This is a long post on what I’ve been doing in Guatemala since I arrived late last May. I’ve broken it up into 5 parts for easier reading.
I: Our Project
It’s Sunday at 4am and the temperature outside is already well into the mid-80s. I have been sweating all night. We lose a battle with two cockroaches that have come to avenge its lost brother. I watch the reddish, 2-inch beast slide behind a dark crack on the bathroom wall. La venganza de la cucaracha, I think to myself, and note that we need to get Raid. Then, cloaked in pre-dawn darkness and heat, we go off to our first community visit.
Our Rainforest Alliance guide and mentor, Juan Trujillo, is waiting for us in an official Clima, Naturaleza y Comunidades en Guatemala (CNCG) 4×4 truck to take us to La Lucha, a tiny remote village in west Petén, nearing the Mexican border. We drive for an hour on paved road. With no warning, the road ends as if someone had simply given up on its construction. Se acabo la buena vida, jokes Juan, and we continue on a bumpy dirt trail for two more hours. My team—two MDP students from the University of Minnesota (UM)—and I are half-asleep, but occasionally, we’ll wake up with a slam from the cruelest bumps. We pass sleepy papaya plantations bathing in morning sunlight. Large purple mangoes hang on green trees like Christmas ornaments—a sight so fantastical that it seems straight out of a Lewis Carroll story. I expected a forested scenery, but the landscape is hilly and grassy, with white cattle grazing in the distance. Some of the land is scorched from fires and the lack of rain. There’s dust everywhere. It’s forest fire season.
We arrive to La Lucha at 7:30am and their day is well underway. A woman greets us and invites us into her home, where she is making tortillas using a traditional wood-burning stove with a ceramic top. Is this the stove that’s bad for your health? I ask our UM faculty advisor, Dr. Dean Current, who’s with us for one week. It is hard to believe that such a quaint sight could bring much harm. This one has a chimney leading to the outside, Dean points out, so it’s better than most.
Doña Camelia sets the table and brings out huge plates of rice and beef for our breakfast—accompanied by her tortillas, of course. She and Juan chat about Julio, a zealous coordinator of the Associación de Comunidades Forestales del Petén (ACOFOP), who is out with a group of women foraging for the Maya nut. This is why we’re here; this—in terms of physical location and value chain link placement—is the foundation of our project.
The Maya nut or semilla de ramón—as it is known in Guatemala—is a “rediscovered” food produced in the tropical forests of Central America and the Caribbean. Though it is called a nut, it is actually a seed, that grows in the wild forests providing food for micos (the adorable Guatemalan term for monkeys), tepezcuintles, wild boars, parrots, cotuzas, among other animals. Or so we think. In our project, we’ll be figuring out how to strengthen the Maya nut’s value chain and assist in determining the methodology for monitoring wildlife consumption of the seed. The ancient Mayas also consumed this seed, and some studies have revealed its nutritional superiority, deeming it an organic, gluten-free “superfood” that could appeal to today’s international market. It could also further food security in a country and region with high rates of malnutrition. That is the hope of this undertaking, and the ideal that organizations like the Rainforest Alliance seek: an economic incentive that simultaneously protects fragile ecosystems and brings in income to rural communities.
II: The Biosphere Reserve Model
The Maya Forest is the largest tropical jungle in Central America, shared by Guatemala, Mexico and Belize. This is the cradle of the Mayan civilization, and is home to hundreds of ruins and an incredible amount biodiversity, including the iconic and fabled jaguar. (I was so fortunate to see one in the wild, but that’s another story!) In 1990, the Guatemalan government established the Maya Biosphere Reserve in order to protect their piece of the forest, and the ancient Mayan sites—like Tikal, Uaxactún and El Mirador—residing within their borders. Supported by UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere Program, the reserve’s 2.1 million hectares was divided into national protected areas and multiple-use zones, surrounded by a buffer zone that permits some agriculture and development for housing and tourism in Petén. This is a model found in 120 countries, with a total of 669 reserves, aiming for “the harmonious integration of people and nature for sustainable development.” In practice, this means managing forest resources sustainably so that existing communities—and the state—can share the natural capital and promote crucial conservation.
In Petén, 800,000 hectares contain communities that—with the support of several entities including ACOFOP, the Rainforest Alliance, Hiefer International, Defensores de la Naturaleza, and GIZ—depend on the use of multiple-use zones for their livelihood. Many of these communities have indigenous roots. With little else available in these rural areas, the primary economic activities are based upon natural resources, such as harvesting timber, xate—an ornamental palm used in flower arrangements and Palm Sunday ceremonies—chicle, all spice, wild honey and now, the Maya nut. A network of 14 communities are given government permits to use the reserve’s land for 25-year periods, so long as they adhere to strict management plans per resource extracted. These Planes de Manejo outline sustainable management techniques and must meet rigorous certification requirements, like those demanded by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), among other certifying entities. This facilitates entry into an international market that values sustainably-sourced forest products, such as Home Depot and various other brands.
Maps show that the community-managed forest spaces in the Petén multiple-use zones are exemplary. When compared to national protected areas in this same region, fewer forest fires and deforestation are detected. Why? Because communities count on this land for their well-being and, with guidance and help, will invest energy and resources to care for their communal property, fighting fires when necessary and securing fences.
Driving to La Lucha gives us a sense of how removed this region is from centralized government. Land managed by the state—as is the case with the western national parks of Laguna del Tigre and Sierra del Lacandón (seen above)—are vulnerable to illegal entry and exploitation. Authorities are easy to pay off, or may be involved in the encroachment of the protected land or the illicit poaching and trafficking of trees, animals and drugs. This happens often in developing countries with loose, corrupt and underfunded governing bodies and most illegal activities, environmental or not, course through the same networks and channels. In this context, private and communal property has a better chance of being protected. And Petén is proof that the model can succeed.
III. Environmental Crime and Injustice
Back in Doña Camelia’s house, we sit at the table and listen to Juan tell stories. He could fill books with the knowledge, wisdom and experience gained from more than a decade of working with the Rainforest Alliance, plus a lifetime of service to the Petén communities. With good reason, tales have already been written about him. (And no words of mine could express the level of admiration I have for this man). The deep ties Juan nurtures with the people we’re visiting—and to the work we’re doing— is palpable as he asks about Doña Camelia’s kids, and promises to help get scholarships for a few of the community’s older children. Here, most children stop studying after elementary school due to distance, unavailability of schools and costs. Then, the conversation becomes even more somber.
Last March, a dedicated community leader from La Lucha and a strong advocate for local conservation in the region (and Doña Camelia’s husband, I would later learn) was assassinated due to a land rights dispute. Here, land and natural resources represent more power and monetary value than most bank vaults, tempting all sorts of illicit activity. Picture this: One single mahogany tree from this area could be worth upwards of $3,000 USD, nearly 10 times the national monthly minimum wage. This gives some insight into the corrosive interests at play, instigated through impunity and weak legal procedures. Throughout most developing countries, conservation is a dangerous duty and many environmentalists—including those I see and work with every day—have been threatened in some way. Others, like Walter Mendez, have lost their lives.
There are so many groups and individuals with differing perspectives on how to manage this land. International governing organizations, the national government and the NGO’s favor sustainable use and conservation—though they may differ in approach. Some environmentalists long for total preservation. The regional government and the local communities are torn between needing economic development, while keeping in mind their environmental responsibilities. Others couldn’t care less about the invaluable biodiversity found here. These groups would rather set fire to the forest and turn it all into profitable cattle grazing land or cash crop cultivations. Many will literally try to do just that.
Every day, smoke fills the air. It can’t be said which fires are provoked or accidental. Juan and Julio accept calls at all hours, some from the communities needing help with stopping a fire. Other times, they’ll receive urgent requests outside of the parameters of the “official” CNCG mission. The community members trust and rely on these men enough to ask for aid when—for example— a child falls ill and needs a lift to the hospital. And Julio and Juan, and most of the Rainforest Alliance staff I’ve met, will be there answering these calls. For them, there are no weekends or business hours – just long days that start with the sun and end with it, too. Everything that these men do go beyond any job description, fueled solely by the passion and commitment to what they know is true and right. While justice can be hard to find in Latin America, heroes hide in plain sight.
IV. Building Markets and Relationships
After breakfast, Juan drives us into the community concession where the Maya nut is being collected. On the way, we pass a small, brightly-painted cross memorial marking the spot where Walter was killed—just an ordinary grassy spot beside an unmarked road. The concession is gated, the path is slightly muddy and howler monkeys can be heard in the distance. We’re dressed appropriately: pants, long sleeves to protect us from the sun and mosquitos, and rubber boots. I’m eager to see how the collectors forage for this seed, finally, getting a first-hand glance at the process we’ve been discussing since last December.
We arrive and see colored clothing contrasting against the dark, forest green. Children pop out of the dense vegetation laughing and carrying baskets and sacks full of the small, round and brown seed. Their mothers follow behind them, not quite as energetic as these 11-year olds. Little girls—no older than 5—shuffle beside them like ducklings. A sole young man trails behind them with a machete and a wireless radio, playing bachata and boleros. The day is oppressively warm, but the people seem happy. They’re dressed casually, most of them wearing sandals. Many women even wear skirts. I feel slightly ridiculous and over-prepared with my gear and water. They carry nothing but the tools to forage for the seed. Though I try to hide it, I feel the beginnings of a headache.
The women show us how to forage for the seed. The work is simple, and that’s its appeal. Compared to the difficult work of farming and cultivating, just picking up a seed that falls to the ground is easy. There are no hazardous chemicals or dangerous equipment. For this reason, most of the collectors are women. Even kids can do it, and they’re a big help to their mothers, grandmothers and sisters, with their boundless energy. They run to another part of the concession looking for big ramón trees. Si encuentras algo grita, says a mom to her little girl, fuerte como un elefante! I worry about snakes and scorpions hiding beneath the dense shrubs and fallen leaves we’re digging through. Everyone is aware of the risks when outdoors, but few dwell on it. This is more of a game than work, and the kids keep finding other foods in the forest to snack on and take home. There are avocadoes, chili peppers, fruits I don’t recognize, yierbas used in soup like spinach, coconuts – both the children and women could probably survive in this forest for at least a few days with all of their knowledge. I could barely make it two hours without throwing up.
How to make fast friends: let them see you vulnerable. This is precisely what I did when I tossed my cookies on the side of Juan’s truck. The full load of women and children sitting on the truck’s bed got a front row seat to my show. They immediately blamed the heat. I blamed motion sickness and a lack of caffeine. I’m sure all three had a role in this humiliation. I spent the rest of the ride feeling like crap—convinced I would die, because I’m dramatic like that—trying not to vomit on the little girl, Ashley, sitting on my lap. She looked up at me with sympathetic eyes.
After refusing lunch and ingesting all the forms of caffeine I could find, I slowly recovered. Feeling well enough to help again, I learned how to clean the collected seed. Translation: Ashley and I played in water for the rest of the afternoon. I was impressed by how much of the seed she kept popping into her mouth. Te estas comiendo la mercaderia! I laughed. I couldn’t bring myself to taste it for fear of throwing up again. I’m still not sure what it tastes like in that form, but more opportunities are coming soon.
V. Supporting Communities
There are so many catchphrases in development. “Sustainability” is one of them—or anything with empowerment attached (i.e. girl’s and women’s empowerment, economic empowerment, etc.). As a rule, you should be skeptical about any organization or project that claims to reach these lofty goals. If they’re doing it right, it will take many, many long years of steady work and dedication. It will have to be well integrated into the existing social structures. It will require the cooperation and collaboration of many interested parties (or in our language, “stakeholders.”) The “beneficiaries” will have to be involved and consulted using participatory approaches, and really get to “the people” so you can understand their needs and perspectives. I believe in this deeply, but the funny thing is that there’s seldom an appropriate way to translate most of these words into non-English languages. Please, don’t ask me to translate “community empowerment” into Spanish or Bahasa Indonesia.
In the field in Petén, we don’t speak in these terms, but I’m actually seeing it. Better still, it’s actually working. If you refer back to part II, you can see how the community concessions have protected the Maya Biosphere Reserve, all thanks to the sustainable management of forest resources. Ordinary people, working together, have achieved this. And ACOFOP and the Rainforest Alliance—alongside their partner entities— have supported these communities with what they really need: the funding, technical know-how, equipment, tools, transportation, scholarships, education and links into markets for more than a decade. Conscientious companies and buyers have also supported these forest communities by taking the time to learn where their materials and products originate, and choosing sustainably-sourced goods that provide honest jobs and incomes. This is what the elusive “empowerment” looks like. I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid. I promise that I would be the first one to be critical. Yes, there could always be improvements, but I think I’ve learned enough to say that human beings trying to make the world perfect is a futile pursuit. We’re imperfect. But we try, too.
The Rainforest Alliance team functions well here because they are not just employees, they have a stake in this, too. They’re not transplanted workers or outsiders disconnected from the land or the communities. They are Peteneros with roots that dig deep into this ground. They’ve been seeds and now, they believe in their abilities and fight to protect what they’ve sown for their environment, their families and their future.