To reach the village of Uaxatún in Petén, Guatemala one travels through the rainforest. Green dappled light and the smell of loam punctuate the dense humidity. This forest is part of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, which protects the largest remaining tract of tropical rainforest in Central America. Uaxatún sits in the multiple use zone of the reserve, an area comprised of government-designated forest concessions designed to support both the reserve and the people who live in and around it.
Uaxatún is one of the villages participating in the GuateCarbon Project, a project undergoing verification to the Climate, Community & Biodiversity (CCB) Standards and VCS Program that is helping both the reserve and surrounding villages to flourish. The project is being implemented by Guatemala’s agency responsible for national protected areas, Consejo Nacional de Áreas Protegidas (CONAP), in partnership with the association of local concession holders, Asociación de Comunidades Forestales del Petén (ACOFOP), and with technical support from Rainforest Alliance and Wildlife Conservation Society.
We had the opportunity to visit Uaxatún and the GuateCarbon Project this September. While there, we got to experience firsthand the rich and wide-ranging impact this project has. Though it is an emissions reduction project, as evidenced by the full project name – Reduced Emissions from Avoided Deforestation in the Multiple Use Zone of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala (GuateCarbon) – project proponents are involved in supporting so many local activities, it seems almost unfair to call this just one ‘project.
Nuts and Palms
In Uaxatún, some residents earn their living harvesting xate palm for the florist trade. In the past, buyers would pay by the pound, which incentivised broad-scale and unsustainable harvest of these leaves. GuateCarbon Project developers have worked with buyers to change incentives. Now, buyers pay by leaf quality rather than volume. It’s a subtle change, but one that allows harvesters to get the same earnings picking fewer leaves and that incentivizes picking only the best and leaving the rest.
Another community we visited was home to a co-op run almost entirely by local women that produces flour from maya nuts. Also known as bread nuts, maya nuts are native to Central America, highly nutritious and develop a chocolatey, coffee flavor when roasted. With such a tasty flavor, it is perhaps unsurprising that the women at the co-op also bake crisp cookies with the maya nut flour, which they sell locally and internationally.
For many women who work there, the maya nut co-op was their first opportunity to gain independence and earn their own incomes, as girls in the region are often not encouraged to stay in school past their primary education. Project developers have also been advocating directly in villages to get girls to stay in school, and it seems to be working. The project has also made improvements to several schools and is funding some teacher salaries, including a computer science teacher.
By Locals, For Locals
Though designed to support villagers and the park, the multiple use zone concessions were part of one of the biggest challenges that the project faced starting out. Community members would illegally sell their concessions to richer landowners, trading the land for the quicker cash. GuateCarbon had to convince villagers that they would be able to comparably support themselves by staying on their land, sustaining both their families and the local landscape in the process. The project then had to deliver on that promise.
For the communities we encountered, it seems that they very much have. Traveling with representatives from CONAP and members of ACOFOP, we found that, in every village visited, project leads and participants greeted each other like long-lost friends.
Through a translator, we were able to talk to some of the people participating in the various income-generating projects supported by the project. They spoke of improvements to their well-being and how they no longer had to live solely off of subsistence agriculture, thanks to new commodity opportunities, particularly in non-timber forest products.
Perhaps most importantly, we found that, for residents, the benefits they are seeing are not just about the earned income. Across villages and livelihoods, community members don’t just know what they were doing, they know why they are doing it: to protect their forests, their families, and their way of life.
Multiple Use, Multiple Impact
Though it operates at the local level, GuateCarbon is by no means a small project. The project area covers about 660,000 hectares or an area about the size of Delaware. The total Maya Biosphere Reserve spans an area about the size of Connecticut. Frequent patrols are needed to make sure only regulated harvesting and non-timber forest product extraction are happening, and there is a lot of ground to cover. The project funds repairs to patrol vehicles and even pays for gasoline so that patrols can continue. By funding simple needs with big impacts, project proponents contribute to better outcomes in the short and long terms.
From sustainable harvesting of timber and non-timber products, to monitoring the reserve and fire prevention, to investing in local economies and education, the GuateCarbon Project is a true multiple social and environmental benefit project. And oh yes, they also produce carbon credits to boot. The project has been so successful, that CONAP is considering the same model of concessions and livelihood support for other protected areas in Guatemala, including some National Parks. Now that is something we are proud to verify.
*all photographs © Amy Schmid, VCS