also threatened by deforestation as a result of agricultural development. Due to the fact that many of the communities living near these ecoregions lack economic opportunities, agriculture is their only means of survival. The dry forest in particular is in need of rehabilitation in order to connect the fragmented sections that remain.

Conservation measures in all of these ecoregions require efforts from the federal government, local government, and community level initiatives alike. These efforts must take into consideration economic resources and involve the international community as well as nonprofit organizations in order to be successful. If a conservation plan is not established and followed soon, the country risks losing these vulnerable regions as well as their unique biodiversity.

Ecological Regions Of Guatemala

Ecological Regions Of Guatemala Biome
Belizean Coast mangroves Mangroves
Central American Atlantic moist forests Tropical and Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests
Central American dry forests Tropical and Subtropical Dry Broadleaf Forests
Central American montane forests Tropical and Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests
Central American pine-oak forests Tropical and Subtropical Coniferous Forests
Chiapas Depression dry forests Tropical and Subtropical Dry Broadleaf Forests
Chiapas montane forests Tropical and Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests
Chiapas-Fonseca Tropical and Subtropical Coastal Rivers
Chiapas-Nicaragua Pacific Coastal Waters Tropical East Pacific Marine
Grijalva-Usumacinta Tropical and Subtropical Coastal Rivers
Motagua Valley thornscrub Deserts and Xeric Shrublands
Northern Dry Pacific Coast mangrove Mangroves
Northern Honduras mangroves Mangroves
Petén-Veracruz moist forests Tropical and Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests
Quintana Roo-Motagua Tropical and Subtropical Coastal Rivers
Sierra Madre de Chiapas moist forest Tropical and Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests
Tehuantepec-El Manchon mangroves Mangroves
Upper Usumacinta Tropical and Subtropical Upland Rivers
Western Caribbean Sea Tropical Northwestern Atlantic Marine
Yucatán moist forests Tropical and Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests
Guatemala’s La Pasión River is still poisoned, nine months after an ecological disaster

Guatemala’s La Pasión River is still poisoned, nine months after an ecological disaster

  • There is no general consensus on what to do about the cause of the ecological disaster: REPSA (Reforestadora de Palma de Petén S. A.), an African palm oil plant.
  • According to the fishermen, in the past eight months La Pasión River has lost its crabs and “piguas” (Macrobrachium carcinus), a large shrimp species.
  • Activists hope that a trial against REPSA will start this month –something that could be bring about more conflict to the area.
In Petén, African palm oil plantations cover an area of more than 96 square miles. Photo courtesy of Carlos Chávez.
In Petén, African palm oil plantations cover an area of more than 96 square miles. Photo courtesy of Carlos Chávez.

Nine months ago, the water of La Pasión River showed up smelling foul and covered with dead and poisoned fish. Soon after, hundreds of fishermen of Sayaxché —the largest nearby river community– learned two new terms coined by environmentalists and by the Guatemalan government: “ecocide” and “closed season.”

Many of those fishermen are now deep in debt and embroiled in conflict. There isn’t even a general consensus over what to do about the cause of the ecological disaster: REPSA (Reforestadora de Palma de Petén S. A.), an African palm oil plant located about 74 miles upriver. The company provides the main ingredient for cooking oils Olmeca and Ideal as well as for Frito Lay and Bimbo.

In Sayaxché there is a neighborhood simply known as “The Fisherman”, that now appears dark and depressed. It recently closed the last storefront business that sold fishing supplies. On June 2015, the government unofficially banned fishing in the area after finding out that the river had very high levels of an agricultural insecticide called Malathion. However, a few months later, none of the supervisors in charge of controlling the fishing activity were still working at the site. 

No one knows if the closed season is still in place, or if that substance that is said to have killed around 40 tons of fish of 23 different species –which also had an impact on the health of many of the fishermen– ended up dissolving into the river. Many people are back to fishing. In Sayaxché’s market, some saleswomen have gone back to advertising “pejelagartos” and “sardinas de leche” from La Pasión River, for about two dollars a pound. Before the ecocide, the fishermen of Sayaxché say they used to sell about 400 pounds a day. Back then, the fish were much bigger and there were great quantities available.

The fishermen collect poisoned fish in order to burn them, June 2015. Photo courtesy of Evaristo Carmenate.
The fishermen collect poisoned fish in order to burn them, June 2015. Photo courtesy of Evaristo Carmenate.
María Córdoba, a representative of one of the fishermen’s families in Sayaxché, is sure that the impacts of the poisoning are still being felt: in her case, it is her $1,500 debt to a local bank. This may not be that much money to other people, but she hasn’t been able to pay any of it off in the past eight months. Besides, the has to feed her three children –a 14 year-old, a nine year-old and a two year-old– often, with fish from the river. 

“Fewer people want to buy the fish. They think the water is still contaminated, even though I think it’s back to normal.” Córdoba adds that there is something else that is making things worse: the communities that live upriver don’t want their families –nor fishermen from Sayaxché— to keep fishing.

REPSA did not recognize the ecocide, but it handed out 201 big water bottles, it paved some streets; built a pool, and some wells. In a strange turn of events, the governor of Petén, Manuel Barquín, said that those responsible for the disaster could have been drug traffickers who may have used the chemicals for their narco labs. Barquín was later accused of owning REPSA stocks, and currently he’s on trial for illicit associations and money laundering.

Contrary to what most people would expect, Evaristo Carmenate does not call for the indefinite closure of REPSA. He’s thinking about jobs: “In this region, more than 4,000 families depend directly on REPSA. If they closed it, those families would be left without jobs or land –they’ve already sold their land to them. This would unleash vandalism and invasions to the nearby rainforest and to archaeological sites. The social disaster it would bring forth would be even worse.”

Carmenate blames Guatemala’s government instead, and is asking REPSA to build more rusting pools, and to return to the river what it took.

Fishermen gather dead fish to try to figure out what happened in the river. Photo courtesy of Evaristo Carmenate.
Fishermen gather dead fish to try to figure out what happened in the river. Photo courtesy of Evaristo Carmenate.

According to him and other fishermen, in the last eight months, La Pasión River has lost its crabs and “piguas” (Macrobrachium carcinus), a large shrimp species. Besides, many biologists lament the possibility that the ecocide may have included the extermination of 23 fish species, including many “xixi” (Thorichthys pasionis), a beautiful yellow and blue fish that had been close to extinction for some years.

“It’s very sad, those were probably the last xixis we will ever see again,” said fish farmer Manuel Ixquia, from the Center of Sea Studies of Guatemala (Centro de Estudios del Mar de Guatemala), who confirmed that the only species who were able to escape the poisoning were turtles and crocodiles.

Faced with what the United Nations called an “ecological disaster”, the scientific community in Guatemala published a statement incriminating REPSA and asking the government to step in. They concluded that the cause had been a mortal blend of Malathion and waste water from palm oil processing —a liquid that is 100 times more poisonous than sewage. This caused “a high biochemical demand for oxygen” that asphyxiated adult fish up to two feet long; this fact could compromise future fish populations in years to come.

REPSA’s palm oil plantations occupy more than 96 square miles of Petén, the biggest, flattest and northernmost region of Guatemala. A century ago, this region was completely covered with rainforest vegetation.

Today, Sayaxché is a town of about 48,000 people surrounded by some oil extraction towers, subsistence crops, and a lot of African palm oil. According to Oil World magazine, Guatemala is the Latin American country with the fastest growth in African palm oil production; a growth of 11 percent since last year. In the country, palm oil cultivation often means forced labor, child labor, health impacts, and environmental damage, according to a statement put out a year before the environmental disaster by Verité, a global labor rights organization.

Saúl Paau, a Sayaxché community leader, is asking REPSA to end its operations in the area. This month, he may take the African palm oil company to trial. Photo courtesy of Carlos Chávez.
Saúl Paau, a Sayaxché community leader, is asking REPSA to end its operations in the area. This month, he may take the African palm oil company to trial. Photo courtesy of Carlos Chávez.
Saúl Paau, another community leader in Sayaxché, is asking REPSA to close down opearations in the area.  

“My fight isn’t for money, but for justice. The fishermen can’t ask to be paid for the damage because they don’t own the river. They have to follow the closed season, they have to follow the law. They weren’t the only ones impacted –so was the environment, and the food security of thousands more people,” says Paau.

Paau hopes that this month REPSA will be taken to court –something that threatens to cause even more conflict in the area. Last September, a judge in Petén ordered the “partial” closure of REPSA; a day later, Rigoberto Lima Choc was gunned down in Sayaxché’s town center. He was a local teacher whom many believe was the first to accuse REPSA of the ecocide. His assassination is something people can’t seem to agree on. The company hasn’t said anything about the crime, nor about the kidnapping of three community leaders at the hands of REPSA employees.

Meanwhile, inside Ricardo Martínez Tobar’s home, people can be heard sobbing. His family owes $23,000 to a local bank, so he’s sold a boat motor, a large cooler for fish and his own home for $53,000 to try to pay it back. To make things worse, a little more than a month ago, his pick-up truck was stolen. Now he says everyone’s going hungry.

Without a pick-up, with his loan interests going up, and his kids’ mouths to feed, Martínez Tobar says he doesn’t know what else to do: “Without work I don’t know how to defend myself. I am 55 years old and I’ve been a fisherman for 36; I only know how to fish. The poison that fell on the river nine months ago continues to harm us: we’re all turning against each other and the fish is gone. But what’s worse, we’ve lost our dignity.” 

Ferry in Sayaxché. Photo courtesy of Evaristo Carmenate.
Ferry in Sayaxché. Photo courtesy of Evaristo Carmenate.
Bombs For Butterflies – An Interview With Dr. Nick Haddad

Bombs For Butterflies – An Interview With Dr. Nick Haddad

Author and conservationist, Dr. Nick Haddad will be joining us the evening of October 15th to talk about conservation biology and rare butterflies.  I sat with him to chat about bombs, indictments, and burning wetlands… you know, butterfly basics.

How did you end up studying butterflies?

I leapt at an opportunity to go to Guatemala to do work with butterflies, which I knew nothing about.  I was dropped off in Guatemala with three things: a tent, an old mountain bike, and a butterfly net, and was told the catch everything I could.  That’s all I did. I collected thousands of butterflies over a 2-year period, but I thought I was going to study birds. I ended up in grad school I had an aspiration to do a habitat fragmentation experiment, but butterflies were a better model organism for my habitat fragmentation work since I was working with hectare plots, rather than the tens of thousands of hectares that would be needed for birds.

Let’s step back to that tent in the Guatemala forest.  How do you store thousands of butterflies?

The reason I ended up there is that there were a few other tents near me from a group that was ironically studying birds, and they had a field shack.  In this building I could take the butterflies, dry them, and put them in glassine envelopes, and you can fit quite a few butterflies in these stacks of envelopes.  I had a collaborator in Guatemala City and every few months I would go to Guatemala City and either bring them to him or send them back to the United States.

You did end up working on habitat fragmentation experiments, can you talk through what that is?

I worked with US forest service to create a network of habitat fragments that were all a hectare in size, but I was asking how can we overcome the negative impacts of habitat fragmentation?  The experiment was to create landscape corridors connecting the fragments. This was – and still is – the world’s biggest experiment to test the effects of landscape corridors.

We started looking at the impacts of corridors on dispersal, and some of the corridors are acting the way they are supposed to as highways for plants and animals.  But then I went on to ask how they impact populations and diversity. And I have shown that corridors have a huge increase in plant diversity and that increases over the course of 20 years.

What is it about a corridor that allows all of this to happen?

For butterflies, they bounce off edges of fragments and they end up in the corridor and then follow it to another patch.   The birds go to the edges to perch and eat and they will go from the middle back to the tree – the middle – to the tree – and they do that over and over until they make it down the corridor.  The corridors funnel wind, too, so wind-disperse seeds travel down the corridor. But the next question is, how does that lead to higher diversity? We think the diversity of plants is related to their ability to disperse through corridors.  We have a whole new area of research on plant traits that allow them to use corridors.

You’re currently conducting research in Fort Bragg (with graduate student Elsita Kiekebusch) What is it like there?

That is what launched me into rare butterflies.  I’m a conservation biologist at heart so when the army called to ask about a problem they were having with an endangered butterfly, well, I jumped right in.  The interesting thing with the St. Francis Satyr butterfly and what attracted me to it was that it lives in wetlands along streams. So the habitat that gets between the wetlands are riparian corridors, and it was a chance to think of corridors for a species that actually mattered in conservation as an endangered butterfly.

The St. Francis Satyr only occurs on Fort Bragg army installation and nowhere else.  Within the installation, it’s mainly found in the artillery ranges, so it’s this crazy case where a butterfly that is endangered lives in seemingly the most inhospitable damaged environments.  But they are actually some of the most beautiful places in North Carolina.

Because people can’t go into artillery ranges?

That’s one reason, but another reason is that the bombs ignight annual fires which keeps the wetlands open.  So that’s one reason, the other is that the butterflies require beaver ponds, and there are healthy beaver populations in the artillery ranges.  Those three things combined create environments healthy for the butterfly and other endangered plants, birds, and there’s no place anywhere else in North Carolina or the world.  Artillery places are the place to be!

How did the St. Francis Satyr butterfly come to be endangered?

It was determined to be endangered right away.  It was discovered at Fort Bragg by a soldier in training, an 18 year old guy who happened to have a butterfly collection as a kid.  When he found it, it was thought to be one population numbering 100 butterflies, but it wasn’t considered endangered. It’s a bit of a story, but the next person who discovered these butterflies was one of many indicted under the Lacey Act as one of many people trafficking rare butterflies, trying to force them closer to extinction to increase the worth of their collections.

That’s what really precipitated the butterfly to be listed as endangered to be better protected.  It was already rare, but this was a threat, and it needed protection. And why did it become rare?  Because people pulled fire from the landscape and they pulled beavers off the landscape, intensely over the past 50 years.

How do you monitor their populations?

Once we know where they are, we are out there everyday of the field season, in the summer months.  Now we count as many as we see, then we convert those counts to population sizes. We have also caught and marked butterflies with letters/numbers and then released them, then we can get a rigorous estimate of their population size, but we found that the counts are correlated with these mark/recapture numbers.

So when did you decide to write The Last Butterflies?

I realized I had all of these interesting stories about rare butterflies, but beyond that there are themes that wind through all of the rarest butterflies.  So it became a way to try to look more panoramically to the messages for biology and conservation biology in general.

We should all care about events in Guatemala

We should all care about events in Guatemala

Guatemala is a Presidential Democracy where citizens vote directly for their President, Vice President, local authorities, and congressional representatives.  However, if you Google what is happening in Guatemala right now, you will read headlines about a democracy in grave crisis in what is a beautiful country of 18 million people.

Elections in this small Central American country last August, saw Bernardo Arevalo leading the young center-left social democratic party “Semilla” and winning the second round of the presidential elections with the support of 59 percent of eligible voters.

But the powerful who rule Guatemala have no interest in Semilla taking power early next year. That is because Semilla’s stated aim is to fight corruption and rescue a flawed democracy which has been captured by historic oligarchies, corrupt politicians, and criminal mafias. Together they are known in Guatemala as “The Pact of the Corrupt” or the “Criminal Alliance”.

Semilla (the Spanish word for seed) is a new political party created by young intellectuals, social activists and progressive thinkers, and supported by the young urban middle class. Following its victory, indigenous people, women’s groups, and other civil society organizations in the countryside soon joined demonstrations supporting the tiny party, as it faced a very difficult transition to power. For them, Semilla promised “a new democratic spring,” and a promise similar to that of the President-elect’s father, Juan Jose Arevalo when he became the first democratically elected president of Guatemala in 1944. His successor, Jacobo Arbenz continued with reforms but the CIA, which at that time lived in dread of the red menace creeping up the map of the Americas, labelled him a communist and organized a coup to destroy him.

It is important for Canadians to understand what is happening in Guatemala today because if Semilla is not allowed to take power, the country will undoubtedly become an authoritarian narco-state where impunity is the norm. Violence, oppression and corruption will become impossible to tackle because the tacit collusion between powerful corporate elites and criminal groups will solidify. Emigration, in these circumstances, will also increase as ordinary Guatemalans looks elsewhere for a better life.

Indeed, any country that fails to guarantee the basic needs of millions creates poverty and inequality, humanitarian crises and more violence. In Guatemala, citizens have already been prosecuted for their political thinking, social participation, human rights advocacy, and environmental protection efforts. More than 30 judges and prosecutors who were fighting corruption and impunity have been forced into exile. Journalists have been imprisoned and independent media threatened. Freedom of expression is quickly evaporating.

To understand President-elect Arevalo’s warning of a Coup D’état, is to look at the past. Historically, Guatemalan elites have enjoyed undeserved inherited privileges. This was the case up until 2007, when the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office, along with the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), was established.  CICIG soon began investigating organized crime and reinforcing local efforts to strengthen the rule of law. Then, in September 2015, after being implicated by CICIG, Guatemalan President Otto Molina was arrested on charges of customs fraud and bribery and he was recently sentenced to eight years in jail.

However, since the government closed CICIG in January 2019, the Guatemalan elite has combined with corrupt politicians and organized crime to undermine the rule of law and stop Arevalo from being inaugurated as President on January 14th. That’s because Semilla is unique. It is the only political party that has no connections with the “Pact of the Corrupt” and has also stated that it will not turn a blind eye to the human rights violations of some international mining and palm oil companies in Guatemala.

Whatever happens in Guatemala will affect both Central and North America. The fact that we divide up the world with political boundaries and a nation state framework does not exempt us from being influenced by the impacts of poverty, inequality, injustice, violence, oppression, environmental degradation, and violations of human rights elsewhere.

Indeed, a market economy, such as the one in Guatemala, that allows excessive wealth concentration is a dysfunctional one in which six out of 10 people live below the poverty line.  Furthermore, two percent of Guatemalans own 98 percent of the land and racism and discrimination have become fully entrenched.

When this article was being written the Attorney General, Consuelo Porras, appointed by the current government and sanctioned by the US because of his involvement in significant corruption, was again on the march.  He had ordered the head of the Public Ministry’s Office of the Special Prosecutor against Impunity, Rafael Curruchiche, to raid the headquarters of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal for the fourth time since the election.

As a result, the police arrived masked, and in cars with no licence plates, reminding Guatemalans of the dark days of dictatorship and genocide. They hijacked the boxes where legal documents pertaining to the final count of votes were stored, claiming that they needed to corroborate the data as there might be anomalies in the voting process. Both Semilla and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal appealed to Guatemala’s top courts to end the Attorney General’s unconstitutional attempts to prevent Arevalo becoming president. However, the country’s highest court has since upheld the suspension of his party over alleged voter registration fraud.

Guatemalan citizens have protested across the country as a result. Roads have been blockaded and Indigenous groups, and those living in rural areas, have called for an indefinite strike, while also demanding the resignation of both Porras and Curruchiche.  The country is paralyzed and the situation so critical that the likelihood of the government attacking its own people is very high, especially as the Presidential transition period approaches.

In the end, any democracy that fails to provide for the freedom and well-being of all its citizens is a very flawed one. And a compliant justice system, such as the current one in Guatemala, that prosecutes the opponents of those who have captured the State and its institutions for their own benefit cannot be considered just.  Yet, while many countries are speaking out in support of the new government, Canada, which has enjoyed 60 years of diplomatic relations with Guatemala, has not.

It has a moral duty to do so.

The high price of being a drag queen in Guatemala

The high price of being a drag queen in Guatemala

“Tú te fuiste y yo me puse triple M: Más buena, más dura, más level” (You left and I went triple H: hotter, harder, higher level ….” It’s 5 p.m. on a hot day in June, and in a room in a Guatemala City apartment, the notes of Karol G. and Shakira’s latest song can be heard, a prelude to a night of partying. From a closet emerge a pair of 20-centimeter flame red heels. Several women’s suits are mixed with loose-fitting garments and men’s sneakers. Leaning against the closet, a full length mirror reflects a strong, muscular back, while, on the other side of the room, several make-up mirrors reveal a face in transformation.

Gloria Deus is 30 years old and a drag queen, or, as she puts it, “draga.” Today, Deus is preparing to participate in a contest at Shai Wa, a downtown bar that in recent times has become a space of acceptance and empowerment for the LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex) community. Three other drag queens help her put on her wig. Deus calls them “daughters” because, as a mom of choice, she had the role of introducing them to the Guatemalan drag scene.

“I started drag five years ago as an art form, a form of [political] struggle and to explore all facets of gender. I am a mixed race person and the name Gloria is a tribute to my Latin culture, but also a satire of the Catholic world. I was a strong believer, but the Church excluded me because of my nature. I tried to change, but I could no longer live like that and I left the Church. Now I feel free to enjoy both my masculine and feminine natures.”

When I started doing drag, my boss fired me. In social networks they wrote that I was disgusting and they wanted to kill me.

In another house, Andromeda, a 25-year-old drag queen, is getting ready for Dancing Queer, a dance show and art exhibition to celebrate LGBTQ+ Pride Month to which Nauxea, another well-known drag performer, invited her. Andromeda, amidst brushes, false eyebrows and brightly colored palettes, sports a black dress, a purple corset, and a wavy blonde wig. “I was accepting of being gay,” they comment, “but I’m also a non-binary person and being drag allows me to express my identity.”

Gloria Deus, Andromeda and Nauxea are three of the dozens of drag queens that have been animating the artistic and dissident scene in Guatemala City since the 1990s. In the LGBTQI spectrum they are recognized in the letter Q for “queer,” a term that has been reclaimed by part of the LGBTQ+ community to reject traditional sexual orientation and gender distinctions.

But subverting the established order often takes its toll. “Drag is political from its conception because you’re breaking the rules and when you do that, you take risks. When I started drag, my boss fired me. People wrote to me on social networks that I was disgusting and that they wanted to kill me. Despite the violence, I continue to do drag, because we and the entire LGBTQI community have the right to exist,” says Deus.

Taking to the streets as a drag queen is a political act and also an act of courage in a country that takes the life of a person for being themselves. The death of Oscar Camey, an LGBTQI activist who died on June 17 in a nightclub in Guatemala City, is one of 17 violent deaths this year in the country. If confirmed as a homophobic attack, it would add to the 67 registered hate homicides that occurred between 2020 and 2022, as identified in a report by the NGO Cristosal.

Violence in Guatemala has soared against trans women. According to the organization Otrans, 65% of trans women have been victims of physical violence, 50% have suffered sexual violence, and 40% have been arbitrarily detained by the police. There is no reliable data on the number because many trans women are registered as men at death.

Although some drag queens are trans women, most are queer people, sometimes non-binary (outside of the male or female duality) and in many cases homosexual. By assuming traits generally considered feminine, drag queens face levels of violence similar to those of cisgender women (in which sexual gender and body are in line), say researchers Alba Luz Robles Mendoza and Danae Soriano Valtierra, from the Pablo Olavide University in Seville in a report entitled, Emociones en torno a la violencia hacia las mujeres drag queen (in Spanish). And the risks are intensified by being part of the LGBTQI community.

“People whistle at you and harass you. Being on the drag strip means exposure,” says Andromeda. “Years ago, I had my face slashed in the street. I left the hospital with 17 stitches,” adds Nauxia, also a victim of violence for being gay. “Another time I was in drag and a man spat on me. Recently, a co-worker found my Instagram profile and humiliated me in front of others. I was afraid of losing my job,” they recall.

In Guatemala there is no specific legal framework condemning hate crimes. But there are laws that restrict the rights of LGBTQI people. A representative example was Law Initiative 5272 for the Protection of Life and the Family, which sought to expressly prohibit same-sex marriage and refused to recognize homophobic attacks as a hate crime. The bill, approved in March 2022, was shelved shortly thereafter due to protests. And it became an alarming symbol of the possible regression of human rights in the country.

“Being a drag queen means resisting being made politically invisibile. They don’t want to see us? Well, here we are, doing political activism with our bodies,” Gloria Deus, Andromeda and Nauxia agree. From their real and virtual platforms they fight against discrimination and defend LGBTQI rights.

“With the Drag Besties community, we organize events in safe spaces where the LGBTQI community can enjoy our shows,” Deus continues. “We also promote the Street Queens initiative to make ourselves known in public places. Sometimes we are insulted, but many young people who have not yet come out of the closet need us as an example to find courage and be free. I am happy because we are fighting hard for the recognition of LGBTQI rights,” they add.



Gloria Deus is not afraid. Neither are Andromeda and Nauxia. They balance on their stiletto heels with the look of someone who wants to conquer the world. As Andromeda goes off alone to take an Uber to her event, a group of drunken people are yelling at her. She looks straight ahead, ignoring them. Nauxia is waiting for her to start the show. A few days earlier, Gloria Deus participated in Miss Shai Wa and did not win, but that night she took over the public spaces, walking proudly as she has done hundreds of times.

“Our way of resisting homophobia and transphobia is to exist. We will never give up,” Nauxia concludes with a grimace that turns into a smile.

Guatemala elections- Green issues low on the agenda in chaotic race

Guatemala elections: Green issues low on the agenda in chaotic race

Оn 25 June, Guatemala’s general elections threw up a surprise in the success of Bernardo Arévalo, the presidential candidate of the progressive Semilla movement, who claimed second place behind former first lady Sandra Torres, leader of the rightward-shifting National Unity of Hope party. The two candidates are now set for a runoff on 20 August.

The unexpected rise of Arévalo, a career diplomat and academic, and the son of former president Juan José Arévalo, has brought hope to many Guatemalans for a change in the status quo, given his anti-corruption and anti-impunity campaigns, and an engagement with environmental issues. He has stated that his and Semilla’s goals are to bring back confidence in state institutions, which are seen as having been co-opted by ruling elites in recent years.

Arévalo’s securing of a spot in the runoff was “a surprise”, said Gabriela Carrera, a political science professor at Rafael Landívar University in Guatemala City. But she added that his success was representative of “a feeling of an anti-vote, a rejection of what we call the ‘pact of corruption’.”

The pacto de corruptos is a term that has gained prevalence in Guatemala to refer to politicians, powerful business and organised crime figures, and members of the judicial system accused of acts of corruption, and maintaining a system of impunity that protects them from prosecution.

Semilla’s progressive platform has met resistance from the current government and elements of this so-called pact, as well as from the Guatemalan right wing. Claims of electoral fraud were lodged by a number of minor parties – and ultimately deemed to be false – while attempts have also been made in the country’s courts to suspend the Semilla party, and to launch investigations into citizen poll observers and those involved in digitising election results. Semilla also saw its offices raided by police after the attorney general’s attempted suspension.

These efforts have, however, been futile, as the country’s electoral tribunal, the TSE, has upheld the party’s legitimacy and the results of the first round of the elections.

The lead-up to the elections also saw controversy, as the TSE and Guatemalan courts moved to exclude several candidates, including Indigenous leftist leader Thelma Cabrera and right-wing populists Roberto Árzu and Carlos Pineda, leading many analysts to fear the elections were being manipulated to advocate for candidates who favored the status quo.

In this fraught run-up, policy plans have often struggled to make headlines amid the legal wrangling, and have met with an electorate seemingly frustrated with the entire political class – spoiled ballots led the way in the first round with 17% of the vote, ahead of both Torres and Arévalo. As the August runoff nears, corruption and security are likely to be the key issues for Guatemalan voters; the environment, in a country suffering from widespread pollution and degradation, has gained little attention, though Semilla, in particular, has made a number of pledges.

As Guatemala heads to the polls again, we weigh up the prospects for the environment in the upcoming election.

Guatemala’s environmental issues
Amidst a chaotic backdrop, the success of Arévalo and the Movimiento Semilla, or Seed Movement, has surprised some observers, in its break away from the traditional lack of environmental proposals that has marked party platforms in recent electoral seasons.

On the campaign trail, environmental issues and climate change received almost no attention from poll-leading candidates, besides consistent calls to clear Guatemala’s polluted waterways, an estimated 90–95% of which are polluted. But the unexpected rise of Semilla – which became a party in 2018, having emerged from anti-government protests in 2015 – has brought more environmental concerns into the debate, given their inclusion of a wider range of green proposals.

“There is a very rapid deterioration of natural resources and there are no efforts being made for their preservation or conservation,” says Karin Herrera, a biologist and Semilla’s vice-presidential candidate.

“Political will, commitment, and dialogue are needed to generate this awareness about the importance [of the environment],” she says. “The beautiful natural resources that we have cannot continue to be so neglected by the state. We need to enter with strength and commitment to preserve them.”

Guatemala has previously been ranked as one of the ten countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and has been increasingly affected by more intense hurricanes and periods of drought. The country is also facing environmental degradation due a lack of compliance with regulations, and a worsening situation for its small farmers.

The Central American country contains vast biodiversity, being the home to nearly 14,000 different plant and animal species. But Guatemala’s economy is largely dependent on the exploitation of its natural resources and environment, for the production of bananas, coffee, palm oil, sugar and spices, among other key products. While legislation exists to address the management of forests, solid and liquid waste management, and water, among other regulations, there is a general lack of compliance with legislation to protect the environment.

“The problem is that many of these laws only remain on paper,” says Raul Maas, the lead of the Institute for Research and Projection on Natural Environment and Society at the Rafael Landívar University. As a result, Guatemala has seen a rapid rate of deforestation, pollution of its waterways, and the degradation of soils, with their health facing pressure from agribusiness and farmers.

All these factors of environmental degradation have wider impacts on society, including increasingly driving many people to attempt to migrate from Guatemala, notably to the United States, in search of a better livelihood. The continuation of these often destructive extractive practices reflects the impunity that has spread in Guatemala, which contributes to further degradation.

These environmental challenges are being made worse by the effects of climate change. According to a recent study, the loss of forests in Central America due to climate change could lead to economic costs of as much as $314 billion dollars a year by 2100.

“The situation is quite precarious without the effects of climate change,” Maas says. “Add to this the variable of climate change, and the question becomes much more critical.”

Environmental policy proposals
As Guatemala faces up to these environmental crises, Semilla has proposed a set of policies within their government plan that would seek to address the degradation. These include the investment of nearly US$900 million into the country’s system for the protection forests and protected areas, with the goal of strengthening not only the forests themselves but also the sources of water that the country relies on, and coastal mangroves to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Within its government plan, Semilla says it hopes to also strengthen the communities that rely on natural resources for sectors such as ecotourism. Added to this, are pledges to expand support for the communal lands and forests of Indigenous communities, upon request.

These initiatives would be “a massive investment,” says Patricia Orantes Thomas, an environmental expert and Semilla deputy elected to the national congress in June. “Because this also has environmental returns, it has revenues in terms of water production, it has returns in the mitigation and protection from climate change, but it also has economic returns because people will be reforesting and managing the forests.”

Within its government plan, the Semilla party has pledged to expand support for the communal lands and forests of Indigenous communities in Guatemala
Within its government plan, the Semilla party has pledged to expand support for the communal lands and forests of Indigenous communities in Guatemala

Semilla is also seeking to address the impunity that exists in Guatemala in regards to the environment. Orantes Thomas says that, if elected, their government will seek to modify the legal code to improve the handling of environmental crimes, beginning with addressing the contamination of waters and the division of rivers for business interests, which has become a major issue in the last decade.

On the other side of the runoff, Sandra Torres and the National Unity of Hope party have made no clear proposals related to the environment. This continues what has been seen as a lacklustre record on the environment in recent years for the party – a formerly social democratic but increasingly conservative populist party, which has served one term in government (2008–2012), and faced allegations of corruption.

“Unfortunately, the National Unity of Hope party does not specifically address issues related to the environment within its [government] plan,” says Elvis Caballeros, a climate risk researcher at the Rafael Landívar University. “It does not have any proposal – they do not give it priority.”

If Arévalo and Semilla are able to win the presidency in the 20 August runoff, they will face a considerable challenge in congress, as the party was only able to win 23 seats in the legislative branch, out of 160 seats.

While the party as a whole performed better than in the 2019 elections, successfully addressing the issues facing the country will require Semilla to build alliances – something which there is a chance of establishing, given the fluid nature of Guatemalan politics.

“[The congressional representatives] that have been elected from the majority of parties do not follow political guidelines, or respond to the politics of their parties,” Orantes Thomas says. “They respond to their own interests. This is very sad for our system of political parties.”

But, the congresswoman adds, “What we want is to try to build bridges with the greatest number of [congressional representatives] who are willing to fight the battles that the population wants.”



Guatemala developed an innovative policy of criminal prosecution in domestic courts of those responsible for serious crimes, including genocide, war crimes, forced disappearance, and sexual violence committed during that country’s internal armed conflict (1960-1996). Transitional justice efforts in Guatemala led to the conviction of a former head of state, senior military officials, and others for these crimes and centered the voice of survivors and families of victims of wartime atrocities.

For the past decade, Dr. Burt has monitored these war crimes prosecutions. She has interviewed survivors and families of victims, documented courtroom developments, and traced the ongoing efforts by military officials and conservative politicians to obstruct criminal trials or end them altogether. In this presentation, she will analyze the contentious politics of transitional justice in post-genocide Guatemala and what this case study tells us about the politics of truth, justice and memory in post-conflict societies.


Jo-Marie Burt (Ph.D., Columbia University) is a public scholar who researches and writes about political violence, human rights, and transitional justice in post-conflict societies. She is associate professor of Political Science in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Dr. Burt is the author of numerous books and scholarly articles, most recently, Transitional Justice in the Aftermath of Civil Conflict: Lessons from Peru, Guatemala and El Salvador. Her research has been supported by the Open Society Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Fulbright, and the U.S. Institute for Peace, among others. Dr. Burt has monitored and written about ongoing war crimes prosecutions in Guatemala for International Justice Monitor and for online and print publications. She is currently President of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA).

Event raises over €7,000 for eye clinic in Guatemala

Event raises over €7,000 for eye clinic in Guatemala

Vini e Capricci by Abraham’s, a local wine and food importer and distributor, raised €7,200 for the Guatemala Foundation during a tribute dinner to honour Italian winemaker Michele Chiarlo. These funds will go towards the building of a specialist eye clinic in Guatemala, a project led by ophthalmologist Franco Mercieca.

The tribute dinner, held at the retail, dining and events concept store in Xewkija, brought together wine aficionados, culinary enthusiasts and industry professionals to celebrate the esteemed career of Chiarlo. Known for his winemaking skills and dedication to his craft, he has been an ambassador for Italian wines around the world for decades.

Guests were treated to a menu specially curated by the chefs at Vini e Capricci, who paired each course with Chiarlo’s wines.

The Guatemala Foundation, a non-profit organisation committed to improving the lives of underprivileged communities in Guatemala, expressed its gratitude for the remarkable support and generous contributions from guests and partners.

“We are immensely grateful to Vini e Capricci and all the attendees for their incredible generosity,” Mercieca said.

“Thanks to their support, we will be able to make a positive impact on the lives of many individuals and communities. It is events such as these that help make the impossible, possible.”

Vini e Capricci founder and director Abraham Said added: “Events like these underscore the power of bringing together like-minded individuals who share a common vision for making a difference within our global community and the evening provided a fitting tribute and celebration to our dear friend and partner, Michele Chiarlo.”

UIPM Congress switched from Guatemala to online event

UIPM Congress switched from Guatemala to online event

Some also criticised the process by which riding was replaced, complaining of a lack of transparency, but an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport by the Danish Modern Pentathlon Association was dismissed.

Advocates of the new fifth discipline argue it makes modern pentathlon more accessible.

It should also avoid a repeat of the upsetting scenes of Tokyo 2020, where German coach Kim Raisner was sent home in disgrace for punching a horse that refused to jump during the women’s competition.

All of this means that this year’s UIPM Congress, while not elective, promises to be a contentious gathering.

The UIPM has said the Congress will be streamed on the UIPM TV platform.

Modern pentathlon has been left off the initial programme for the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics.

However, the International Olympic Committee has said there is a “pathway” for it to be added.

UIPM President Klaus Schormann has led the organisation since 1993 and is in his eighth term as President.

The German chaired the UIPM Fifth Discipline Working Group which was tasked with overseeing the process of finding a replacement for riding.