Poverty in Mayan communities is high, averaging 79%, with 40% of the population experiencing extreme poverty. Guatemala has the highest rate of chronic malnutrition in Latin America, with hunger and stunting affecting 58% of Indigenous children. Malnutrition is compounded by the deforestation caused by population growth and corporations’ use of the best farmland for export crops, forcing native families to farm on steep mountain slopes. Deforestation has devastated the environment, causing mudslides and massive soil erosion that result in poor crops and even more malnutrition. The loss of trees also removes critical habitats for birds and other wildlife, which are vanishing at an alarming rate.
Guatemala is a country rich in cultural and natural diversity. The Alliance for International Reforestation (AIR) works primarily with the approximately 40% of the population that are of Mayan descent, mainly small-holder K’iche’ and Kaqchikel farmers in the mountainous west-central part of the country. Its program is operated out of a training center in Chimaltenango, Guatemala, but technicians travel throughout three departments providing AIR programs of tree nurseries/reforestation, regenerative agriculture training, fuel-efficient stoves, rural school programs, and scholarships. Guatemalan staff includes Executive Director Cecilia Ramírez, a secretary, and six Indigenous Maya technicians with degrees in Agroforestry or Environmental Engineering.
The program components and expected outcomes of this project include:
- Reducing the impacts of climate change and providing habitat for wildlife through reforestation by planting 80,000 trees (native species).
- Improving food production and nutrition using organic regenerative farming techniques. Significant increases in productivity are predicted for 80 participating farms. In addition, new community organic gardens will be created to provide a source of fresh produce.
- Protecting cropland, reducing mudslides and soil erosion, and improving downstream water quality through reforestation and agricultural techniques.
- Establishing 8 tree nurseries that can be converted to micro-businesses post-project to increase family income.
AIR utilizes “community-based reforestation” to implement its projects. Farmers provide the leadership, labor, and land for the AIR program while learning and working under the direction of an AIR technician. All of the technicians are Indigenous Maya who speak the local dialects, facilitating close long-term relationships. While the technicians are expert teachers and initiate the projects, it is local community members who own and manage them. This approach, coupled with a long-term commitment, results in permanent improvements to the community and the environment. Additional capital would allow the hiring of additional staff to meet a large unmet backlog of requests for services.
The majority of small-holder farmers participating in this project are Maya women. Both they and the environment in which they live benefit directly. AIR’s program addresses the phenomenon known as “two Guatemalas” – a pattern of political and economic inequality that traps the poor Indigenous population at the bottom of society. This inequality is addressed through environmental restoration, improved diet, education, resident leadership, and income assistance. Because participants in the program work and learn together in teams, this program also enhances the rich culture, deep religious faith, and interpersonal connections present in the communities.
AIR’s comprehensive program has several interrelated environmental and rural poverty outcomes that help both Indigenous Maya and the environment in Guatemala. The reforestation and regenerative farming projects briefly described above are integral parts of this program. The goals and beneficial outcomes of AIR’s full program are outlined in greater detail below:
- Reduce the impacts of climate change through reforestation using native species of trees and implementation of regenerative farming techniques. Improve soils on farms using regenerative techniques sequester more carbon. Each planted tree removes approximately 1 ton of CO2 over its lifetime, based on a small-scale study conducted on AIR trees. In 2020 AIR planted 728,142 native tree seedlings at farms, schools, along streams, and in community-held areas. Since our founding, we have planted more than 7,000,000 trees.
- Reduce firewood usage and lung disease by constructing fuel-efficient vented cookstoves. Firewood usage is typically reduced by 60% for each stove, conserving approximately 1 ton of firewood per stove per year. Indoor air pollution and associated health issues are significantly reduced. (Due to COVID-19 restrictions, no new stoves were constructed in 2020, but 880 stoves have been constructed since the project’s founding).
- Educate children by providing curriculum, gardens, and tree nurseries for rural schools. These programs re-enforce regenerative farming techniques that communities are using and augment the food supply for students attending each school. AIR also provides a small number of high school scholarships to cover the tuition and school supplies required for school attendance after age 12. In 2020, AIR worked with 10 rural schools and provided 8 scholarships.
- Establish tree nurseries that can be converted to micro-businesses. Farmers donate land for AIR tree nurseries during their participation in the program. Post-program these nurseries are turned back over to the property owners to use to generate additional income. Income from these nurseries has ranged from negligible to Q40,000 ($5,120 USD) per year depending on the size, location, and interest of the property owner.
- Provide targeted emergency assistance to people in crisis situations with limited financial resources. The Alliance for International Reforestation maintains a small cash reserve for immediate local emergency response. During the 2018 Volcán de Fuego eruption, it provided emergency food aid to affected farmers who lost crops and provided new boots for fire department crews whose footwear melted from the heat as they responded to the disaster. In 2020 AIR technicians delivered weekly food kits to 180 families during a COVID-19 lockdown that temporarily closed local markets.