'These findings confirm that communities will indeed manage their land responsibly rather than destroy it if it makes economic sense to do so,' said Tensie Whelan, president of the Rainforest Alliance.
'In this case,' she added, 'that incentive is a market for responsibly harvested timber and non-timber forest products.'
FSC certification indicates that a forest is responsibly managed. The certification process requires third-party auditing to ensure international standards are met for the rights of indigenous groups and workers, biodiversity conservation, the protection of ecologically important areas, and a range of other environmental, social, and economic criteria.
Much like the Fair Trade logo for coffee, chocolate, and other food products, the FSC logo on wood products - from toilet tissue to lumber - indicates to consumers that their purchases support the interests of forest-dwelling communities and the environment.
The Maya Reserve, an area of tropical forest in Guatemala's northern Peten region, has been set aside by the government to conserve its unique natural and cultural assets.
The report, entitled 'Impact of FSC Certification on Deforestation and the Incidence of Wildfires,' points out that last year fires affected only 0.1 percent of FSC-certified forest concessions in the Maya reserve, which is down from 6.5 percent in 1998. During the same period fires affected between 7 and 20 percent of the rest of the reserve, according to the report's authors.
The researchers also found that in recent years the rate of deforestation in FSC-certified forest areas was 20 times lower than the deforestation rate within parts of the forest where logging was banned altogether.
The Rainforest Alliance said it pioneered the strategy of using market forces to conserve forests about 20 years ago, knowing that economic incentives are key to protecting biodiversity and curbing deforestation.
The report's authors said local communities and companies in the reserve have created fire control and prevention plans, improved living and working conditions for workers, increased the use of safety equipment, and experienced less social conflict as a result of better land-use mapping.
The study's findings seem to demonstrate that forests are more likely to be protected and well-managed when communities have a stake in the process and have alternatives to clearing land for cattle grazing, farming, and other less sustainable activities.
The study is based on data collected from the Wildlife Conservation Society, satellite imagery from the Guatemalan government's National Council for Protected Areas, and information from the Rainforest Alliance's forestry program.
The Maya Reserve is considered by scientists to be a rich source of biodiversity. Covering about 5 millions acres of land, the reserve is home to hundreds of species of animals including jaguars, brocket deer, scarlet macaws, and ocellated turkeys.
In 1990, the Guatemalan government classified about 40 percent of the area as fully protected - banning logging there entirely - and required other parts of the forest to earn FSC certification, following intense calls from environmental groups for a complete ban on logging throughout the entire reserve.
The Rainforest Alliance says today nearly 60 percent of the land where timber harvesting is allowed in the reserve has attained FSC certification.
The group's activists have been working in the reserve for more than 11 years, training communities in responsible forest management, helping local communities build forest-friendly enterprises, and connecting their FSC-certified products to international markets.