Interview by Nuria Bolaños and Yessenia Soto, Rainforest Alliance
“Why do we want to have pretty sites, beautiful parks, and to conserve diversity in perpetuity if the surrounding communities are increasingly falling into poverty? We must show communities how to protect the forest, and the forest must represent an economic opportunity for them.”
El Mirador-Río Azul National Park is a treasure in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. The park is the third largest in Guatemala and is home to high levels of biodiversity, as well as the most important archeological ruins in the country. To help conserve this national gem, key stakeholders came together to form the Multisectoral Roundtable of the El Mirador-Río Azul Natural and Cultural Zone, an initiative that began with only $20,000, but in less than five years has grown to become one of the most important conservation models in Guatemala.
Thanks to the Roundtable’s efforts, scores of stakeholders, including communities, NGOs, the government, dozens of international donors are working together to care for this jewel, rather than compete for control. In the interview below three key participants in the Roundtable talk about how coordinated efforts, communication, consensus, and alliances have been critical in developing a management plan that also generates economic benefits through sustainable tourism.
Question: What are the origins of Multisectoral Roundtable?
Castellanos: The Multisectoral Roundtable of the El Mirador-Río Azul Natural and Cultural Zone is a forum for dialogue, analysis, and discussion that creates a common agenda to conserve and develop the Mirador-Río Azul Natural and Cultural Zone. It is based on strategic alliances between government, civil society, communities, and the private sector. The Roundtable was born when Asociación Balam decided to bring stakeholders together to begin talking, not from the perspective of conflict, but one of opportunity for the country. After lobbying the government, community, NGO, and private sectors, we gained their support and began looking for funders. We received $20,000 from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund for the “Preparing a Bi-National Guatemalan — Mexican Action Plan to Conserve the Biological Corridor between Calakmul Biosphere Reserve and Mirador — Rio Azul National Park” project. The Wildlife Conservation Society also contributed $2,500, which paid for the Roundtable’s first meeting on October 25, 2006. We were fortunate to have the participation of the President of Guatemala at that time, Óscar José Rafael Berger Perdomo, at that meeting.
Q: With only $20,000, a major movement was born. How was this accomplished?
Rodríguez: This success is due to the leadership and the vision of Asociación Balam and its executive director. Balam formed a roundtable where all actors could converge, share opinions, and reach a consensus on sustainable tourism in the zone. It united the private sector with NGOs such as the Friends of Guatemala’s Natural and Cultural Heritage Association (Asociación de Amigos del Patrimonio Natural y Cultural de Guatemala) and the Maya Cultural and Natural Heritage Foundation (Fundación Patrimonio Cultural y Natural Maya), and with the government sector through the Guatemala Tourism Institute, the Ministries, the National Council of Protected Areas, and one very special guest — President Óscar José Rafael Berger Perdomo, who liked the Roundtable because it was based on consensus and provided an opportunity to sit down and talk with several sectors at the same time.
The first $20,000 donated by CEPF helped to establish this dialogue. Later, the Roundtable itself was the facilitator that sparked discussion, the flow of funds, and the understanding needed to advance tourism in the region. Funding came from the Guatemalan Tourism Institute, the Presidency of the Republic, the Inter-American Development Bank, the United States Department of the Interior, and the Foundation for Anthropological Research and Environmental Studies.
Castellanos: The Roundtable’s innovative way of addressing issues and defining actions attracted the support of many organizations. We received a grant of $45,000 from the Flora Family Foundation to present and discuss the Roundtable initiative with all stakeholders. We then brought in the Consensus Building Institute, which helped us to make the Roundtable more efficient.
The ease with which we reached specific agreements also led to a fund leveraging and management mechanism, created through consensus with all of the Roundtable members under an ideal of common interests, obligations, and collaborative commitments. As a result, CEPF decided to give us a second grant for the “Multi-Stakeholder Plan for the El Mirador-Río Azul Natural and Cultural Zone, Maya Biosphere Reserve, Petén, Guatemala” project, which was used to consolidate the fund leveraging plan. I thank both CEPF and the Wildlife Conservation Society for giving us the initial funds for this project and for believing in our little group throughout the process. I also thank the private sector, the non-governmental sector, local communities, and the government for helping to create the conditions for working together.
Q: How is the Roundtable helping to develop tourism in the zone?
Rodríguez: El Mirador is a very ancient place and one of the country’s jewels. The problem is that when a gem is found, everyone wants it. The Roundtable is an opportunity to think about this gem as a common treasure that we can all use and care for. The Roundtable facilitates dialogue, collaboration, research, and the possibility of developing institutional agreements so that sustainable tourism in the zone is developed with sound protected area management and fair distribution of benefits.
Castellanos: The Roundtable aims to generate economic opportunities based on tourism development in El Mirador. With this in mind, the Foundation for the Development of Guatemala (Fundación para el Desarrollo de Guatemala, FUNDESA) developed a proposal for one million dollars to support tourism in the Maya Biosphere Reserve.
Zapata: With support from the InterAmerican Development Bank, FUNDESA is managing is a three-year pilot project to work with the communities that live in the gateway to El Mirador — the Carmelita and Uaxactún communities. The project aims to involve all small tourism businesses in the value chain, help to develop local tourism products, provide training, and promote the region as an important tourism destination. We always remember and take into account that El Mirador-Río Azul holds Guatemala’s most important archeological ruins.
The Roundtable has improved coordination and fostered a more efficient investment of resources. To streamline our work, we have assigned activities to each institution, resulting in greater benefits for the communities and small business owners. We have also strengthened the promotion of the Petén as a tourism destination. For example, the country’s slogan used to be “Guatemala, soul of the earth.” Since 2009 it has been “Guatemala, heart of the Maya world,” drawing more attention to the northern Petén and the Mayan communities in northwestern Guatemala.
Q: You have also mentioned another initiative called Cuatro Balam. Can you explain what this is?
Castellanos: Cuatro Balam is a government program that brings civil society and the private sector together to develop local capacity to profit from tourism. The difference between the Multisectoral Roundtable and Cuatro Balam is their geographic context — the Roundtable works in the eastern zone of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, while Cuatro Balam has a broader reach.
Q: Is it possible to replicate the Roundtable in other regions of Mesoamerica?
Rodríguez: The Roundtable can be replicated anywhere, but it can be hard to find a donor that is willing to pay for the dialogue process. In this case it was the CEPF. When that funding is obtained, then there must be collective motivation to find solutions and the commitment from government institutions to move the project forward. The private sector and the NGOs can have a lot of influence, but if the government does not see it as feasible, multisectoral roundtables are not possible.
On the other hand, there must be sufficient pressure on the protected area. And we shouldn’t forget that this cannot be replicated just anywhere in Central America because this is a place with unique characteristics — our pre-Classical archeological sites are some of the most important in the world, so the initiative has regional, national, and international resonance. Moreover, we believe that El Mirador can become one of the most interesting sites of the Mayan pre-Classical period and part of our global heritage.
Q: What are the main threats to El Mirador?
Castellanos: Forest fires — 99% of the fires in the Reserve have been caused by humans. There is also increasing colonization and illegal occupation — this is due to a serious lack of governance. It is also threatened by drug and weapons trafficking, organized crime, and money laundering. An abandoned forest area with no local participation or economic benefits is a hotbed for illegal activities and narco-traffickers.
Zapata: Land invasions can have a negative effect on tourism development. Land tenure is a rather difficult topic and the legality of land or property rights is one of the greatest challenges throughout Guatemala, not just in the Petén.
We face the major task of obtaining funds for park guards, reducing logging in the Petén, and halting the settlement and movement of people who are invading protected lands. On the other hand, we must also reduce the ways people are plundering our archeological sites.
Q: What challenges do you face in working with the government?
Castellanos: Harmonizing this government’s policies so that Cuatro Balam can achieve planned short-term results. It’s like wanting to plant a beautiful flower in ruined land — first you have to prepare the soil. If the government doesn’t harmonize its tools, regulations, and policies it will very difficult for it to advance Cuatro Balam.
The country also needs an environmental agenda. Cuatro Balam is an opportunity to create concrete agreements with this government. The Roundtable provides the foundation for civil society and the private sector to develop agreements with the government that will create the legal conditions to make all investments in natural and cultural areas viable in the short, medium, and long-term. The government has the land but it doesn’t have the resources. We don’t have the territory, nor does the private sector, but we have somewhat more efficient means of channeling funds. The private sector will invest its money whenever there is legal certainty; for example, members of FUNDESA’s board of directors work for the seven most prominent businesses in Guatemala.
Q: What are the Roundtable’s goals?
Zapata: We see a positive future for the zone, especially regarding tourism development. But currently, El Mirador is just a national park and we must consolidate the entire El Mirador watershed into a nature park in order to conserve it. Otherwise all of the forest in the reserve will disappear and so will the ruins.
Castellanos: The beneficiaries of conservation in the Maya Biosphere Reserve are the people, and subsequently the natural and cultural resources. Why do we want to have pretty sites, beautiful parks, and conserve diversity in perpetuity if the surrounding communities are increasingly falling into poverty? We must show communities how to protect the forest, and the forest must represent an economic opportunity for them.