Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Entrepreneurs of Ecotourism: Community-Based Alliances Are Generating Jobs and Preserving Natural Resources in the Jungles of Guatemala

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Entrepreneurs of Ecotourism: Community-Based Alliances Are Generating Jobs and Preserving Natural Resources in the Jungles of Guatemala

Article excerpt

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Indigenous community leaders in a remote, poor region of Guatemala's northern Alta Verapaz province needed to generate sustainable jobs but had few resources and no training that could be used to create an enterprise.

Situated on the edge of the lush Candelaria National Park, the village of Candelaria Camposanto could not set up an agribusiness since it would encroach on the reserve. Hunting in the park was also prohibited.

A Peace Corps volunteer assigned to that region told the leadership that they should look at the national park as a resource instead of an obstacle. He suggested they use a network of spectacular caves as an eco-tourist attraction. They were in a good position, he said, especially since a new road had dramatically reduced the drive time to the area.

The leadership became more perplexed. They had never meta tourist. "We didn't know what tourists were," recalls Santiago Chub Ical, a community leader in Candelaria.

The Candelaria caves, on the other hand, they knew very well. Centuries ago they had been a place for Maya rituals. More recently, they had been places of shelter in the midst of a 36-year civil war.

The leaders of Candelaria Camposanto took a leap of faith. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) liked the concept and provided funding.

Today, almost ten years after the Peace Corps volunteer's recommendation, the small village of Candelaria Camposanto receives more than 2,800 tourists annually from Guatemala, the United States, France, Italy, Israel, and elsewhere. The cave tours are featured in newspapers, magazines, books, and on websites.

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"Before, the people who could not earn money here went to [the province of] Peten or to other places," says Chub Ical. "They went to clean the coffee crops and harvest bananas. But now the people don't leave. They can make a living here."

About seven years ago, USAID asked the nonprofit Counterpart International to get involved by scaling up ecotourism work.

"We found out that communities needed to be inserted into the broader value chain," says Rony Mejia, Counterpart's director in Guatemala. "So we started working with the private sector, the Ministry of Tourism, and the Ministry of Culture to bring in a whole array of [actors] who could contribute to community development, and who could take the communities to the next level as important players in the tourism industry."

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Community Emphasis

Unlike massive private-sector tourism developments, Candelaria Camposanto and other villages in the area use a unique community-based model in which all decisions rest with the residents.

"In the beginning of the process, a management plan for the caves was made in collaboration with the community," says Mejia. "The community identified those areas that they did not want to use for tourism because they were sacred sites or ceremonial sites. They also identified those sites that were okay for tourism. Then experts came to evaluate the fragility of the ecosystem and the cave to see which caves were really safe to use for tourism."

The residents formed an association, and each one has responsibilities to the tourism project. "We are like the caretakers of the land," says Chub Ical. "We organize things. We distribute the income acquired from the tourists."

Residents worked to mark trails and organize tours. They received training, were provided with professional marketing materials, and connected with tour operators. They have used the revenue to build a small store along the main road, an ecolodge, public restrooms, and a community center that is rented for special occasions. The revenues collected are reinvested into the daily operations of the project and used to pay residents who work with the tourists.

In the nearby village of Sepalau, the president of the Community Tourism Association (AGRETUCHI) says the ecotourism business employs 55 residents--about a quarter of the village. …

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