Interview with Patricia Orantes, Director of the Climate, Nature and Communities program in Guatemala

By Danilo Valladares, Rainforest Alliance

“Guatemala is one of the ten countries most vulnerable to the impacts of global climate change based on its geographical location, lack of territorial planning and weak human and institutional capacities.”

Patricia Orantes

Since February 2013, Guatemala has a new ally in the struggle to protect its natural resources and adapt to the effects of global climate change — a new program called Climate, Nature, and Communities in Guatemala (CNCG), supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

CNCG brings together a consortium of environmental, academic, and business institutions, led by the Rainforest Alliance in partnership with Fundación Defensores de la Naturaleza, the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, the Asociación Guatemalteca de Exportadores, The Nature Conservancy, and the World Wildlife Fund.

We spoke with CNCG director Patricia Orantes about the project’s priorities and how they hope to support Guatemala’s forest communities, conservation efforts, and the climate change agenda.

Question: How did the CNCG program come to be?

Orantes: It grew out of the recognition that Guatemala is one of the ten countries most vulnerable to the impacts of global climate change based on its geographical location, lack of territorial planning, and weak human and institutional capacities.   In addition, USAID has prioritized strengthening the country’s environmental stability.

GuatemalaQ: How are the effects of climate change becoming apparent in Guatemala?

Orantes: Extreme weather events such as Hurricane Mitch in 1998, Hurricane Stan in 2005, and tropical storm Agatha in 2010 have shown the country’s increased vulnerability to events related to climate change, which have increased in intensity and frequency in Central America.

This has also been devastating to Guatemala’s agriculture. In 2012, for the first time ever, five pests were occurring simultaneously in the agricultural sector, starting with the leaf rust that affected coffee, followed by pests on potatoes, cardamom, corn, and tomatoes. Farmers feel they cannot plant and manage their crops the way they did before — they now know that the climate is highly variable with frosts, droughts, and prolonged rainy seasons. Perhaps they don’t call it global climate change, but they know that the climate is changing and it is affecting them.

Q: How does CNCG hope to help Guatemala reduce its vulnerability to climate change?

Orantes: We have two main priorities. The first is to promote the importance of sustainable forest management by helping forest communities generate sustainable incomes and strengthen their value chains.  We also aim to demonstrate the environmental services provided by forests and develop carbon markets based on reducing deforestation.

The second priority is to build capacity in forest communities, central and local governments, the private sector, and NGOs working on forest issues. For example, we are supporting the internal strengthening of ten Guatemalan NGOs so that they can more effectively manage natural resources and promote conservation. The goal is for Guatemala to have a solid core group of players who are capable of advancing an agenda for environmental sustainability that includes climate change, with input from and for the rural communities.

Q: Which regions of Guatemala are involved and how were they chosen?

Orantes: Four regions were chosen: the Maya Biosphere Reserve, the Western Highlands, Las Verapaces, and the Sierra de las Minas Biosphere Reserve. The Western Highlands area is the most densely populated, poverty-stricken area in the country with highly degraded areas that are vulnerable to landslides, frosts, and droughts due to climate variability. Phenomena such as hurricanes Agatha and Stan and El Niño have demonstrated the fragility of the region, and we want to help reverse this by providing information and recommendations so that local people can adapt to climate change by adopting best management practices for soil, water, and ecosystems.

In Alta and Baja Verapaz, collectively known as Las Verapaces, there is a very large nucleus of poverty and forests are held by many disparate communities and private owners. But at the same time, it represents a great opportunity because this region holds the largest forested area in the country within plantations managed under the Forestry Incentives Program, which is an important source of diversification of income and jobs for communities.

The Petén, which contains the Maya Biosphere Reserve, is a key site because it accounts for about 70 percent of the nation’s declared protected area.  With that in mind, a major goal of the program is to help maintain the area’s forest cover and protect its biodiversity. Finally, our presence in Sierra de las Minas is strategic due to the importance of the reserve in the production of water as well as the high level of vulnerability of local communities and biodiversity to forest fires.

Photo by Giovanni BojorquezQ: What is CNCG doing on a national level?

Orantes: We will develop a national strategy to reduce deforestation, which is currently around 321,100 acres (130,000 hectares) per year, and we’ll create a national system to monitor the country’s forest cover.

We will also promote the establishment of carbon credit markets and facilitate the initial stages for a country-led lowemission development strategy, so that Guatemala assumes its shared but differentiated responsibility to mitigate the causes of climate change. This will also enhance the competitiveness of companies and the carbon-emitting sectors as well as our country’s economy and image in the near future.

Q: What do you hope CNCG will have achieved at the end of its five years?

Orantes: We would like to strengthen the community forest concessions model in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, since this has helped to conserve nearly 1.235 million acres (500,000 hectares) of tropical forest. We are going to leave these concessions better prepared to preserve their Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification and generate revenue for the communities, with greater legal certainty.  This way, forest management and use will be legal, profitable for communities, and it will help conserve biodiversity.

In Las Verapaces, we will support three kinds of timber product chains that will enhance production in communities, municipalities, cooperatives, and community associations. We want people to generate more income from the forest and have a fair and legal market for selling their products.

In the Western Highlands, we aim to improve capacity to handle climate change adaptation in 10 municipalities by improving their planning, access to climate information, and responsiveness in ecosystem management, forest management, and agriculture.

The goal in the Sierra de las Minas Biosphere Reserve is to strengthen local mechanisms for community organization, such as watershed committees, private entities, and municipal corporations so they can promote and take ownership of sustainable community development and implement better forest fire prevention and control programs.

At a national level, Guatemala will have an effective and participatory strategy to reduce deforestation and a reliable monitoring system to protect the forests, help reduce disasters, and provide decent and sustainable livelihoods for forest communities. We will also have set the stage for building a low emission development strategy that will help reduce and mitigate the major effects that climate change is having on rural areas.

CNCG will also leave five environmental NGOs with strengthened capacities in accounting, finance, and administrative matters, which will enhance their contributions to protect our natural resources and give them possibilities to have direct access to funding from the USAID.

Find more information about this project on the Eco-Index

Photo by Giovanni Bojorquez

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