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Working with Local Communities in Guatemala to Protect Biodiversity


This piece comes to us from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). To honor Hispanic Heritage Month, WCS and Nature are bringing you five stories in the fields of nature and conservation.

América pictured at a Paso Caballos residence, its front door painted by local children as part of her “Let’s bring color to Paso Caballos” initiative. Photo credit: ©Eleanor Briggs

Ever since I was a child growing up in Guatemala, I have loved the natural world. My country is full of wonderful biodiversity, from hicatee turtles swimming in rivers to scarlet macaws in flight and ramón trees that yield fruit crucial for the subsistence of our communities. It is a landscape of natural riches—and more so where it intertwines with the ancient vestiges of Mayan culture.

While I didn’t have much contact with wildlife in the capital, where I was born, I dedicated my afternoons to chasing butterflies in my schoolyard or the local park. I would think about what each butterfly’s life may have been like, who they had met, where they got their food.

It wasn’t until 1992, when a university internship led me to Uaxactún, a community within the Maya Biosphere Reserve in the Petén region, that I had my first wildlife encounter. There I saw a jaguar and a tapir for the first time. Though I confess I was a little bit scared, it was easy to fall in love with the Maya Forest.

América and representatives of the San Miguel La Palotada Community Development Council, National Council for Protected Areas, Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food, and WCS, plant trees during a Reforestation Day event in San Miguel La Palotada. Photo credit: ©Pedro Xona/WCS

My parents came from humble backgrounds, and they instilled in me the importance of a good education and working hard to do your best. They aspired for me to become a lawyer or a doctor, but I already knew I wanted to dedicate myself to conservation.

With conviction and determination, I enrolled at the University of San Carlos de Guatemala for a degree in renewable natural resources engineering. Although my parents did not understand my decision, my dear mother Doña Judith supported me in her own way, regularly sharing the news she had read about the latest threats to biodiversity, like forest fires or a possible bi-national highway plan with Mexico.

América pictured with Don Andrés Ical, a local church leader in Paso Caballos. Photo credit: ©Eleanor Briggs

I’ve had two mentors who have greatly influenced my work and perspective on conservation. The first, when I came to Uaxactún in 1992, was Don Fernando Quixchán. Don Fernando was a chicle (or natural chewing gum) contractor, with incredible knowledge and passion about the history of chicle activity in Petén.

My second mentor was Roan Balas McNab, who hired me to join the Wildlife Conservation Society when he was the Guatemala Program Director. A true scientist with a passion for wildlife, archaeology, and the nature of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, Roan taught me the importance of seeing all situations as a landscape, of stepping back to analyze things from a more holistic perspective. But above all, he taught me to get out of my comfort zone. He pushed me to challenge myself and broaden my horizons.

Lately, with WCS, I’ve been working with the Mayan Q’eqchi community of Paso Caballos, located within the Laguna del Tigre National Park, implementing a national reproductive health program and strengthening their governance for improved conservation and development.

América inspects the firebreak surrounding the Paso Caballos community polygon in the Laguna del Tigre National Park. Photo credit: ©Pablo Tec

I still vividly recall the signing of the first conservation agreement between the community, WCS, and the National Council of Protected Areas in 2010. After a big ceremony, all community members in attendance at the general assembly came forward to sign the agreement, which was followed by a party and an atmosphere of excitement.

At that time, I promised a community leader that I would not leave Paso Caballos until his school’s dirt floors had been covered with cement.

Ten years later, I find myself standing with a strengthened community despite the disadvantages that come with poverty, indigenous identity, and living within a national park. I can proudly say that working together we have managed, among other things, to neutralize the threat of forest fires, improve health care and infrastructure, and build four school classrooms, each with cement floors.

América and a graduate student present a reproductive health research project to members of the Paso Caballos Community Development Council and Council of Elders. Photo credit: ©Manuel Tut

Progress in Paso Caballos allowed me to step away from the community and focus my attention on another troubled community within the Reserve. After completing college, I had worked with the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center in the community of San Miguel La Palotada. We successfully helped them obtain the first community forestry concession in the Maya Biosphere Reserve in 1992.

Sadly, forest management and governance in the Reserve carry significant challenges that the community could not overcome, and by 2009 they lost their concession and land permanence rights. Then, close to two decades after participating in the original forest concession declaration, I had the privilege of returning to San Miguel La Palotada to support the community.

América and members of the Paso Caballos Community Development Council and Council of Elders carry a community statement against illegal wildlife trade in an event celebrating the Maya Biosphere Reserve’s 30th anniversary. Photo credit: ©Laerke Taidal

Working alongside the “Juntos por San Miguel” alliance, we began to repair the relationship between the community and the government and recover the community’s rights to inhabit the area. Soon, Guatemala’s National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP) and the leaders of San Miguel will sign a new cooperative agreement, vesting the community with access rights, and renewing the promise for the future of biodiversity in this landscape, and the larger Maya Biosphere Reserve.

I am proud of the community in San Miguel, of the Guatemalan government as represented by CONAP, and of our work in Guatemala that always seeks to achieve a balance between nature conservation and human well-being. I am optimistic for the future of conservation in Guatemala as long as we continue to respect our “great home”—the Earth—and understand that our true wealth lies in biodiversity.


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