Interview by Yessenia Soto, Rainforest Alliance
“Today there is a proportional relationship between poverty and forested areas — we want to reverse this by helping forest communities maintain healthy ecosystems that provide sustainable economic opportunities and improved livelihoods.”
Several forest communities in Guatemala are now less impoverished and marginalized and no longer lack opportunities to become small-scale drivers of sustainable development. Thanks to years of work with the Rainforest Alliance’s Forestry Enterprises in Guatemala initiative, these communities have built sustainable livelihoods based on their forest’s riches and are earning a decent living while also protecting their valuable ecosystems and biodiversity.
José Román Carrera, regional manager of the Rainforest Alliance’s Training, Extension, Enterprises and Sourcing (TREES) program, explains how responsible forest management through Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Rainforest Alliance certification has been crucial to the achievements of these forest concessions, as well as the organization’s achievements, challenges, and goals in the region.
Question: What is the goal of the Forestry Enterprises in Guatemala project?
Carrera: The project began in 2006 with the goal of improving the competitiveness of the nation’s forest products through six strategic objectives: increasing the sales and income of FSC and Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs), increasing the area of certified natural forests that produce timber and non-timber products, creating more employment in the forestry sector, improving the competitiveness of SMEs by facilitating access to financial resources and responsible markets, linking responsible management systems with consistent and efficient production of high-quality products, and linking biodiversity conservation with responsible forest management and environmental service payment mechanisms, all to help improve food security in the country.
Q: How is the project supported?
Carrera: It is funded primarily by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and it also has support from other donors such as the Multilateral Investment Fund of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB-MIF), the Danish Agency for Development Assistance, the Richardson Foundation, Citigroup, and Guatemalan government programs, such as the economic development program “Desde lo Rural” (PDER).
Q: The project is based on sustainable forest management and FSC and Rainforest Alliance certification — why is this key to helping forest communities?
Carrera: When we began working in Guatemala, the Rainforest Alliance’s goal was to conserve ecosystems of national importance, not just by transforming land use practices, but by transforming market and consumer behavior. Guiding sustainable forest management practices through certification is a successful model because it allows forest owners to diversify their sustainable productive activities in a small geographic area and with minimal impact on nature, thus obtaining higher income while their certified products and services have added value that is recognized by the market.
Q: Has the project been successful?
Carrera: We are proud that the communities themselves claim to have had success, and the results point to some important achievements. For example, when the project began, 12 certified concessions combined were selling US$4 million per year; from 2006 to 2012, sales increased to US$12 million per year, and 70% of these sales are going to certified markets. In recent years, Guatemala has certified another 568,100 acres (230,000 ha) of forests that are producing non-timber products — a new system that did not exist four years ago — while maintaining the certification of forests for timber products at around 1,235,000 acres (500,000 ha). We have created more than 5,000 new permanent and temporary jobs per year, advised more than 90 forestry SMEs, facilitated credit mechanisms, and implemented the country’s first projects related to climate change mitigation and the sale of carbon credits. One of the greatest accomplishments is that deforestation is 20 times less in certified forests than in national parks and buffer zones.
Q: The project attracted the interest of the new government of Guatemala, which made a significant donation. How have the national authorities provided support?
Carrera: This is the first time the central government has supported a program that is jointly administered by forest concessionaires to benefit rural SMEs. Through PDER, a donation of $600,000 was given to communities in the Maya Biosphere Reserve — funds that will be used to increase efficiency in industrial business processes by, for example, investing in new machinery. The donation was delivered directly by the president of Guatemala, Otto Pérez Molina, accompanied by six ministers. But most importantly, this wasn’t just a donation — during the event, we took advantage of the government official’s presence to make formal requests of each ministry, and agreements were made to follow up in regular meetings to coordinate work with communities.
Q: How have you entered international markets and generated a constant demand for these businesses’ products?
Carrera: The Rainforest Alliance’s approach is to create demand in the marketplace and then create a sustainable supply — this has made certification a valuable option for the communities. Opening markets and establishing partnerships is not easy, but has been helped by the global recognition of the Rainforest Alliance’s green frog seal and what it represents in terms of sustainability. Also, the supply of tropical products is declining and the fact that Guatemala now has a large volume of certified products opens the doors to important markets, who are in turn have access to a long-term, sustainable supply of FSC and Rainforest Alliance certified products.
Q: How did you manage to turn small farmers, artisans, and xate or chicle collectors into entrepreneurs at this level?
Carrera: It has been a challenge. They had to learn how to develop business plans, calculate the profitability of their products, and manage their finances, so we began by providing short-term training to build basic business management skills. We advised them to hire specialized personnel, such as engineers and administrators. In addition, the local youth are being trained to become these professionals — every year, 12-14 young people are given scholarships. We also help them develop and implement business plans, establish production chains, identify and develop new forest species and new goods and services for their businesses, and access and repay credit. The project has set up three financial mechanisms for micro, small, and medium-size enterprises. Most recently with the US government and BANRURAL, the project set up a fund of US$ 18 million to provide loans to sustainable SMEs.
Q: What new forest services are or will be used?
Carrera: We are working on sustainable ecosystem management to be able to access the environmental services payment markets – producing oxygen, carbon sequestration, protection of water sources and soil biodiversity, and sustainable natural landscape management. In the highland region of Guatemala, these services have been vital in generating income and improving food security.
Q: Are the project’s forest concessions able to sell carbon credits?
Carrera: Six years ago, when we started the first Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) project, the opportunities were unclear, but now we are seeing strong potential. We launched the GuateCarbon project and set up eight mitigation and carbon sales initiatives. GuateCarbon began with a proposal to cover 1.2 million acres (500,000 ha) of forest in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, but after national discussions, we expanded the project area to cover 9.9 million acres (4 million ha), or 40% of the national territory. That project is in the final phase of development, and in a few months it could generate the first credits for international sale. With these new financial resources, the forest communities can build on their efforts to curb deforestation, diversify their production activities, and strengthen governance in the Maya Biosphere Reserve.
Q: How much potential do these areas have to generate carbon credits?
Carrera: According to estimates, 1.2 million acres (500,000 ha) in the Maya Biosphere Reserve alone could generate up to 34,000,000 tons of carbon credits.
Q: Drug trafficking is a major challenge in Central America — has it affected the project?
Carrera: Guatemala and Honduras are the biggest drug corridors in the region, but there has been very little infiltration in the multiple use zone of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. The communities tell us that they don’t need to participate in illegal activities because they have jobs, incomes up to twice the national minimum wage, and housing, and their children have education and scholarships. We’ve found this to be the case in most of the project areas. With increased income, governance of the forest communities improves, and their commitment to their lands, government, and society grows. However, this is a significant challenge, and it can be risky to work in certain areas that suffer from drug trafficking.
Q: Malnutrition is another challenge — how is the project improving food security?
Carrera: We’re improving the capacity of SMEs to compete in the marketplace and establish sustainable businesses that generate sufficient, stable income for families to buy food. We aim to provide long-term solutions for malnutrition. For example, in the Western Highlands region, which is the most impoverished, 17 SMEs are developing cooperatives to sell their products, and they are already meeting the demand from major national markets. In Totonicapán, another area with high malnutrition, we established a sustainable forest management plan to increase forest cover and provide benefits from environmental service payments.
Q: What are the short-term goals for the project?
Carrera: In the next 2-3 years, we want to double the number of SMEs we’re working with to bring the total to 300. We expect to complete the first REDD pilot projects and replicate them throughout the region. We also want to provide access to financing for at least 50% of forest entrepreneurs in need. We hope to expand the number of sustainable goods and services that we offer in order to continue to increase local incomes. And of course, we want to increase the number of certified lands in the region — there are already 1.7 million acres (700,000 ha) of certified forests, but we can certify an additional 741,000 acres (300,000 ha). Today there is a correlation between poverty and forested areas, and we want to reverse this by helping forest communities maintain healthy ecosystems that provide sustainable economic opportunities and improved livelihoods.
Q: Can this project serve as a model for other regions rich in forest resources?
Carrera: I am convinced that our tools are globally applicable, provided that they are adapted to the realities of each specific region. South America faces the same environmental challenges, so we shouldn’t reinvent methodologies and strategies that have already been tested, but instead adapt and apply them in other regions around the world.