One Architect's Plan To Use Tropical Hardwood For Brooklyn Bridge Walkway Makeover

Once or twice a year, a jaguar visits Uaxactun at night. It slinks under the great stone pyramids built by the ancient Mayans and past the moonlit trunks of fallen mahogany trees, looking for a stray chicken or unsuspecting dog to ambush. Eventually, the town’s dogs take note and raise the alarm, barking and chasing the intruder until it retreats back into the dark forest it came from.

A jaguar cameo is a minor annoyance for the residents of Uaxactun, a small town nestled in the Guatemalan jungle, but it’s also symbolic of one of their greatest accomplishments: the forest that surrounds them is healthy and full of wildlife. This might surprise visitors if their first sight was the piles of newly cut timber stacked in a clearing next to the town’s sawmill, which screeches as it spits out lumber destined to become furniture and construction material. Industrial timber harvesting and healthy forests don’t usually co-exist well.

But that’s exactly what’s happened in the northeastern region of Petén, where a 25-year-old experiment in conservation is playing out in the rainforest amid ancient ruins and cocaine-trafficking airstrips. Uaxactun is one of 12 forestry concessions in Petén that were granted to community-based organizations in the years after Guatemala’s civil war.

Erwin Maas, auxiliary mayor of Uaxactun, sits on logs in the town’s lumber yard. | Ashoka Mukpo for Mongabay.

The concessions gave those organizations the right to manage large tracts of forest — including the authority to extract logs and sell them in international markets. With land conflicts simmering and peace accords mandating that the rural poor be given better access to the country’s resources, some officials and their conservationist allies had concluded the best shot they had to protect the forest was to hand parts of it over to the people who lived in it.

Now, as Uaxactun and the others apply for 25-year extensions, they have a strong case to make in support of that decision. Deforestation rates inside the community forest concessions are among the lowest in Petén, forest fires are nearly non-existent, and the careful extraction of certified timber and other forest products has given them a sustainable income in a country where poverty and hunger are rampant.

If Scott Francisco has his way, Uaxactun’s pride will also be etched into the bones of New York City. Under a proposal he’s been fighting to advance for more than a decade, the Guatemalan forest patrolled by those jaguars would produce a gleaming new set of wooden boards for millions of pedestrians to walk on every time they cross the Brooklyn Bridge.

click to play video

A bridge to the jungle

Francisco has told the story so many times that by now it feels like a script. In 2008 he was walking barefoot across the Brooklyn Bridge when he looked down and took note of the wooden planks under his feet.

“I knew immediately it was tropical hardwood, and I was like whoa, crap, what happened to this forest,” he said in an interview with Mongabay.

An architect by trade, Francisco’s concern wasn’t unfounded. A 2012 investigation by Brazilian news outlet Repórter Brasil found that some of the wood on the bridge may have been sourced from a sawmill company implicated in the use of slave labor in the Amazon. His realization also coincided with a call for proposals to upgrade the bridge’s walkway, which needs to be replaced every few decades due to wear and tear. Would there be a way, he wondered, to revamp the walkway without destroying a precious faraway rainforest?

Francisco started campaigning for the replacement wood to be sourced responsibly. First, he floated the idea of donors financing a sustainable tree farm in Guyana. But the proposal was scorned by environmentalists and others in New York who were pushing for a blanket ban on the use of any tropical hardwood for city infrastructure. Then, he found Uaxactun.

“It was exactly what we were looking for,” Francisco said.

The Brooklyn Bridge by kokygonzalez via Pixabay (Public domain).

In the wake of war, a threatened forest

Uaxactun lies inside the Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR), a 2.1-million-hectare (5.2-million-acre) protected area that covers one-fifth of Guatemala’s land mass. Bordering Mexico and Belize, the sprawling reserve covers what was once the cradle of Mayan civilization. Established in 1990, its landscape is dotted with ancient ruins like the world-famous Tikal with its towering pyramids and raised promenades, where ghostly hoots of howler monkeys (Alouatta pigra) fill the air and lucky tourists snap photos of keel-billed toucans (Ramphastos sulfuratus).

Before the 1950s, Petén was sparsely populated, inhabited mostly by logging companies and remote communities deep in the forest that had started as camps for harvesting chicle, a tree sap once used to make chewing gum in the U.S. As the Guatemalan civil war drove migrants and displaced people into the region with the help of roads opened up by oil prospectors, once-pristine tracts of jungle started being converted to farms and pastures. The MBR was created to stop the skyrocketing rates of forest loss that had followed the new arrivals.

But the area now being rezoned as protected wasn’t unpopulated; in some cases, communities inside its newly established borders had been living there for more than a century. Evicting everyone who’d built their lives in the El Salvador-sized MBR wasn’t a viable option, but neither was allowing it to be completely deforested and turned into farmland.

Some officials in the Consejo Nacional de Areas Protegidas (CONAP), Guatemala’s newly minted agency in charge of protected areas, had a bold suggestion: let some of those communities remain where they were, provided they agreed to tight supervision of how they used the forest. Under CONAP’s watchful eye, community organizations were offered the chance to apply for forestry concessions that would allow them to carry out logging and other activities inside an agreed-on patch of land.

José Román Carrera was the director of CONAP at the time. He’d received death threats and even been shot at for his role in creating the MBR, and he told Mongabay that not all of his colleagues were comfortable with the idea of handing the forest over to Petén’s communities, especially given the circumstances.

Map of currently active community forestry concessions in Petén, Guatemala, courtesy of Rainforest Alliance.

“We got a lot of questions about granting the concessions, but now, 30 years later, you can see the difference,” said Carrera, who is now the community forest enterprise director at the Rainforest Alliance.

Over the objections of logging companies that wanted control of the area for themselves, 12 community organizations were granted forestry concessions inside the MBR’s “multiple use zone” beginning in 1996. Together, they covered more than 450,000 hectares (1.1 million acres) of land — nearly a quarter of the MBR.

To stay in good standing and keep their concession licenses, the communities had to meet conservation benchmarks, submit annual management plans to CONAP, and have all the timber they extracted from their forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The stakes were high: if they violated the rules and their concessions were cancelled, they could be evicted from the area.

Not everyone in Guatemala was rooting for the new system to work.

“There have been major, very powerful forces in the country that are trying to take those resources away from them,” said David Kaimowitz, manager of the farm and forest facility at the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization and an early supporter of the concessions. “But they’ve just continually succeeded.”

‘100%, we are conservationists’

Erwin Maas, the auxiliary mayor of Uaxactun, stands next to a pile of cut timber in a clearing next to the town’s sawmill. His face partially covered by a surgical mask, he points to different logs, describing each species in detail and explaining which ones would be best suited for the Brooklyn Bridge’s walkway. Some are manchiche, the preferred choice, and others are mahogany, Uaxactun’s bread and butter. He walks up to one fallen manchiche log, easily 12 meters (40 feet) long and about 90 centimeters (3 feet) in diameter, and slaps it with his hand.

“This tree is probably 600 years old,” he says, proudly. (Mongabay was unable to independently verify the age of the tree. At a growth rate of around 0.4cm per year, as this study indicates is the case for manchiche in the MBR, it would likely be between 2-300 years old.)

On the face of it, a tree that old lying next to a sawmill is supposed to be a conservationist’s nightmare. But in the 25 years since the first community concession agreement was signed, study after study has shown the opposite to be true. Deforestation rates inside the community concessions are strikingly low, at only 0.1%, compared with the 2.2% or more in strictly protected parts of the MBR like the Laguna del Tigre park to the northeast.

Maas said that’s because the residents of Uaxactun are committed to maintaining the integrity of the forest, both to protect their income and prevent their concession from being cancelled.

“We already had a culture of working with forest resources in Uaxactun,” he told Mongabay. “But when we were given the concession we had to become more technical and start writing everything down. We realized we had an opportunity that other communities didn’t.”

Satellite data shows deforestation rates in the Maya Biosphere Reserve are much higher in protected areas like Laguna del Tigre than in community concessions.

At 83,558 hectares (206,476 acres), Uaxactun’s concession is the largest of the bunch, stretching from Tikal to Guatemala’s northern border with Mexico. It’s run by a community organization that Maas says has 300 members, 45% of them women. Every year, the organization sends its management plan to CONAP for review, and patches of forest inside its concession are logged for five years at a time under an overall 25-40-year cycle.

“We do an inventory of each species per hectare and then take advantage of 400 hectares [990 acres] each year, looking at how much mahogany, how much cedar, and how much manchiche we are going to take,” Maas said.

Between 2012 and 2016, the total income received from timber sales in active community forest concessions was $24.7 million, the bulk of which came from mahogany. Most have reinvested part of those profits into machinery they use to process the logs into boards.

Surprisingly, wildlife in the community concessions are thriving despite the logging, including large predators. One 2018 study found that the density of jaguars in the concessions was roughly the same as in strictly protected areas where human land use is prohibited.

click to play video

“We’ve looked at the abundance of wildlife in some of these areas, species like jaguars, tapirs, and white-lipped peccaries — species that are disappearing from vast sections of Mesoamerica — and they’re incredibly abundant in these community forests. That’s what provides enthusiasm for us,” said Roan McNab, Guatemala program director at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

The presence of healthy populations of wildlife near Uaxactun is a point of pride for Maas. “100%, we are conservationists,” he said.

Timber isn’t the only resource that Uaxactun harvests from the forest. Xate, a leafy frond used in flower arrangements, is also a major source of income for casual laborers in the community, providing work even during the rains when logging roads become near-impassable. In a small workshop down the road from the sawmill, young men on motorcycles carry bundles of the leaves to tables where women from the community sort, wrap, and process them.

Women from Uaxactun sort through a harvest of Xate, preparing it for export. | Image by Ashoka Mukpo for Mongabay.

Bringing women into the management of the concession has been a slow process, but in recent years they say they’ve started to take a more active role.

“The original attempts to address gender and women’s rights issues were met by sneers and off-tone comments,” Kaimowitz said. “And today that’s increasingly been really seriously transformed.”

Magdalena Peralta, one of Uaxactun’s senior leaders, says that women initially had to fight to have their voices heard. “At first, many men didn’t believe in us women,” she said. “They didn’t want to give us that space or opportunity. We had to win it for ourselves.”

Now, Peralta said, the role that they play in managing the xate business along with their gradual participation in timber operations have made them rethink the role they should play in the social fabric of Uaxactun.

“Before, as women we thought we were just housewives and we had to stay in the house, serve our children, and depend on our husbands,” she said. “But now that we’re organized in society and have had these opportunities and training, we’ve realized we’re important.”

For the Rainforest Alliance’s Carrera, the results of Guatemala’s experiment in community forestry that started when he was in charge of CONAP are hard to argue against. He said that rates of migration to the United States are significantly lower in Petén’s concession communities than they are elsewhere in Guatemala, citing a study that showed the percentage of income from remittances hovers around 2% in the concessions rather than the standard 8-12% in other communities that have seen an exodus of migrants.

“From my point of view, the forest concessions have been one of the most successful and powerful tools to conserve forest biodiversity and secure livelihoods for people,” Carrera said.

But getting there hasn’t been easy.

Magdalena Peralta, a women’s leader in Uaxactun, in front of the ruins the town is named after. | Image by Ashoka Mukpo for Mongabay.

Nothing without a fight in Petén

Petén can be a rough neighborhood. Its dense, often loosely managed jungles are far from prying eyes, making the area perfect for drug trafficking. In Laguna del Tigre, clandestine airstrips built for planes stuffed with cocaine dot the landscape, and the widespread use of cattle to launder drug money means that the line between narco and rancher is often fuzzy. In 2010, the Guatemalan government declared a state of emergency in Petén after Mexico’s Zeta cartel made a violent play to control smuggling routes in the area, carrying out massacres and engaging in dramatic shootouts with its rivals.

The presence of powerful, dangerous interests in Petén has been a problem for some community concessions. Of the original 12, two were cancelled and one was suspended after land was cleared inside them without CONAP’s permission. In one, the original residents who’d been granted the concession were found to have sold a large tract of land to a rancher rumored to be connected to drug trafficking, fleeing after the sale was finalized. A military operation was required to clear out the new entrepreneurs.

“There was concern not only about the deforestation, but because there was a significant presence of narcotraffickers,” said Iliana Monterroso, an environmental scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) who authored a recent study on the concessions. “They had an interest in establishing control over that area, which before had been somewhat kept under control.”

Carmelita is the oldest community concession, set up in 1996. To its west, past another community concession and a thin biological corridor set up for wildlife lies Laguna del Tigre. Researchers and some community members say that the biggest threat to Carmelita’s control of its concession hasn’t come from oil prospectors or narcotraffickers, though. It’s come from a U.S. archaeologist named Richard Hansen.

For years, Hansen has been lobbying to have part of Carmelita’s northern concession rezoned as a strict conservation area where logging would be prohibited in favor of tourism to El Mirador, a remote Mayan ruin that is currently inaccessible except by foot or helicopter. Hansen has campaigned hard for his plan, proposing that a passenger train be built to connect Carmelita to El Mirador to facilitate his large-scale tourism push.

Some Mayan ruins in the MBR, like El Mirador, are currently inaccessible except by foot or helicopter | Image by PIM/FTA/CIFOR via Flickr.

Hansen’s ties to powerful Guatemalan corporations, along with a video he recorded in 2019 touting the benefits of palm oil development, have provoked suspicion and ire in the community cooperative in charge of Carmelita’s concession, who accuse him of trying to undermine their control of the forest for his own ends.

“He shouldn’t be trying to make decisions about territory that doesn’t belong to him,” said Carlos Crasborn Ojeda, president of the Carmelita cooperative. “That would be like Guatemalans going to the United States and trying to control Yellowstone.”

External political challenges to the concession model can also spur and heighten internal divisions. CONAP’s rules required communities to set up a formal organization before applying for a concession, but didn’t stipulate that everyone in the community had to be a part of that organization. From the start, that led to conflict in some of the concessions. In the mid-1990s, for example, the first leader of Carmelita’s cooperative was shot and killed by another community member in a dispute over timber revenues.

“At that moment there wasn’t employment opportunities for everyone because the process was just starting,” Carrera said.

While Crasborn says that 85% of Carmelita’s families are members of the cooperative, rivalries and bad blood exist in the community — exacerbated, some cooperative members claim, by Hansen’s efforts to implement his El Mirador project.

Antonio Centeno, a resident of Carmelita who is not a member of the cooperative, told Mongabay that he feels control of the community concession is concentrated in too few hands, and that not everyone is included in decision-making over the forest and its resources. He speaks of the cooperative’s leadership with palpable disdain, accusing it of mismanagement and nepotism. He said his resentment arises partially from the fees he’s been forced to pay the cooperative, which he calls a “monopoly,” for the right to take backpackers on the five-day trek to El Mirador.

“We had a series of meetings where we agreed — but really, were forced — to sign an agreement where we committed to paying 12% to the cooperative for every tourist,” he said. “We pay them 312 quetzales [about $40] per tourist just to walk on the same trails that our own grandparents opened.”

Antonio Centeno of Carmelita stands near the entrance to the El Mirador footpath. | Image by Ashoka Mukpo for Mongabay.

In Crasborn’s view, Centeno is trying to undermine the cooperative on Hansen’s behalf and says his criticism stems from a long-term feud between his family and the concession’s current leadership that runs all the way back to its inception. “Antonio only thinks of himself and his family along with the support of Richard and some other actors,” he said, adding that the fees go toward supporting the management of the concession — without which CONAP wouldn’t allow any community tourism enterprises to operate at all.

To rebut Centeno’s accusations, Crasborn points to the investments the cooperative has made in health services and scholarship programs for Carmelita’s residents. Crasborn himself was a recipient of one of those scholarships before becoming president of the cooperative, a position he’s now held seven times.

In an email to Mongabay, Dr. Hansen said that he and his Mirador Basin Project “totally support the existence of the concessions. We believe that they are a crucial part of the defense of the forest.” What he opposes, he said, is logging near the Mirador archeological site, given its high potential value for tourism.

“What we disagree on is that we do not believe that logging the last tropical forest left in Guatemala is a good idea when the concentration of impressive, spectacular, and extremely ancient archaeological sites would provide HUNDREDS of MILLIONS of dollars more per year by conserving the area than by logging it,” he wrote. Logging, he added, primarily benefits a “limited and small group of people.”

The grudge Centeno holds toward the cooperative is an example of the precarious balancing act that concession leaders have had to perform over the past 25 years. Often confronted by powerful actors who have an interest in seeing them fail, Monterroso said it’s akin to a miracle that they’ve managed to be as successful as they have.

“The local dynamics have forced community organizations to become political actors in so many ways,” she said. “And not just political but economic actors since they’re so involved in value chain processes.”

For Carrera, there’s a simple way to judge how effective the management of the concessions has been. Just take a helicopter ride over the border area where Laguna del Tigre ends and they begin.

“In Laguna del Tigre you see a lot of narcotraffic landing areas with airplanes, but the last one is right at the limit of the concessions. There are none inside,” he said.

In late 2019, the Guatemalan government sent a clear message that it agrees. Carmelita’s concession was renewed for an additional 25 years, and Carrera says that Uaxactun and the others will almost certainly follow suit.

Keepers of the forest

In March, the FAO released a report providing data that showed Indigenous people are by far the best custodians of tropical forests, with deforestation rates that are up to 50% lower in their territory than elsewhere. The findings have deep implications for the climate crisis, as the protection of carbon-storing forests are critical to staving off its worst impacts. Not all of the communities that hold concession rights in Petén are Indigenous, but the parallels are undeniable. For Uaxactun and Carmelita, the forest is life, providing income, self-empowerment, and pride.

This, the leaders of those communities say, is the reason why their forests are in such good shape.

“We are the keepers of the forest,” Crasborn said. “Year after year the communities invest more than a half a million dollars in hiring people to prevent illegal invasions and the looting of archaeological pieces and timber. If it wasn’t for us this forest wouldn’t exist anymore.”

Community forestry isn’t a panacea, and some other countries that have tried to follow Guatemala’s lead have failed spectacularly. As Centeno’s experience in Carmelita shows, income and power disparities can breed internal conflict, with some data showing that certain types of communities are better suited to forest management than others. Achieving the right results, researchers say, requires a mix of long-term institutional support, flexibility, and the generation of steady economic returns.

It’s that last point that Scott Francisco has been urging New York City planners to understand in the decade since he learned of Uaxactun and decided to make it into the centerpiece of his proposal for the Brooklyn Bridge. The harshest criticism he’s faced has come from environmentalists in New York who say the use of any tropical timber in the city is unacceptable, a position he says is misguided.

“There was a kind of confusing memo that had been produced under [former mayor Michael] Bloomberg called the Tropical Hardwoods Reduction Plan, which ostensibly was to wean New York City off of tropical hardwoods with the idea that FSC-certified hardwood was an alternative to business as usual, but that kind of got lost and people interpreted it as an all-out ban,” he said. “That made it very hard for us.”

The lumber yard in Uaxactun. | Image by Ashoka Mukpo for Mongabay.

Tim Keating, former director of Rainforest Relief and owner of Earthbilt, a construction consulting firm that specializes in alternatives to timber, has been one of the most public critics of Francisco’s plans for the walkway. An advocate for the use of recycled plastic instead, Keating told Mongabay that the world should be looking to reduce its use of tropical hardwood, no matter who and where it comes from.

“What’s perhaps unstated outright in promoting the use of this material is that it’s OK for people in the United States to be reaching into other countries and continuing to source material from all over the world, shipped to us so we can have a pretty boardwalk,” he said.

Francisco’s counterargument is that it’s precisely the demand for mahogany and manchiche from the MBR that’s creating the conditions for effective conservation there. Without a revenue stream from timber, the communities there wouldn’t have the same incentive to patrol their boundaries and prevent illegal encroachment onto their concession. But the impact of what he says is a simplistic campaign by Keating and others has been hard to overcome.

“The problem is, even if a politician can nod their head and say, ‘oh yeah, that makes sense, you’re right,’ it doesn’t mean that they’re willing to put their neck out,” he said. “It’s easier politically to say, ‘I don’t support tropical hardwood in New York City’ because it makes them sound good and environmental, regardless of what actually is the case.”

Last summer, Francisco and his proposal, now called the “Brooklyn Bridge Forest,” notched a major victory when it won an international design competition put on by the New York City Council that asked participants to “reimagine” the Brooklyn Bridge. While the recognition brought renewed attention to his project, Francisco says he’s not telling Uaxactun to hold its breath just yet.

“I feel a little bit like the boy who cried wolf here,” he said. “Even though we’re trying to manage expectations there’s inevitably only so many times you can get excited about it before it’s like, tell me when you’re ready to actually do it and then we’ll get excited.”

If some New York legislators get their way, it might be a very long wait. The New York deforestation-free procurement act, introduced in the state legislature this year, would ban the import of nearly all tropical hardwood and forest-risk commodities into the state. Its passage would send a powerful message that lawmakers in one of the U.S.’s biggest markets are serious about taking steps to address the climate crisis — but depending on its final version and how it is interpreted, could also close the door on Uaxactun’s aspirations to nail itself into the city’s history.

Under the blazing Petén sun, leaning against a fallen log that began its life long before Guatemala declared its independence from the Spanish Republic, Maas says he’s hoping for the best.

“New York is one of the most important places in America, and the Brooklyn Bridge is its heritage,” he said. “We want people to realize places like Uaxactun can provide the resources for it.”

This story was originally published in Mongabay on July 8, 2021. NowThis has published this story with permission.