Guatemala, which means “the land of many trees” in Náhuatl, is the most populous country in Central America and also the most diverse. More than half of the current population of Guatemala are descendants of the indigenous Maya, who flourished in this region over 1,000 years ago. The diverse Mayan communities of Guatemala speak 24 indigenous languages and rely heavily on subsistence farming and native forests to survive.
Since 1954, when a U.S. backed coup deposed popular leftist president Jacobo Arbenz, the country entered a long period of conflict, during which indigenous communities were marginalized, de-legitimized and systematically exterminated. Since the early 1990's, these communities have been resurging and retrenching, in a constant struggle to keep their heritage alive and thriving. Conflicts continue, but Guatemala continues to be one of the most unique places in the hemisphere to visit.
Unfortunately, between 1950 and 2002, this land of many trees lost half of its forest cover (Instituto Nacional de Bosques, 2012). Although deforestation has slowed dramatically, it is still a major environmental issue in Guatemala. The major drivers of deforestation differ from region to region, with mining, cattle ranching, large scale agriculture, and firewood extraction being some of the leading causes of forest degradation. In fact, the burning of wood accounts for 47% of the country’s total energy (Sistema de Informacíon Forestal de Guatemala, 2012).
In addition to this pressure on forests, according to the Climate Risk Index Guatemala is one of the ten countries most at risk from climate change (GermanWatch, 2015). The weather patterns throughout the country have changed, with the rainy season becoming much shorter and more intense. Many environmental challenges stem from indigenous struggles to retain management of the natural resources of their native territories - forests, mineral deposits, and rivers. Our work strengthens their ability to do so.
In 1998, Trees, Water & People began building Justa cookstoves in Guatemala to improve the economic situation of disadvantaged rural and urban families. In 2011, we began our partnership with Utz Ché (meaning “good tree” in the Mayan language K’iche’), a Guatemalan NGO that represents over 36 indigenous community organizations dedicated to sustainable management of their forests, water sources, and other natural resources. With the help of Utz Ché, our clean cookstoves drastically reduce the amount of wood needed to prepare each meal and remove deadly pollutants from the home. Guatemalan families help build their own clean cookstoves, using local materials and local people to complete every project.
In addition to our clean cookstoves, our Guatemalan tree nurseries provide 14 communities with tree seedlings to plant, offering protection against soil erosion, a sustainable firewood supply, and a source of income. The Tiquisate nursery concentrates on fruit tree production, and our partners conduct workshops to train local farmers how to graft, plant, and care for the trees (including the increasingly important Maya Nut tree). To double our reforestation efforts, farmers who receive fruit tree seedlings also plant native trees on their land to increase biodiversity and improve soil quality.