Heralded as the ‘place of many trees,’ Guatemala was my third stop in the evaluation of the biodiversity impacts of the CAMBio project in Central America.
From dry pine-oak forest in the Western highlands to dense, moist rainforest in the Northern lowlands, the country accounts for a large expanse of Central America’s forest lands. In the last decade, deforestation here has skyrocketed as roads created for excavation activities opened up forest lands for livestock grazing and plantations for export-led agriculture. Coupled with demographic pressures, the unique and diverse forest systems of Guatemala are at risk to the unintended consequences of rural communities carving out a means of survival in a stressed landscape.
Journeying through the dynamic countryside of Guatemala
After a brief breather in the office from my trip to Honduras, it was time to fly off to visit the next study cluster of the CAMBio Project evaluation. Nestled between the southern reaches of the Petén rainforest and the Western highlands, the department of El Quiché is generally characterized by a temperate climate, although the mountainous topography of the area warrants a variety of microclimates that can support unique vegetation types.
Among these are pockets of warm, moist and lush forests that are conducive to the growth of cardamom. CAMBIO Project funds directed to Guatemalan producers were granted as loans to cooperatives, which primarily allocated the money to small farmers working in cardamom.
Our team gathered in Antigua, then headed to the Western highlands of the country. Our first stop was in the town of Santa Cruz del Quiche to visit with the local financial intermediary. After an afternoon of learning more about the financing and technical assistance administered in the area, we prepared for a long day of travel high into the hillsides of Quiche and the “Zona Reina” to visit farmers that benefited from the program.
The people of this town reflect the dynamic culture of the region, an identity steeped in Mayan, African, colonial and Western influences. Left and right of me I picked up traces of words that I could periodically recognize as Spanish, while other conversations were shrouded in the sharp consonants and heavy “che’s” of Quiché dialects, a derivative of the Mayan language. The main occupation here is agriculture, with farmlands being managed for subsistence and for cash crops. Families are invested in this venture, with an average of 6-8 children (per family) looped in to managing smallholder farmlands.
A turn of events for cardamom growers
Despite its origins tracing from southern India, Guatemala is the leading producer of cardamom in the world. Growers in El Quiche export this specialty spice to Saudi Arabia and other western Arabic nations. Due to the stable demand, the spice represents an important cash crop that has defined the recent socio-economic conditions of farming communities.
Until recently, the high price of cardamom seemed to carry the local economy of the region, but a sudden turn of events in 2011 burst a grim bubble: drug traffickers were busted.
As it turns out, a violent group of insurgents, fueled by drug money, were inflating the price of cardamom to launder money over the Guatemalan border. With drug operations eradicated, the price of cardamom fell drastically, leaving farmers out to dry in the aftermath of a wave of drug violence. CAMBio provided financial assistance to the farmers left behind, many of which were grappling with a means to reinstate the cardamom business in the area.
Our visits to the cardamom farms showed a promise of an environmentally sustainable comeback not just for cardamom, but also for forests in general. In my walks, I saw cardamom growing on the forest floor with little to no pesticides and wildly under forest patches with 85% or more shade. In a country with stagnant deforestation rates, it was a breath of fresh air to see farmers internalize the importance of maintaining forests in-tact.
“The forests are our lungs”
In my farmer interviews, I inquired as to how they perceived their connection with nearby forest lands and the agroforestry systems they were managing. Farmers explained to me that the “forests are our lungs” and they need forests in order for them, and the land, to “breathe.”
The applied translation of this poetic metaphor is that farmers here are matching managed and converted forest lands with protected patches of forest. Thus, for every hectare of forest converted into farm land, a hectare of native forest is protected elsewhere in the landscape.
A realistic projection of what is to come for El Quiche’s forest lands
Despite the promising evidence of a heightened awareness of the relationship between people’s livelihoods and forested ecosystems, I could not help but wince at an insidious, yet omnipresent threat: overpopulation.
With high levels of poverty and limited access to education and healthcare, El Quiché is experiencing a population boom that is representative of trends in much of Central America. From my interviews, I noted the average family size as being 6-8 children. Farmers implied that their land would eventually be split among their children. Increased interest in livestock was also still a driver of land conversion.
These combined factors pose a real threat to the forests of El Quiché, and are indicative of national trends in land conversion. Guatemala has one of the highest deforestation rates in Central America. The Petén rainforest (north of El Quiché) is the second largest rainforest in the Western Hemisphere, yet it lost 65,000 hectares of trees per year in 2005-2010.
In El Quiché, considered part of the central highlands, a major driver of deforestation is subsistence agriculture. Anecdotes of forested mountains and hillsides draw a contrast with the current open and grassier appearance of the landscape. While the cardamom farms were actively protecting forests, in passing I saw cases of farmers that were planting other cash crops, like maize, in eroded slopes that were once speckled with trees. As the children grow up and lay claim to their allotted small plots of land, it is likely that they will be compelled to seek out more open spaces to carve out a livelihood for themselves, and their future families.
So, what did the farmers do with the CAMBio funds?
The aim of the interviews was to analyze the effectiveness of CAMBio financing in motivating biodiversity conservation. In El Quiché, farmers were granted financial assistance through a cooperative. Our interviews in the El Quiché cluster revealed the following outcomes:
- In Guatemala, where micro-loans were issued, producers accessed loans multiple times over the course of the project with high rates of loan repayment.
- From the subset of CAMBio participants who reported possessing surface hydrology features within their production units, cardamom farmers in Guatemala seemed to be the ones who benefited the most from the program to protect this valuable habitat, using loans and biopremio funds to maintain or enhance forest cover around these areas.
- Most farmers interviewed in this evaluation reported making use of forested areas within their properties. This was particularly acute in Guatemalan cardamom agroforestry systems. We identified at least six types of ways farmers made use the forest. For example, almost 30% of farmers reported extracting timber and firewood.
- In Guatemala, it is interesting to reiterate the fact that by working with the selected small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs), the CAMBio program was able to work with people carrying out their economic activity in areas with higher biodiversity value than had they randomly selected properties from the immediate landscape.
Overall farmer adoption of biodiversity-friendly practices was high, as was the allocation of investments within the broader landscape to buffer encroachment on large remaining forest patches. Plainly put, farmers understand and play a critical role in the future sustainability of their landscape. However, mechanisms for coordinating landscape management are needed to sustain them within a broader socio-economic context that is presented by fluctuating market demand for agri-commodity crops.
The photos taken here, unless otherwise attributed, were taken by Lee Gross in his recent trip to Guatemala.