The Human Rights Considerations of the Commercialization of the Ramón Seed (Maya Nut Seed) Rainforest Alliance/MDP Project – Petén, Guatemala

Note: This post is an academic take and a human rights perspective on the work I have been doing with the ramón seed in Petén, Guatemala. This work and final deliverable earned me a Human Rights Certificate at Emory University. The content is not the most entertaining read, but the photos are nice!

Introduction

The Rainforest Alliance works to conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods by transforming land-use practices, business practices and consumer behavior. (Rainforest Alliance 2016a) The organization envisions a world in which people and planet prosper together; thus, it focuses on building and supporting markets for sustainable forestry, agriculture and tourism. Through these three sectors, the organization provides capacity building and technical assistance to communities and in turn, helps mitigate challenges stemming from climate change, helps protect biodiversity, and generates economic development and sustainable financing options that provide employment opportunities, with the ultimate goal of alleviating poverty. The Rainforest Alliance also provides environmental education and youth development initiatives, including securing scholarships for promising students from within the communities they work with.

In Petén, Guatemala the Rainforest Alliance works as part of a consortium of public, nongovernmental and private entities that make up the “Clima, Naturaleza y Comunidades de Guatemala” (CNCG) Project. (Rainforest Alliance 2016b) The CNCG initiative is primarily focused on human development and mindful of respecting human rights with areas of focus that include:

  • Developing markets for forest products
  • Reduction of deforestation
  • Climate change adaptation
  • Investment in environmental organizations
  • Sustainable, low-emission development of Guatemala

While the CNCG project works on this mission throughout many parts of the country, in Petén it works within the Maya Forest—the largest tropical jungle in Central America, shared by Guatemala, Mexico and Belize. This is the cradle of the ancient Mayan civilization, and is home to hundreds of ruins and a high amount biodiversity including the jaguar, an iconic keystone specie. In 1990, the Guatemalan government established the Maya Biosphere Reserve in order to protect their piece of the forest, and the thousands of ancient Mayan sites, including Tikal, Uaxactún, Yaxhá and El Mirador, residing within their borders. Supported by UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere Program, the reserve’s 2.1 million hectares has been divided into national protected areas and multiple-use zones, surrounded by a buffer zone that permits some agriculture and development for housing and industry 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.” (UNESCO 2016a, b) In practice, this means managing forest resources sustainably so that existing communities—and the state—can share the natural capital and promote crucial conservation.

Within the reserve, 800,000 hectares contain communities represented by the Association of Forest Communities of Petén (ACOFOP) that—with the support of several entities including the Rainforest Alliance, Heifer International, Defensores de la Naturaleza, and GIZ—depend on the use of multiple-use zones for their livelihood. (Rainforest Alliance 2016c) With little else available in these rural areas outside of cash-crop agriculture and fossil fuel exploration that threatens forest conservation, the primary economic activities are based upon the sustainable-use of 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 seed or the ramón seed, as it is known in Guatemala. A network of 23 rural and indigenous communities are given government concession permits to use the reserve’s land for 25-year periods, so long as they adhere to strict management plans per resource extracted. (ACOFOP 2016; Equator Initiative & UNDP 2012) This system of community concessions in the multiple-use zone represents about 15 percent of Guatemala’s total forest cover, including national parks. (Monterroso & Barry 2012) Thus, these plans outline sustainable management techniques and must meet rigorous certification requirements, like those demanded by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), among other certifying entities. This not only guarantees high-quality forest management, but it also facilitates entry into an international market, particularly into countries like the United States or the European Union, which have strict restrictions on the sourcing and quality of imported forest goods. Certain brands also push for, and value, sustainably-sourced forest products, such as Home Depot and Gibson Guitars. 

Commercializing the Ramon Seed

As part of the CNCG initiative, multiple forest products that can be sustainably harvested and managed are under deep study and development. One of the non-timber forest products includes the ramón seed, which has various uses and potential for, both, the local and international markets. The entirety of its value chain can provide benefits that not only protect the forest in its production techniques and management, but also provide and enhance an array of human rights for a significant sector of Guatemala’s rural population, ranging from the right to work to the right to health as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Articles 23 to 27. (United Nations 1948) First and foremost, the commercialization of the ramón seed extends and advances human rights amongst rural communities. Additionally, this initiative benefits certain vulnerable groups, particularly girls and women, children and youth, ethnic minorities and indigenous populations.

At the production level, the commercialization of the ramón seed involves the cultivation of the wild seed as it falls to the ground from the tree. This environmentally low-impact activity is relatively easy to conduct, as collectors enter the forest and forage for the fallen seed, without affecting the tree in any way.  Unlike agricultural work that often uses hazardous chemicals, intensive water-use and dangerous equipment, ramón seed collection is particularly appealing for groups of women, of all ages, as well as the youth. The activity provides a rare economic and employment opportunity for a segment of the population that has often been excluded from natural resource harvesting and management. The activity also has the potential to be conducted year-round, which differs from seasonal agriculture and timber-harvesting.

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The process of washing the ramón involves all these kinds of people! Older women, mothers and teachers, little girls and boys. This photo was taken in La Lucha.

Once collected, the ramón seed processing entails a drying process that converts the seed into a hard coffee-like bean. This dried product can then be processed into flour and powder to be used in baking and the production of tea and coffee substitutes. In Guatemala, this food processing role is also concentrated amongst the female population, providing an additional year-round employment and economic activity for rural women. Value added products can also be developed further up the value chain in the elaboration of final consumer products such as baked goods and beverages. In Petén, the ramón seed is primarily processed by a women-owned community enterprise called Alimentos Nutrinaturales S.A. (ANSA), also supported by ACOFOP and the Rainforest Alliance.

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Having a meeting in Uaxactún with some members of the Ramón Seed Committee. (Mostly women!)

Developing the National and International Markets

The commercialization of the ramón seed has potential in both, the national and international markets. Though the ramón seed grows abundantly in Guatemala, the general population does not consume it widely, even though it has a high nutritional content. In the American, European and Japanese markets, ramón seeds are a specialty food product used primarily as a gluten-free flour option or in specialty drinks. In the local market, the ramón seed represents an organic, nutritional food option for a country with persistent undernutrition and food insecurity.

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The ladies of ANSA and another entity called AMUL sell ramón seed products in the ExpoFeria Internacional de Diversidad Biológica y Seguridad Alimentaria con Pertinencia Cultural  en Xela, Guatemala.

Currently, 15.6 percent – about 2.5 million people— of the Guatemalan population is undernourished, making it one of the hungriest countries in the whole of Latin America. (FAO et al. 2015) In Guatemala, 48 percent of children under 5 are moderately or severely stunted, which is one of the highest stunting prevalence rates in the world. (UNICEF 2013) Furthermore, food insecurity is exacerbated in marginal households due to Guatemala’s vulnerability to climate change and natural disasters, including severe droughts and floods, which impact the rural poor most severely. (USAID 2014)

As part of the larger initiative of this product’s commercialization—as supported by ACOFOP and the Rainforest Alliance—the potential of using ramón seed in school lunches in order to improve child nutrition and food security is under development. The initiative’s efforts are taking careful considerations to ensure that both, local producers and consumers benefit from the commercialization and consumption of the ramón, although the international market currently offers greater opportunities for market growth and financial returns.

Rural Human Rights

Guatemala’s recent history is notorious for its human rights abuses linked with the 36-years of civil war that lasted from 1960 to 1996. (Costanza 2015; Godoy 2002) During this time, there were numerous human right abuses including forced disappearances, ‘scorched-earth’ policies, genocide and violence and intimidation of civilians, which particularly affected the indigenous communities and rural population that, today, make up about 48 percent of Guatemala’s population. (Human Rights Watch 2015; World Bank 2015) Now, twenty years later, Guatemala’s Petén region is more politically stable and organized, but it still faces many challenges that either, directly or indirectly, affect human rights. The majority of these challenges are connected land rights and to the nature and conditions of rural life including distance and remoteness, which also limit access to goods, services and opportunities that are most often concentrated in urban areas. Reduced information technology and isolation are also barriers that make rural life more difficult. (Sidoti 2003)

Petén has a population greater than 600,000 with about 70 percent of inhabitants living in rural areas. About 21 percent of the population identifies as indigenous. The average age of the population is 15, and more than 48 percent are women. The average household size is 5.6 individuals. (Quan Arriola & Escobar 2011) These figures demonstrate the demographic dynamics of the region, and the importance of addressing the human rights considerations that particularly impact rural areas, women, children and youth, and indigenous and ethnic minorities.

This region is also particularly vulnerable due to its proximity to the borders of Mexico and Belize, which represent vital routes for drug trafficking. (OSAC 2015) This territory— particularly the northwest region of the Petén— is largely commanded by the Zetas cartel and can be a dangerous area of illicit activity that is not only limited to the drug trade, but that extends to sex and human trafficking, illegal logging and wildlife trade, the misappropriation of lands, and high numbers of homicides and vigilante justice.(Godoy 2002; Human Rights Watch 2015; Organización Internacional para las Migraciones (OIM) 2002; OSAC 2015) The Petén communities’ vulnerability to these illicit activities is, in large part, countered with equitable economic development and the provision of alternative employment opportunities, which—if successful—may also help increase the access and quality of health and educational services, among other needs.

Direct Human Rights Considerations of Market Development for the Ramon Seed

The following categories represent the most pressing issues within the scope of human rights that should be taken into account in the market development of the ramón seed. 

Poverty and Access

The development of the ramón market primarily intends to alleviate rural poverty through the provision of this economic activity and employment opportunity. As mentioned, the Petén communities within the Maya Biosphere Reserve have strict limits on their concessional land-use, and thus, must be strategic in their economic development strategies. The development of the ramón seed market represents a sustainable forest resource that has the potential to benefit the communities as producers, but also as consumers, of this food product. This initiative also facilitates educational access to varying degrees as more and more people are trained and capacitated to partake in the different aspects of the ramón seed commercialization processes.

Inclusion of Girls and Women

The inclusion of women is of great concern for human development at the global scale, but also as part of the CNCG project. The benefits of empowering women are well-documented and expansive across multiple sectors; thus, the efforts for developing the ramón seed market in the Petén are particularly geared to include women—of all ages and educational obtainment—at the various levels of production, management, administration and sales, and value-added processing of final products using the ramón seed.

Attention to Children and Youth

While this initiative does not actively seek to engage children and youth in the ramón seed market at the production level, the reality in the rural areas of the Petén is that this population segment is often involved out of economic necessity. Compared to other kinds of work, the collection of the ramón seed is a relatively easy and safe activity for children and youth, which are often involved in familial recollection as mothers take their children along to forage for the seed. More intentionally, this initiative promotes the ramón seed consumption amongst this segment of Guatemala’s population in order to enhance their nutritional intake and food security.

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Beautiful little Guatemalan girls in the school in La Lucha.

Inclusion of Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Minorities

The development of the ramón seed market has been especially focused on female inclusion, through active outreach and engagement in capacity building efforts directed towards women. However, there is room for improvement in the inclusion of indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities. Many of the Petén communities involved in the production of the ramón seed claim indigenous roots; yet, there are small fractions within the communities that keep traditional customs and lifestyles, including the sole use of indigenous languages such as Q’eqchi. (Quan Arriola & Escobar 2011) A more targeted effort for outreach and engagement in indigenous languages is necessary to better include indigenous groups and ethnic minorities in the market development strategies. This has already been addressed to an extent with the provision of capacity building sessions in Q’eqchi to mothers that will conduct meal preparation in the school lunch program initiative.

Impunity and Poor Judicial Processes

The Petén region of Guatemala is particularly vulnerable to illicit activity due to the factors discussed previously. Due to distance and isolation, it is also difficult to monitor this region and formal judicial processes are rare. The misappropriation of lands has caused several conflicts within certain communities. Some conflicts have escalated into homicides and acts of vigilante justice, leading to the death of some community leaders engaged in the market development of forest products, which include the ramón seed. (Rainforest Alliance 2016d) ACOFOP and the Rainforest Alliance help to bring attention to these issues, and press for official government actions; nevertheless, the organizations are limited in their scope and ability to diminish or eliminate these problems and severe human rights violations.

Government Recognition of Land Rights

Lastly, the ACOFOP-represented communities have concessional rights to land for 25-year periods, which are constantly under government review to ensure proper management. While this benefits forest conservation, there are various human rights attached to land rights. In general, the communities agree to necessary sustainable forest management plans that, ultimately, dictate how the land can be used; however, the period length of these concessions is disagreeable. ACOFOP, with the support of the Rainforest Alliance and the CNCG consortium, pushes for land rights over longer and/or limitless terms through the right to prior consultation and communal representation. (Costanza 2015; Monterroso & Barry 2012) Not only does ACOFOP empower whole rural peoples by facilitating community entrepreneurship, but it also provides legal representation and a degree of political clout, and protection, that would otherwise be inaccessible to most of these communities and/or their members.

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A final photo of all the lovely people and representatives of NGOs that make up the Ramón Seed Committee.

Conclusion

While the development of the ramón seed market does not explicitly intend to address human rights, the activities conducted under this initiative do help enhance and expand human rights in rural Petén. The economic and employment opportunities created through the ramón seed market are critical to provide and increase the incomes of the region’s rural population. Women are particularly central in this initiative, and by extension, help increase their opportunities and decrease their vulnerability. The initiative is also taking special care to develop, simultaneously, the local and international markets for the benefit of both Guatemalan producers and consumers, many of which are vulnerable to food insecurity and malnutrition. Lastly, this initiative helps to conserve the Maya Biosphere Reserve—vital in assuring the environmental integrity of the region—which not only provides a home for these rural forest communities, but also, their livelihoods.

References

  • ACOFOP. 2016. ACOFOP: Quiénes somos. Asociación de Comunidades Forestales de Petén.
  • Costanza, J. N. 2015. Indigenous Peoples’ Right to Prior Consultation: Transforming Human Rights From the Grassroots in Guatemala. Journal of Human Rights 14:260-285.
  • Equator Initiative, and UNDP. 2012. Association of Forest Communities of Petén, Guatemala: Equator Initiative Case Studies. Equator Initiative, Environment and Energy Group. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), New York, NY.
  • FAO, IFAD, and WFP. 2015. The State of Food Insecurity in the World – Meeting the 2015 international hunger targets: taking stock of uneven progress. Page 47. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
  • Godoy, A. S. 2002. Lynchings and the Democratization of Terror in Postwar Guatemala: Implications for
  • Human Rights. Human Rights Quarterly 24:640-661.
  • Human Rights Watch. 2015. World Report 2015: Events of 2014. Pages 257-261. Human Rights Watch.
  • Monterroso, I., and D. Barry. 2012. Legitimacy of Forest Rights: The Underpinnings of the Forest Tenure Reform in the Protected Areas of Petén, Guatemala. Conservation and Society 10:136-150.
  • Organización Internacional para las Migraciones (OIM). 2002. Sexual Commercial Exploitation of Girls, Boys and Adolescents in Guatemala. Working Notebooks on Migration. OIM Organización Internacional para las Migraciones.
  • OSAC. 2015. Guatemala 2015 Crime and Safety Report. Page 3. U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Secretary (OSAC).
  • Quan Arriola, G., and P. Escobar. 2011. Cifras para el desarollo humano: Petén in G. B. Paiz, and G. A. Quan, editors. Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo (PNUD/UNDP), Guatemala.
  • Rainforest Alliance. 2016a. About Us.
  • Rainforest Alliance. 2016b. CNCG: Propósito y enfoque. Rainforest Alliance.
  • Rainforest Alliance. 2016c. Maya Biosphere Reserve, Guatemala.
  • Rainforest Alliance. 2016d. Statement Regarding the Murder of Community Leader Walter Méndez Barrios in R. Alliance, editor. The Frog Blog. Rainforest Alliance.
  • Sidoti, C. D. 2003. Rural People’s Access to Human Rights. International Council on Human Rights, Guadalajara.
  • UNESCO. 2016a. Man and the Biosphere Programme. Ecological Sciences for Sustainable Development. UNESCO.
  • UNESCO. 2016b. World Network of Biosphere Reserves (WNBR). Ecological Sciences for Sustainable Development. UNESCO.
  • UNICEF. 2013. Improving Child Nutrition: The achievable imperative for global progress. Page 9. United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
  • United Nations. 1948. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. United Nations.
  • USAID. 2014. Guatemala: Nutrition Profile. United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
  • World Bank. 2015. Guatemala: Rural population (% of total population). World Bank Group, World Bank Data.
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