The inhabitants of Monterrico Reserve in Guatemala had perceived an increase in the intensity and frequency of floods over recent years as a result of alterations made to the watersheds that had been made by sugar mills operating in the reserve’s surroundings.
The key to a successful solution was to look beyond the boundaries of the reserve, designing a management concept that considers processes and parties within AND outside of the reserve. This also laid the foundation for a permanent engagement process, resulting in better communication and understanding between reserve dwellers, business operators and other stakeholders.
Monterrico Reserve is a coastal wetland area at the Pacific coast of Guatemala. Its mangrove forests, rivers and lagoons are at the interface of fresh and salt water, with constantly changing levels of salinity. Visitors appreciate the reserve for the Caymans, Green iguanas, and more than 110 species of birds that can be spotted here. When it became evident that more frequent, more intense floods are jeopardizing the integrity of the reserve’s ecosystems, and are becoming a threat to communities living in the area, the Centre for Conservation Studies (CECON) of the University of San Carlos, which manages Monterrico Reserve, searched for a solution.
The “solution” they found consists of three 'building blocks', or core components that determined its success: Firstly, in order to better understand how ecosystems, people, and their actions are linked, a “Conceptual Ecological Model” (CEM) was prepared, encompassing both the reserve and its surroundings. The CEM proved that the current scale of management actions targeting only the reserve itself would not be enough to address the flood issues in the area, because these issues are largely caused by river flow deviation upstream, linked to sugarcane cultivation and processing.
It thus became evident that a larger area of work needed to be considered, making it necessary to coordinate and work together with other stakeholders, not taken into account in the current management of the reserve. In a second key step, meetings and field trips along the entire watershed brought together parties from both within and outside the Reserve, including reserve dwellers, sugarcane mill operators, governmental institutions and CECON.
This helped everyone to gain a better, holistic understanding of the magnitude and scale of the flood issue. It also laid the foundation for a permanent stakeholder engagement process, including ALL actors relevant within the new scale of management actions suggested by the Reserve's CEM. The final core 'building block' in the process was the updating of the Reserve’s master plan, Monterrico’s key management document, a process which is still ongoing. CECON is leading a process to formalise the new management scale, broadened management scope and new stakeholder setting, by including them in the master plan.
Final discussions with all stakeholders will result in an updated plan, to be presented to and approved by the national protected area agency. This solution shows that the updating of a management plan is not just a specific event in time, but a powerful process to establish permanent stakeholder engagement, and to link a protected area with its surroundings.
Monterrico’s case also offers a strong lesson in illustrating that protected areas, and especially those that encompass watersheds, are not islands that can be managed in isolation – the water connects everything, and ecological processes do not respect reserve boundaries.