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Custodians of the forest - women in Guatemala

Sustainable harvesting of forest products is permitted within the reserve (Rainforest Alliance)
Sustainable harvesting of forest products is permitted within the reserve
Rainforest Alliance

Covering over ten per cent of Guatemala, the Maya Biosphere Reserve - Central America's most biologically diverse ecosystem - was established in 1990 to protect the rainforest from accelerating levels of deforestation, illegal-logging and forest fires. Sustainable harvesting of forest products, such as fruit, gum, resin and xate (an ornamental palm leaf), is permitted within the multiple-use zone of the reserve, but communities must be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

To help safeguard the forest, the Rainforest Alliance provides support, training and marketing assistance to certified communities and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in order to enhance employment opportunities and ensure responsible forest management. As a result, not only has deforestation reduced dramatically, but concessions are generating US$4 million a year for certified communities. And, by including women in all aspects of the programme, their involvement and influence in forest associations has increased and they have gained new sources of employment, including processing and packaging of non-timber forest products and administrating SMEs.

Earning more by cutting less

Women are now selecting and packaging xate ready for export (Rainforest Alliance)
Women are now selecting and packaging xate ready for export
Rainforest Alliance

In Uaxactún, villagers earn money by sustainably harvesting xate palm from the reserve. Traditionally, women had little involvement because the palms were harvested by men and then sold directly to intermediaries. But after receiving training on sustainable management practices, value-added processing, and business skills, women are now helping to manage SMEs and are also selecting and packaging xate ready for export."With access to training women now have knowledge and technical skills and they are participating as leaders," says Rainforest Alliance regional forestry manager, José Román Carrera. "The most successful SMEs are those who have women involved in administration."

With their incomes, women have also helped to build schools, health centres and pay teachers' salaries. "Now women feel important in the community because we contribute to our home with financial resources," explains Reyna Valenzuelaa. "My son can go to school because I am able to pay the school costs with the money I receive from my job selecting xate."

By cutting only the finest leaves and leaving more fronds behind, xate harvesters are selling the leaves for twice as much whilst allowing the palms to regenerate faster. Rainforest Alliance has also helped the community cut out intermediaries by putting the SMEs in direct contact with buyers in Europe and the United States. By exporting high quality products directly to international buyers, five communities within the reserve are earning US$10,000 per week. So far 180,000 hectares have been FSC certified and Carrera hopes that at least 400,000 hectares will be certified by 2012.

Forest stewards

The Maya Biosphere Reserve is Central America's most biologically diverse ecosystem (Rainforest Alliance)
The Maya Biosphere Reserve is Central America's most biologically diverse ecosystem
Rainforest Alliance

In the mountainous Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala, Rainforest Alliance is working in partnership with ASILCOM - the community forest association of Verapaces - to train women to become community leaders and give them the skills to implement reforestation and forest management activities in their villages. Weekly training activities teach the women to identify and map local forests and tree plantations, learn about the tree life cycles, and understand the role that trees play in conserving soil, water, carbon and providing wildlife habitats.

By becoming a forest steward, the women work with SMEs and their communities to help them implement sustainable management practices, add value to forest products, improve their business and administration skills and access financial services and markets. "We hope that in a few years some of these girls will be part of ASILCOM's board of directors, making sure natural resources are well managed and families benefit from forest activities," explains Ale Colom, a former associate project director for the Guatemala Forestry Enterprises Project.

Adding value to the forest

Carrera believes that clear government policy in Guatemala and the involvement of women have been vital to the success of their work. "You must involve women," he says, "because they have natural skills in administration and selection and packaging of value added products. They utilise resources better as they understand the importance of food security so promote mixing plantations for reforestation with food crops. Women should also be on the board of directors in each cooperative to take more wise and democratic decisions." Due to the success in Guatemala, similar projects are already underway in Bolivia, Honduras, Peru, Panama and Nicaragua, although Carrera would like to see the model improved and used in many more countries to help other communities earn more money and protect their forests.

Certification has increased profits for many Guatemalan forest communities (Rainforest Alliance)
Certification has increased profits for many Guatemalan forest communities
Rainforest Alliance

While certification and identification of international buyers has increased profits for many Guatemalan forest communities, it has not totally succeeded in helping community members adequately protect their forest against illegal loggers. "We need to add more value to forest ecosystems through the certification of environmental services," Carrera states. "We need to increase recognition of the role that forest ecosystems play in mitigating climate change by avoiding deforestation."

As a result, the Rainforest Alliance has been working on a REDD project for four years and hopes to be able to start selling carbon credits by 2011. "Paying for environmental services could save the rainforest," Carrera adds. "We must put a price on these services so that the forest is worth more standing."

Date published: September 2010


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