Safeguarding Guatemala’s Forests: Los Altos Model Forest’s Community Approach to Forest Fire Prevention

June 28, 2024 | Written BY : IMFN

The Los Altos Model Forest in Guatemala is using innovative fire prevention techniques with the help of local and national partners and allies from international cooperation to protect forested areas from increasing wildland fires.

The name ‘Guatemala’ comes from the Indigenous Nahuatl word meaning “land of many trees”, underscoring the richness of the country’s forest landscapes. In recent years, forests across Guatemala, including in protected areas, have faced significant threats from wildfires, jeopardizing these vital ecosystems. In 2020 alone, close to 1,400 wildland fires were registered in the country, which have degraded over 78,000 ha of land. To tackle the issue, Guatemala’s Los Altos Model Forest has created an active fire prevention network, comprised of local and national partners, that is coordinating efforts to create and maintain firebreaks to contain the spread of wildfires.

What is a Firebreak? A firebreak is a gap in vegetation that acts as a barrier to slow or stop the spread of wildfires. Firebreaks are made by digging a 3-metre-wide strip at strategic points around a forested area.

“Better Safe Than Sorry”

Since 2010, the Los Altos Model Forest’s Forest Fire Prevention Campaign has trained dozens of local forest and fire experts on how to create firebreaks every year during the dry season. The campaign works with Guatemala’s National Institute of Forests (INAB), the eight municipal forestry offices in the Los Altos Model Forest, along with local radio stations to disseminate information about the efficacy of various fire prevention approaches. These approaches include the creation of firebreaks, hotspot monitoring, and the technical management of slash-and-burn agricultural practices.

“It’s not just about disseminating information,” says Heraldo Escobar, Coordinator of the Los Altos Model Forest. “Our campaign provides training and equipment to local firefighters, as well as stipends and payments for ecosystem services to local participants, to maximize their incentives for engagement.”

According to José Ranero, INAB’s Forest Protection Officer, the Prevention Campaign is playing a vital role in forest conservation.

“We are seeing the positive difference this campaign is making, and we hope it will be maintained and strengthened in the years to come,” says Ranero.

The campaign has also put in place an early warning system that sends out alerts about imminent forest fires. When potential hotspots are detected based on INAB’s early warning hotspots map, the system sends out automated text messages to designated point people who then take the necessary steps to confirm or rule out the risk of a forest fire.

“If the risk is confirmed, communities have ample time to respond in a proactive way. This is all a part of the campaign’s ‘better-safe-than-sorry’ approach,” says Escobar.

The campaign receives financial support from the Helvetas’ Uk’Uch Ixcanul Project, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) Volcanic Chain Project, and the Government of Canada through the International Model Forest Network (IMFN) Secretariat’s RESTAURacción initiative.

“The Los Altos Model Forest’s use of firebreaks and other fire prevention techniques is a compelling example of how resilience can be achieved through forest landscape restoration,” says Richard Verbisky, Head of the IMFN Secretariat in Ottawa, Canada.

Moving forward, the campaign aims to advocate for the reactivation of Guatemala’s National System for Forest Fire Prevention and Management as an autonomous agency that engages with and coordinates government and private agencies in the forestry sector.


More on the Los Altos Model Forest

Visit Los Altos Model Forest website (in Spanish)

Enough burning! Let’s change slashing practices” (source: Prensa Libre, March 2024 – in Spanish)



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