Mesoamerica

Strengthening Indigenous territorial security through supporting resilient organizations

2020

Started working in the region in 2010

200 K

Supported the demarcation of over 500 thousand acres of Indigenous territories

1 M

Work with partners protecting over 1.5 million acres through monitoring and management

Our Work

Our regional program is primarily focused in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and Panama. The B’atz project, funded through a three-year USAID grant, supports the institutional strengthening of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests (AMPB). Specific objectives include the legal registration of the AMPB, strengthening the Mesoamerican Coordination of Women Territorial Leaders, expanding the reach and curriculum of the Mesoamerican Leadership School, and supporting the launch and consolidation of the Mesoamerican Territorial Fund, an Indigenous and community-run financial mechanism designed to support grassroots organizations throughout the region.

In Panama, RFUS and partners continue working to secure formal land titles for 1.54 million acres of Indigenous peoples’ lands in the Darien region, primarily through technical and legal support, and advocacy.

Our current initiatives in Mexico and Central America include:

Organizational Strengthening

Our main initiative in Mexico and Central America is the regional Bat’z institutional strengthening project, which seeks to consolidate the considerable institutional gains made by the AMPB over the last decade. Efforts are focused on expanding the geographical reach and curricula of the Leadership School, specifically piloting new training materials and methods on disaster risk management and advocacy with some 50 communities; strengthening the Territorial Women’s Leaders Coordination through the drafting of a new Regional Gender and Climate Change Plan; supporting legal incorporation and a new strategic plan for the Regional Secretariat; and supporting the build out, launch, and consolidation of the Mesoamerican Territorial Fund. The work through the leadership school is coordinated with three AMPB member organizations: Asociación Utz Che in Guatemala, the Federation of Agroforestry Producers of Honduras (FEPROAH) in Honduras, and the Mexican Network of Forest Campesino Organizations (Red MOCAF) in Mexico.

Land Rights

Since 2010, RFUS has also worked with organizations representing the Guna, Embera, Wounaan, and other nations in the Darien to map all of the Indigenous collective lands outside of the Comarcas, improve the national process for recognizing Indigenous peoples’ land, while also documenting and filing more than a dozen territorial land claims. RFUS also has worked with Embera and Wounaan communities to build participatory, grassroots land use plans to protect their forests and create internal community governance rules based on traditional practices.

Territorial Protection

RFUS works with all of our partners in Panama to actively monitor their forests and secure their territories. We train youth and community leaders in forest monitoring techniques—including Geographic Positioning Systems (GPS) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), using smart phones and drones—to document and submit evidence of environmental crimes with government authorities.

Rainforests

Rainforests play an essential role throughout Mexico and Central America, also known as Mesoamerica. The region is home to the “Five Great Forests of Mesoamerica,” a series of forests ranging from Mexico to Panama and continuing into the Choco in Colombia, South America. These forests are comprised of the Selva Maya in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize; the Moskitia in Nicaragua and Honduras; Indio Maíz-Tortuguero in Nicaragua and Costa Rica; La Amistad in Costa Rica and Panama; and the Darien in Panama and Colombia. Together, these forests cover a land mass three times larger than Switzerland and account for over half of the region’s carbon sequestration.

Mesoamerica’s forests are also home to many iconic species that play a vital role in the region’s ecosystems, including jaguars, Baird’s tapirs, spider monkeys, resplendent quetzals, harpy eagles, and great green macaws. The region encompasses a diverse array of ecosystems, such as cloud forests and extensive coastal mangroves, creating a conducive environment that supports approximately 12% of the world’s biodiversity. Panama, uniquely positioned as the sole land bridge connecting Central and South America, is a key biological corridor for migratory birds and numerous other species.

Indigenous  Peoples

Mesoamerica boasts tremendous linguistic and cultural diversity, and is home to more than 100 Indigenous peoples, including Mayans, Chorti, Lencas, Miskitos, Mayagnas, Embera, Wounaan, Guna, and the Bribri-Cabecar, among many others.

Indigenous peoples inhabit and safeguard nearly half of all forests in Central America. In addition to Indigenous peoples, there is also a profound connection between local communities and the territories they inhabit. Although not identifying as Indigenous, local communities maintain traditional lifestyles deeply intertwined with the land. Their collaboration in local governance and nature conservation has led to areas being known as “territories conserved by Indigenous peoples and local communities.”

The Indigenous rights movement in this region is historically among the strongest globally. As a result , Indigenous peoples’ rights are fairly well recognized in national laws, although not always respected in practice. In several Mesoamerican countries—most notably Mexico, but also in Honduras, Guatemala, and Costa Rica—Indigenous communities have created successful community forest management models, often based on centuries old cultural forest protection practices. Additionally, Indigenous peoples’ lands are mostly legally recognized and titled throughout Mesoamerican countries; Guatemala is a notable exception with large areas of unrecognized land rights. Panama’s Indigenous Comarca system and the legal framework for Indigenous peoples on the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua are among the most advanced in the world in terms of political autonomy.

Threats

Between 2002-2022, Central America and Mexico witnessed the loss of 25 million acres of tree cover. Of this, 6.4 million acres were primary forests, an area comparable in size to the entire state of Massachusetts. Deforestation rates vary significantly across Mesoamerica. For instance, Costa Rica has achieved notable success in curbing deforestation, while countries like Honduras and Nicaragua continue to experience high rates of forest loss. El Salvador, among all countries in the region, has been the most affected, with less than five percent of its original forest cover remaining.

Much of the deforestation throughout the region is due to cattle ranching and agricultural expansion. Other drivers of deforestation include logging (both legal and illegal), infrastructure development, and urbanization. In some countries like Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua, the recent surge in drug trafficking activities has further accelerated deforestation.

In Panama, illegal invasions by miners and ranchers onto Indigenous lands are commonplace and the source of growing tensions and conflicts which have at times led to the loss of lives of Indigenous land defenders in Panama and other parts of the region. The expansion of commercial oil palm, new road infrastructure, migration through the Darien Gap, and mining are other sources of deforestation, as is the growing number of annual forest fires caused in large measure by climate change.

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AMPB – Alianza Mesoamericana de Pueblos y Bosques

The Mesoamerican Alliance of People and Forests is a Central American regional organization dedicated to promoting the rights of forest-dwelling indigenous peoples and local communities. It is made up of  national organizations who control significant areas of forests in the region. RFUS has worked with AMPB over the years to train community-based territorial monitors and mappers as well as to support regional and international advocacy. AMPB is also a member of the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities. RFUS is currently supporting AMPB’s emergency fundraising efforts around COVID-19 and forest fires.

CNPW – Congreso Nacional del Pueblo Wounaan

National Congress of the Wounaan People is the representative body of the Wounaan people inside and outside of the Comarca, with elected leaders who fight for the Wounaan at the national level. The CNPW has an associated Wounaan Foundation which is the project management arm of the Congress.

COONAPIP – Coordinadora Nacional de Pueblos Indígenas de Panamá

National Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples in Panama is the national umbrella representative organization of Panama’s indigenous peoples’ organizations founded in 1999 to lead the fight for indigenous land rights, respect for indigenous culture and other priorities.

The Naso General Council

The Naso indigenous people live in Panama and Costa Rica, currently primarily along the Teribe River in the Bocas del Toro province of Panama. The Naso number a little over 4,000 people, and against enormous odds have preserved their language, culture, and way of life. Their traditional lands cover some of the most mountainous and biodiversity-rich areas of western Panama. The Naso, one of only two indigenous groups in Panama for which the government has not recognized their ancestral lands, have been fighting since at least 1973 for legal recognition of their territory.

Geo Indigena

Geo Indigena is a newly formed civil association led by indigenous youth with a focus on providing training and capacity building for mapping, monitoring, and community natural resource management with indigenous traditional governance structures and the indigenous movement regionally. RFUS has been supporting the development and organizational launch of GeoIndigena for the past few years. GeoIndigena received legal recognition in mid-2020, and will be a key partner for RFUS in coming years.

CGTCEWP – Congreso General de Tierras Colectivas Embera y Wounaan de Panamá

The General Congress of the Embera y Wounaan Collective Lands of Panama is the representative body for the Embera and some of the Wounaan communities outside of the Embera Wounaan Comarca, and has been on the forefront of the struggle for land rights for many years.

Congreso General Ancestral Tule de Tagarkunyala

Congreso General Ancestral Tule de Tagarkunyala represents the Guna people in the communities of Paya and Pucuru, and the large territory considered the ancestral homeland of the Guna people, including the sacred mountain of Tagarkunyal. The Tagarkunyal territory is completely inside the Darien National Park, making them a key ally for the sustainable management of Central America’s largest protected area.

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Didier Devers
Chief of Party – USAID Guatemala
gro.y1709373785nffr@1709373785sreve1709373785dd1709373785

Didier has been coordinating the USAID-funded B’atz project since joining Rainforest Foundation US in April 2022. He holds a Master’s in Applied Anthropology and a Bachelor’s in Geography. Before joining the organization, Didier worked for 12 years in Central and South America on issues of transparency, legality, governance, and managing stakeholders’ processes in the environmental sector. Prior to that he worked on similar issues in Central Africa. He speaks French, Spanish, and English, and is based in Guatemala.