Defensores de la Naturaleza
By Christiana Ferris
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The Maya Forest is a tri-national jewel spanning parts of Guatemala, Mexico and Belize, and it is the New World's largest remaining block of tropical rainforest outside of the Amazon basin. In the heart of this forest, tucked away in a northern corner of Guatemala, lies the 500,000-acre Sierra del Lacandón National Park. As Guatemala's second largest national park, it is home to many endangered species and some of the largest tracts of pristine rainforest in the country.
It is also home to indigenous groups that have practiced small-scale farming and fishing in rivers and lakes in harmony with nature for decades. Beekeeping is another traditional Mayan activity that has been gentle to the forest.
Yet, despite its national park status and the forest-friendly traditional practices of indigenous peoples, pressures in the Sierra del Lacandón have come from a rapidly growing human population along with poorly practiced ranching, agricultural activities encroaching on the forest and excessive timber extraction. All of these pressures demand determined conservation action to preserve the area’s natural resources for future generations.
To address these threats, The Nature Conservancy and local partner Defensores de la Naturaleza have been working with both Mayan and non-indigenous communities in and around Sierra del Lacandón improve their economic well-being and at the same time preserve their slice of the Maya Forest.
In cooperation with Guatemala’s Ministry of Agriculture, the Conservancy has supported a pilot project to install backyard gardens, schoolyard gardens, chicken coops, greenhouses and apiaries. Through the project, residents are now growing fruits and vegetables and producing eggs, poultry and honey. The Conservancy’s partner provides ongoing technical assistance to these small-scale farmers and is working to identify other sources of financing to help expand these projects. Our hope is that we can expand these pilot projects into other communities around Sierra del Lacandón.
Sustainable, community-based food production is making a big difference for 113 families here, among Guatemala’s poorest rural populations. Economic development efforts are also indispensable to the long-term protection of Sierra del Lacandón. By increasing the productivity of these agricultural activities, the park’s residents and neighbors are feeding their families and enjoying a better standard of living without exploiting forest resources.
“With these projects, one difference in the lives of the community members is an improved diet, including more protein and fresh vegetables,” says Javier Marquez of Defensores de la Naturaleza. “The families also receive income from the local sale of produce not needed for their own consumption, especially eggs.”
By improving the supply of fresh, nutritious, locally grown food, these communities are demonstrating that greater economic well-being doesn’t have to come at the expense of nature. And the initiative is also bringing communities together with a sense of pride and common purpose.
Marquez adds, “Now we have groups of women empowered and organized to work together on future, perhaps even more ambitious, projects that they may choose to implement."March 23, 2011