To protect the astounding diversity of plant and animal life and hundreds of ancient Mayan ruins found in northern Guatemala, the government established the Maya Biosphere Reserve in 1990. The Rainforest Alliance has been working with communities in the reserve since 1998, helping them to manage their forestlands responsibly. The man charged with managing these efforts is José Román Carrera, who grew up on the outskirts of the reserve and has dedicated the past 19 years to helping communities maintain their lands.
Could you describe how the forest in the region has changed since you were a child?
I used to walk through the forest for five kilometers everyday to go to school. All of that land has since been converted into farmland for cattle ranching. And in the last few years, the small remaining areas of forest in the southern part of the region have decreased. As a result, the forests that remain are found mainly within the reserve.
Is the Rainforest Alliance’s approach helping to slow deforestation?
Absolutely — in the areas where we work, deforestation levels are 20 times less than in the areas where we don’t. By giving value to the forests in the reserve, the Rainforest Alliance is both generating opportunities for the people who live there and conserving the environment.
How do the communities benefit from selling their Forest Stewardship Council/Rainforest Alliance Certified products?
Because of the great demand for certified products, the communities are have access to a stable market. And because the buyers recognize the efforts that the communities are making, they are willing to pay a premium for the products. This is true for example in the case of certified xate, which is sold to churches in the United States. Besides higher prices, the communities receive technical support for the production, management and marketing of their products and they learn ways to improve their business and organizational skills.
What improvements have you seen within communities once they achieved certification?
Among the more significant improvements has been in education. Many children have been awarded scholarships, and some of those have since graduated from their secondary schools. Awareness of the environment is growing as several communities can now boast forestry technicians and a large number of teachers. In terms of health care, the communities have invested in more health care workers and better medical care. Housing has improved, as various communities have made it easier for their members access wood for construction.
Why is it important that communities receive payments for carbon offsets in addition to selling certified products?
The cost of improving forest management is extremely high. The communities invest most of their income in protecting against the fires that are set to clear areas for farmland. And they are constantly fighting narcotics trafficking, cattle ranching and other threats. The income from the sale of certified wood does not cover all of these community improvements and vigilance, so the revenue generated by the sale of carbon credits will help with these costs.
Now that you live in Guatemala City, what do you miss most about the Maya Biosphere Reserve?
I miss the relationship with the forest, the rich biodiversity and of course the people. Every time I visit, I am inspired to continue with our work long into the future.